The Untouchables

Cal's rugby program is so astoundingly good that it's destroying a sporting tradition -- or so say the losers.

Just four minutes into the match, and the California Golden Bears rugby team had already charged down the field for a touchdown against the University of Utah. Even for spectators who knew nothing about the sport, it was clear the Bears had just demoralized their opponents. Last year, the Runnin’ Utes were good enough to challenge Cal in the national championship game. Today’s contest, some had hoped, would offer a display of highly competitive rugby.

But ten minutes later, Cal scored again. Another three minutes, another score. Two minutes after that, yet another. The Bears were now up fifteen-nothing with more than an hour left to endure. Waiting for the kickoff, the Utah kids rested their hands on their hips and shook their heads. They shouted feeble encouragement — “Let’s keep on ’em, Utes!” and “We’re still in this!” and “Now it’s our turn, guys. Let’s go!” The remarks were meant to rally team spirits, but in truth, they only acknowledged the larger problem: The Utes faced a steamrollering this afternoon from the most overbearing and methodical rugby machine ever created.

Since the National Collegiate Rugby Tournament kicked off in 1980, Cal has won the championship title an astounding nineteen times, including the last dozen years straight. Legacywise, it’s without question the greatest collegiate program ever to tackle the sport in the United States. Over the past two decades, Cal has lost to only a handful of American squads, bringing their colors international respect. Yet back home, where rugby is widely considered as much a college keg-social as it is a sport, the perennial champs have drawn spite from fellow ruggers for, in essence, having the audacity to play too damn well.

Granted, most of those gripes come from players who approach the sport beergut-forward. But other complaints are more sober. Rugby is still considered a club sport on the majority of the four hundred college campuses where it’s played, and there are vast differences in ability between teams. Considering that only about twenty of those schools — and that’s a generous estimate — field a squad that can accurately be described as competitive, Cal’s buttoned-down outfit stands out as men among boys. And that can be troubling in an ultraviolent activity where girth, speed, and aggression all amount to success.

Cal’s dominance was so dangerously obvious in the spring of 2001 that Stanford head coach Franck Boivert forfeited a match against the Golden Bears rather than risk injury to his players. Boivert even suggested at the time that Clark’s program had so outgrown the competition that its continued beating up on lesser teams was unsportsmanlike. After all, if Tiger Woods challenged the duffers at Diablo Valley Golf Course every weekend, where’s the achievement? To Boivert’s credit, watching Cal players mash defenders into the turf initially conjures up a sense of admiration, but that sentiment eventually succumbs to a more unsettling feeling: You’re witnessing a cruelty.

Of course, none of these thoughts appeared to be troubling the three hundred or so Cal fans at Witter Rugby Field. For them, it was simply a perfect Sunday afternoon to take in a match. Witter, located in Strawberry Canyon above Memorial Stadium, is one of the true sweet spots on the Berkeley campus. Heavy rains from the night before made way for blue skies in the afternoon, drawing out the warm fragrance of the surrounding eucalyptus trees. Cal’s blue-and-gold logo shimmied on the pristine lawn’s midfield. And from the bleachers, tiny white sails could be seen gliding across the San Francisco Bay.

From Utah’s perspective, the scene was somewhat less picturesque. Twenty-two minutes in, Matt Sherman, Cal’s captain and fly half — comparable to an American football quarterback who calls offensive plays, but does so on the fly — made a blind, over-the-shoulder pass that brought the crowd to a unified two-syllable sigh that sounded like “Uhhh-ahh!”

In rugby, small moments such as these are appreciated in full. As with football, the object is to move the ball into your opponent’s end zone, despite his best effort to slam you to the ground. To score a touchdown, the team with the ball runs, making a series of lateral passes — never forward ones — to teammates. When done correctly, all fifteen squad members run downfield in a slightly diagonal line, each pitching to the man behind him a split second before getting tackled.

In this case, Sherman was sprinting toward the left-hand corner of the end zone and running out of room when two defenders angled toward him. It looked as if he had only two choices: hold onto the ball and take the big hit — players wear little, if any, padding — or pass to the man on his left, who most likely would also get knocked out of bounds. Instead, the instant before the diminutive fly half got creamed, he jumped into the air and turned his head to the left as if he’d settled on the second choice, and then tossed the ball over his right shoulder into the hands of a teammate who ran for another score. Twenty-zip.

The Cal fans, mostly parents and rugby alumni, stood and roared. “Way to go, Worm!” shouted one through cupped hands, using Sherman’s nickname. The field loudspeakers bleated out the Cal Fight Song, again. Parents arranged themselves back into their L-shaped bleacher cushions. The Bears relaxed their shoulders and slowed to a trot, waiting to kick off. The sailboats on the bay tacked and swayed.

But then a Runnin’ Ute meddled with the script. With the Bears rolling yet again, one of Sherman’s crafty laterals was intercepted just before Cal could cross into the goal. The Ute, a skinny, duck-footed runner, clutched the large, oblong ball like an oversize egg he’d stolen from a henhouse, and ran chin-up the entire distance of the hundred-meter field to score. Utah parents in red windbreakers stood up in the stands to let out careful applause. “Well,” one remarked proudly, “looks like there won’t be a shutout today.”

