Christian Short Stories

Bad Hook, Good Hook
By Web Ruble

Web Ruble is a senior and a lay leader in his church in Fairview, OR. He played rugby union -- mainly tight-head prop -- for more than 25 years, and in that time strove against irreverent influences to become a Christian.

‘Tis wet, cold, and the rugby scrum is not bound. It’s loose and about to collapse or spin. Moreover, the slob opposite me -- he’s the other team’s hooker – is swinging wildly for the ball but instead of driving it backwards as he should, he’s striking my ankle.

The pain is not chummy: He seldom hooks the ball, and we scrum pig-bodies stay semi-bound for a long time. Exhausting. Our play is full of errors and rules-breaking mistakes. Consequently, Referee Mitch Penwick is tooting his tooter and calling a lot of penalties and sets.

Sure, all of this is keeping us a little off balance. But it isn’t helping Willamette either. Not good strategy because the ball doesn’t issue on Willamette’s side cleanly, if at all. It just squirts around in the mud and eventually finds its way through the loose scrum and sideways out the tunnel.

‘Tis and exercise akin to kissing your girl through a screen door. Kind of like Oregon’s weather. UO journalism professor Warren C. Price, who was from Milwaukee, WI, once characterized western Oregon as the land of sexless weather. “You don’t have four seasons here,” he once said. “You have two: pre-winter and post-winter.”

He might as well have been describing our rugby experience -- substandard with slop and miserable mud.

Today it is doubly bad because of the poor bind on both sides and the wild-striking hooker’s attempts at hooking the ball. One of the worst games I’ve played in.

It is mid-October. Portland Rugby Club’s second side is playing Willamette University in a fen – in some places it’s almost a bay -- that used to be the athletic field of old, abandoned Serra Catholic High School in Salem. However, we are about to lose this match to the tune of something like 10-6. Terrible. And according to our Wales-born coach -- unacceptable. Not because we are losing, but because we are playing so downright poorly.

Players are playing out of position; many are hung over or not physically fit, and still others have not played the game much. It really is more like our third side. Willamette has an odd collection of ruggers, as well. But that’s the nature of rugby in Oregon. One never knows who or what kind of weather is going to show up on game day.

Oh, there are some other reasons. Rugby quality in the United States is generally poor. We are older. Adults in their late 20s are trying to learn the game. (I’m in my late 50s, although many give up the game in their 30s). Moreover, many macho types are refugees from college or professional football, where the rules are graphically different from rugby. When they become ruggers, they have some converting to do . . .bad habits to overcome.

More importantly, in other countries ruggers start when they are 6 or 7 and they are developing refined innovations by the time they are in their teens. In the U.S., at least until recently, we haven’t even tried to play the game until we were in college or later. In other words, we’re out of it. Moreover, top athletes don’t take up the game. For them, it’s American football in hopes of making big bucks in the pros. Moreover, ruggers in the U.S. -- and to a certain degree in Canada -- have tended to be at the other end of the sports scale -- dissipated and disenchanted. We often try to hammer down the other side. Savage tackling. Smash-mouth attacks. Oh, we also try finesse. But we aren’t too successful.

In this game, ‘tis an exercise in misery. We hope for the final whistle. It finally shrills and we squids squish off the pitch. I waddle over and congratulate Willamette’s captain. He is done in with exhaustion, and acknowledges me with a brief nod.

Time for the post-game social. Get acquainted with players on the other team. Share tidbits and theories on strategy. But we are cold, muddy and aching, so we adjourn, first, to warm showers -- Willamette has ‘em; we don’t at home -- to remove the top soil and seize a chance to don normal dry clothing.

Because we arrived late and had to rush donning our “unis” (uniforms), I wasn’t paying much attention to the undershirt I was squeezing into underneath my game jersey. Instead of putting on the usual t-shirt, I leave my regular underwear t-shirt on and put on the jersey over that. Consequently, when the game is over and we change into regular clothes after showering and drying, I have no choice but to put on my game t-shirt, because the other is soaked, mud-caked and looking like sin.

