Pitching In

Pitching In

February 1st, 2012 by Kathy Gilbert in Local Regional News

Engineer Clayton Parr, the 31-yearold captain of the Chattanooga Rugby Football Club, knows about Monday morning blues. Fall through spring, he's at his desk pressing the calculator with battered fingers, wincing from a broken rib or smiling away a shiner.

"Sometimes it's purely mano-a-mano," says Parr of his full-contact Saturday mud fests. "But it's fantastic exercise, and I've always enjoyed the competition." Since 1978, Chattanooga's rugby team has competed fairly unsuccessfully to win the hearts of Scenic City sports fans. As enthusiasts have long supported local baseball, softball, basketball, football, soccer, bicycling, kayaking, bouldering, bird watching and even disc golf - local ruggers lined up, hooked and jumped alone.

Chattanooga's fierce-fighting rugby team gets down and dirty this year at newly restored Montague Park

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Now, the scrums are fielding a new level of respect and attention. Following an undefeated 2010-2011 season, the team has reeled in more than $15,000 in donations. The winning streak may have swayed donors. "But it was mainly the quality of the guys we have in the program," says 32-year-old project engineer and coach Kirk Neubauer. "If they were dirt bags nobody would give them any money."

Donors also gave the team a new home. Chattanooga Rugby boasts a brotherly network of about 250 "old boys" (retired players). One, Steve Lofty, the 61-year-old owner of Lofty Construction, pestered city officials to find the club a permanent base. Parks and Recreation staff suggested Montague Park - the Southside landfill/ softball complex closed in 2003 because its 1960s-era toxic-methane-blocking-cap failed. The sticking point? The city didn't have $2 million to fix it.

Luckily, Lofty - a rugger and excavator - knew his dirt. For years he sampled job sites seeking the perfect gravel-and-clay combo. Finally, the mother lode appeared at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga library site, at the corner of Douglas and Vine. Last year, Lofty donated the transport of more than 8,000 cubic yards - 800 truckloads - of dirt to the park. Volunteers from Method Architecture and Barge, Waggoner, Sumner & Cannon's local office also contributed a design that coordinates the fields with a new large sculpture garden, featuring the works of Chattanooga sculptor John Henry, in a separate section of the 47-acre park. About 90 percent of the cost to fix the park, says Lofty, was borne by community volunteers.

"What I like about rugby is that I can go out and get my block knocked off, or knock somebody's head off...and when the final whistle blows we can go hang out and have a beer." - Eric Johnson, 31

Last month, the city installed topsoil, sod and irrigation to build the new fields. The city's first dedicated rugby field will open this fall. Two more fields will be ready in 2013. With the sport returning to the Olympics in 2016, this is a prime time for Chattanoogans to recruit players, build high school teams and host tournaments. "It's big, it's happening now, we're jumping on it," says Parr.

If funds can be raised for a field house, Chattanooga may be able to contend for tournament tourist dollars against such rare facilities as "Rugbytown U.S.A.," the $1 million, 4,000-seat complex in Glendale, Colo. A summer tournament brings about 600 people here each year, says Neubauer. With a new complex, as many as three or four similar events, he estimates, might be held.

Two years ago, rugby was the nation's fastest-growing team sport, played by more than 350,000 United States children a year, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Tennessee has more than 100 high school rugby teams, says Neubauer, including in Knoxville, Nashville, Murfreesboro, Memphis and Athens. Chattanooga has none. NoogaRugby hopes to create three to four high school teams in the next few years, at least one in a downtown school.

After-school youth programs for Southside kids are also planned. "Montague's a game-changer," says Eric Johnson, a 31-yearold banker and club publicity officer. "It will legitimize us."

It Hurts So Good

Compared to its progeny - soccer and American football - some would say rugby is more creative, joyful and smart. In spirit, it looks like an elementary-school pickup game with a lot more pain and a whole bunch more complicated rules to memorize.

Players communicate, innovate and think on the fly. Play is non-stop, ever changing. With 90 minutes of full-contact jumping, throwing, tossing, wrestling, clambering and body hurtling, often in mud, dressed only in shirt, socks and shorts, rugby players tend to wear out. Young folks often play in high school and college, enjoy a post-collegiate spurt on amateur teams, then quit because of family time commitments or flagging energy, says Neubauer.

After a decade of hills and valleys of gaining and losing members, NoogaRugby crested its highest rise last year. Undefeated in its division, the team lost its first regional game to New Orleans, the national victor. Even if players drop out, they stay connected.

"Once a rugger always a rugger," says Johnson. And the bond goes global - or at least across the former British Empire. "You can go almost anywhere and say 'I play rugby' and have a place to sleep and food to eat," says Neubauer. "It's a great brotherhood sport."

The stereotypical post-match pub-crawl, adds Johnson, is not about downing 12-packs of black-and-tans, it's about bonding. NoogaRugby's fields may, or may not, fuel a local tourist industry or inspire inner-city youth. This year's surge may be brilliant vision or passing fancy. But if energetic men and boys are escaping their desk prisons playing a cheerfully savage and maniacal 180-year-old ball sport, Chattanooga is undoubtedly a better community for it.

"What I like about rugby," says Johnson, "is that I can go out and get my block knocked off, or knock somebody's head off, and gouge and scratch and just want to kill the guy across from me, and when the final whistle blows we can go hang out and have a beer."

Chattanooga ruggers and friends enjoy a King Crawl fundraiser.

RUGBY 101

Rugby football was created in the early 1800s at England's all-boys Rugby School. The sport begat American football, Gaelic football, Australian rules football and Association football (aka soccer).

Games are played in two non-stop 40-minute halves. The field (called a "pitch") resembles an American football field with goal posts at each end. Touching the oval ball to the ground beyond the goal line scores a 5-point "try".

In the late 19th century, a players' rift created two rulebooks: Rugby Union and Rugby League. Chattanooga Rugby plays Union. Eight forwards seek to gain and hold the ball and seven backs strive to move forward by running or kicking the ball.

Rugby was excluded from the Olympics after spectators invaded the pitch when the United States defeated France in the 1924 Paris Games. A faster-paced Union rules game with seven players (called "sevens") re-debuts at the 2016 Olympics. Chattanooga Rugby competes in winter and spring against men's clubs from Knoxville, Nashville, Huntsville, Memphis and Little Rock. Team sponsors include Southern Comfort, local McDonald's Restaurants and Budweiser of Chattanooga.