Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C. --
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother." Henry V, William Shakespeare
The players in the rugby game are men possessed by some elder god of war and sport. The atmosphere is pervasive; it's everywhere and unavoidable, and on this treeless, clean shorn field, there is no shade, no respite from the sun's merciless glare. Mud and grass stains, blood and sweat pouring off flushed brows and gritted teeth are very much in evidence as they slam into each other at speed, going for the wrapping tackles required by the laws of the game to minimize injuries.
The team is called the Misfits; it's an appropriate moniker. No two men are quite alike, though many have the same set facial expression, the same purposeful efficiency to their movements. The uniforms themselves are possibly the only true common denominator. Black short shorts, a rugby must. Red and black jerseys, 'Marines' writ large across the back in the writing familiar from millions of bumper stickers. A silhouette of the flag raising at Iwo Jima splashed on the right sleeve. The men- all men, no women- are of a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. Huge, lean, tall, short, they range across the spectrum of possibility, within Marine Corps regulations.
The name of Misfits, reputedly, comes from the source from which the team members were drawn. The team is a combination of those willing to risk violent bodily harm in the name of Sport and Fun from both Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station New River.
The players show up as the children's football game before them is winding down. Showing up in a motley array of attire, players begin their warm ups, practicing the three man lifts they employ when a ball is returned to play from the sidelines, and stretching. They talk shop; going over strategy and tactics for the game to come. Switching from their sweatstained t-shirts and athletic shorts to the jerseys with their numbers and matching rugby shorts. Protective gear is limited, and applied at the individual player's discretion. Skullcaps, small padded helmets to help prevent sudden and unwelcome surprises like concussions and ears getting ripped off, and padded armor that goes under their jerseys to help protect from impacts. As the football game on the field before them winds down, they straggle out and break into groups and begin their formal warm ups.
"Rugby is the best team sport for Marines. It's eighty minutes of continuous running, with lots of contact. Everyone plays offense and defense," said Maj. Mike Skordoulis, intelligence officer with Marine Special Operations Command and a coach for the Misfits.
The drills include rapid three man crossover handoffs and forming defensive huddles over a downed teammate, or a 'ruck'. Their drills cover fundamentals of the game, including speed, agility, and teamwork, a component in this sport that seems essential in ways not present in most other mainstream athletic events.
"Even if you don't like the guy you're playing with, you still get along with him, because he's making the same hits as you, protecting you when you go down," said Seth Dowie, a security manager at a club in Wilmington and former Marine. "What other sport can you go head to head for eighty minutes and still have that bond, that espirit de corps afterwards?"
When the game begins, within fifteen seconds, and Eno River Rugby Football Club player is already injured and removed from the game, blood running down his grinning face as a he good naturedly attempts to remain in play. Corey Kyle, late of Carboro, N.C., walks off the fields as a Misfits player rushes over to apply first aid to his head. He was later treated for stitches.
The game starts easily, the players moving smoothly, without the ferocious exhaustion that will mark their movements later. The Misfits take control of the flow of the match early, scoring often with single players making long breaks, running the ball far into the opponent's end zone. The crowd cheers as plays are made, as players make moves and exploit breaks. The crowd is almost as motley as the players, if not more so. A handful of wives and girlfriends, indulging their significant other's interest in the sport, and a spattering of friends dragged or otherwise persuaded to come witness the spectacle.
There are also the players on the bench, the coaches, and a few team members who have been barred from play by injuries of varying degree. For all its apparent savagery, there is very much a system in place to minimize casualties. Players sustaining injury are promptly hustled off the field; players with pre-existing injures are kept of the field to keep from exacerbating their condition. Percentage-wise, there are actually less lower extremity injuries in rugby than in tennis, according to Capt. Glenn Jensen, force protection officer with 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and player for the Misfits.
"It's a hooligan's game, played by gentlemen," said Jensen
As play continues, one notices a different flavor of noise from the sideline than many other sporting events. The noise of the veterans trying good naturedly to explain the rules of this poorly understood sport mixes with the bellowing of those same veterans and coaches belting out accented obscenities and brevity codes for plays, strategies, exhorting the players on the field. The sidelines are active, paying. No one is just here because their child is here, because they're expected to be here. Everyone here leans forward unconsciously to watch the scrum, the first time they see it. These people are interested in watching the game. They want to be here, just like the players.
"Rugby's a kind of addiction. You get hooked once you start playing," said Skordoulis.
The heat is considerable for mid-September. Hot, humid, but not quite the stickiness of summer, but not yet the crisp cool of autumn. Within ten minutes, every player in play is drenched in sweat. Breaks in play are met with every benched player running on to the field with as many bottles and jugs of water as possible, throwing bottles of water to grateful players before collecting the resulting detritus and scurrying off the field.
Halftime is a five minute break in play for the players to catch their breath and listen to their coaches. The game consists of two forty minute halves with a five minute time out at half time. Touchdowns are five points, only awarded for running the ball, with two points for a conversion. Three points for penalty kicks. No real stoppage of play, as in American football- time is tacked on the end for a serious interruption of the game, as in European football. The game, though, is simpler in its execution then it would appear in the rules. Keep the ball moving forward. Protect your mates. Rely on each other, cover your flanks, operate as a pack, a team.
"Everyone touches the ball. We don't have a line, we don't have backs, we have fifteen ball handlers," said Jim Kelley, engineering consultant and coach for the Misfits.
The game continues, playing through the second half. Eno River, predominantly Duke students of one stripe or another, play well, but many of the breaks the Misfits exploited in the first half leave them behind in the score, which is not noted or counted in any easily visible manner. Players go in; players come out. Injuries, penalties, sheer exhaustion. Players sub out on the fly as necessary. The game comes eventually to its conclusions: Misfits, many, Eno River, significantly less. 37-10 is the final score.
Another aspect of the game that came as a surprise. The teams do cheers at the end of each game- Hip hip hooray to the game, the team, the refs, whomever. The Misfits cheer for Eno River, for a game well played, well fought. Eno River cheers for the Misfits and for the Marine Corps. The post-game social begins shortly thereafter. In the laws of rugby, it is required for the home team to host a postgame social for the other team.
"We don't have a rule book, we have a law book. After a match, you will have a social and you share a drink with the men you just shed blood with," said Dowie.
And share a drink they do. There's beverages and burgers, and everyone sits and everyone drinks and laughs and tells their stories and gets along magnificently. It bears little resemblance to the other sports games that used that field today, whose constituents scattered out of the area as soon as their time was up. Cars are pulled up; Eno River players come over to share a drink, and laugh. Soon, they hold a brief ceremony. Each team nominates one player of the game from their team, and one from the opposition for a total of four, before they're given improvised awards.
The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly at this point. These are well fed, sated men- their need for violent sport slaked, for now. They sit and relax, emptying the coolers with alarming speed, laughing at each other, at mistakes made during the game, and talking about next time. They tell their stories to uninitiated outsiders, wandering around with cameras and lost expressions.
All told, it's one of the most congenial sports postgame celebrations in the sports world. Everyone's so comfortable with each other, no enmity for the win or loss, no hard feelings. They are here for the love of the game and the company they play it in. This, this is a gentleman's sport in the truest sense.