This thick t-shirt that I now sport for the social gathering shows a cross and is inscribed: “Don’t swear or cuss . . .I play for Jesus.”

I am greeted by Willamette’s hooker – the dude who was striking so wildly for the ball and smashing my ankle. He shouts, “Here he is . . .that tough old prop . . .and I like his t-shirt! We need more like it.” This statement is shocking, because ruggers are notoriously irreverent and sing very un-Christian, sometimes even pornographic ballads.

I can’t tell whether he was mocking me or what. So I stoically advance toward the keg, as I am dry inside as a Grand Coulee rattlesnake.

But instead of handing me a beer as a host usually does, he says, “C’mere a minute” and walks across the room. From a cooler, he plucks a bottle of root beer, hands it to me, and says, “cheers.” He then introduces himself, “Belly,” a student pastor at a Salem Pentecostal church. After a few minutes of pleasantries, he offers: “Forget these lousy burgers our groupie chicks are scorching. Let’s go across the street.”


Brazen. Maybe even a little outrageous. Such sudden departure is being anti-social. However, the others are back to talking and paying no attention to us.

I don’t know why I agree to go to the pizza parlor. Perhaps because God ordained it. Or I am just tiring of the bawdy hoopla. A full diet of social disintegration leaves me feeling desolate. Only the beer can cheer me. And lately, it has taken a lot of suds to get me thus glassy-eyed. This isn’t good, if I am to drive myself home or have anything to do with common, everyday folk.

So I agree to it. We cross busy Union Avenue and enter the pizza parlor. Belly leads me to a table where perhaps a dozen others are sitting. Two or three are ruggers I vaguely recognize but most of the others I don’t. However, they all are grinning. Crowding everything between the root beer glasses, tea cups and coffee cups is a huge half-eaten pizza. They call it “El Supremo.”

Everyone Introduces themselves, and one of the fair damsels at the table says something about this being THEIR rugby tradition. She then bats her gypsy eyes and asks. “How’d you like today’s game?”

“I didn’t,” I say, “not only because we never lose to your guys and did today, but because the game was so poorly played, especially by us. I’ve never seen such a lousy game.”

“It’s not important,” says one of the non-playing fellows. “It’s the fellowship that counts.”

“Here, have a piece of El Supremo,” gypsy-google peepers says.

I take a slice and ‘tis delicious. I also have to agree with the fellowship comment and firmly believe the pizza gang has the right idea. The same attitude, however, holds across the street where rugby’s traditional “social half” is under way. The trouble is, the air there -- as always -- is blue, filled with bawdy songs. Everybody is acting like naughty little boys at a birthday party.

Although naughty words seem harmless. God finds the bawdy talk and the cussing offensive. Moreover, He encourages us to avoid such sin, as it destroys our souls.

Personally I didn’t use to mind the free frolic and blue lingo. But I can’t appreciate it any more since I launched my Christian endeavor. However, I DO appreciate the rugger fellowship: meeting the guys on the other team, sharing laughs about things that happened in the game, and swapping how-to-do-it techniques, and comic travel-to-matches tidbits.

I am pondering all of this when another in the pizza group says, “Here it comes.” All 12-15 of us look up.

A woman in the group produces a huge book, and several little ones. Bibles. They are passed around with two or three of us gaffers and root beer quaffers sharing a Bible.

As Christian sojourners we take a trip through the Psalms. Each of us takes his or her turn reading a passage. After two or three psalms the group pauses to analyze how they might apply to our lives today.

Even though I enjoy the shining ecclesiastical path I feel compelled to speak up and confess that I have been a typical rugger – an irreverent sinner.

“Big deal. Who isn’t? We are all sinners, after all,” said a smiling smallish man with glasses. “The difference between we believers and the others is that we are aware of many of our shortcomings; ask forgiveness, and are forgiven.”

I appreciate his words and am reminded of a wonderful passage -- II Timothy 2:19 “The Lord knows those who are his,” and “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”

I muse to myself, that’s a good outlook to have. I just wish the rest of the ruggers would join me.

(© 2010 Web Ruble – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)

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