Who knew? Who knew they’d been tossing around the ol’ pig’s bladder at Cal since 1877, and doing it with such aplomb? The story of the program is told on the walls of the team’s clubhouse, a refurbished men’s locker room decorated with shelves of polished gold trophies and glass-encased jerseys worn by turn-of-the-century players. Oriental rugs and leather chairs give the room a downright Ivy League feel, a gentlemen’s den better suited for sipping brandy than Bud. One black-and-white photo shows Cal and Stanford players colliding circa 1912, dirty as coal miners, with 25,000 fans cheering them on back when rugby was king.

Head coach Jack Clark’s office is just outside the lounge area. In the rugby world, Clark has earned a prestige similar to that of Bill Walsh in American football. More recently, he’s drawn comparisons to Phil Jackson, the Los Angeles Lakers’ philosopher king, for his like-minded rhapsodizing on sports as a metaphor for the Bigger Picture. When Clark considered leaving Cal in 2001 to coach a professional club in Bath, England, the birthplace of the sport, one sportswriter referred to him as “the one-man architect of American rugby.”

Clark was happy to talk under one condition: “This doesn’t turn out to be a story about Jack Clark.” It’s an understandable request, considering he has quite a story. He played football and rugby for Cal in the early ’80s. He’s six-foot-five, a very fit 250 pounds, and walks with a slight limp, the result of being shot four times by a PCP-fueled madman outside a San Francisco house party more than two decades ago. With slicked-back hair and mustache, he looks the part of a college coach; he even has a crooked brow that gives him a permanent James Dean squint.

Clark leaned back in his chair and spoke about the Cal coaches who came before him with a warmth and respect usually reserved for World War II veterans. “All of us who enter this program want to be a part of something that’s bigger than ourselves,” he says. “This is a selfless program. We make it okay for team to come first. Next year’s team comes second, and the individual comes third.”

As far back as 1880, Cal rugby men were setting a standard that helps propel Clark’s players today. Shortly after the sport arrived on these shores, teams sprang up on the East and West coasts, manned mostly by Britons who wanted to preserve their game. When Cal’s first team came together, for no significant or documented reason they immediately bested the local competition. Dan Hickey, a historian with the Pacific Coast Rugby Football League, wrote of the era, “Cal continued undefeated in Rugby in 1885, and the Britishers knew that they had created a monster.”

Around the same time, a new full-contact sport called American-rules football was gaining broad appeal on college campuses. The new game cribbed rugby’s objectives — a “touchdown” is so named because a rugby runner must touch the ball to the ground to score — but it slowed the pace by inserting resting breaks between possessions. More famously, it permitted the overhand forward pass.

But football also caused more injuries on the field. Teams set up V-shaped blocking formations, forbidden in rugby, which allowed defensive players to get a running start and deliver vicious hits on the ball-carrier. Since padding of any fabric was still a decade away, bloody head-to-head collisions resulted in several deaths. In 1906, at the threat of being outlawed by President Theodore Roosevelt, football was banned from college campuses, and replaced with the only other known contact sport: rugby.

By 1920, Berkeley was rugby’s national epicenter. A gifted Cal player named Ed “Mush” Graff led a team of Americans, mostly from Northern California, to the Antwerp Olympics where they stunned the world by winning the gold medal. Overseas ruggers were beside themselves, according to news articles, and four years later, when Graff and his squad repeated the Olympic gold in Paris, French fans rioted outside the stadium. But by the time Graff returned to coach at his alma mater, American football was back. Now wearing leather helmets and inches-thick shoulder pads, football players overtook the campus gridirons, and along with them the crowds — and the funding.

As college rugby programs began fading away across the country, Cal’s persevered. Graff’s successor was another famous Bears captain, Miles “Doc” Hudson, who coached the team for the next 37 years. By Hudson’s era, rugby had been downgraded to “circle C” status, signaling the withdrawal of university financial support. Yet his name alone was enough to attract high-end talent, including aging New Zealanders who transferred into Cal graduate programs to satisfy eligibility requirements, a ploy that would break the rules today.

Hudson also showed a knack for on-campus recruiting. He’d take a bulky lineman from the Cal football team and teach him to play “prop” during the off-season, or he’d transform a fleet-footed soccer lad into a fly half. Even without university backing or an alumni support network, Hudson’s program flourished, smothering the local competition. He led his 1965 team — still lauded as Cal’s greatest ever — on a publicity tour through New Zealand and Australia where they bested premier league clubs, making Cal’s logo an overseas synonym for rugby greatness.

In the late ’60s, rugby suddenly reemerged on campuses after forty years of neglect. College football programs were increasingly turning into the quasicommercial win-win machines they are today, recruiting specialized athletes and putting them on strict training regimens. By contrast, the low-key rugby club stood out as a good alternative. Couldn’t make the football team, but enjoyed laying a shoulder into someone? Didn’t care for the crack-of-dawn conditioning, but enjoyed an afternoon workout? Then rugby was for you. “If you consider the times and what was happening all over the country, for guys who wanted to go against the grain, rugby held a lot of appeal,” Clark says.

Without NCAA regulators to worry about, college rugby clubs could do as they pleased. And what pleased them most was beer. The sport had developed a rich tradition of “hosting” the visiting team back when traveling was more difficult; once the score on the field was settled, nothing squared things finer than a shared meal and an evening of spirits. But left in the hands of American fraternity houses, the hosting tradition often overtook the sport itself.

Cal, however, maintained a team that was still best known for its skills on the field. Graff and Hudson’s decades-long winning tradition had become so deeply ingrained that no amount of carousing seemed capable of shredding it. Under Hudson’s tutelage, scores of students left college as highly skilled rugby players who went on to start weekend-only clubs, such as the East Bay’s now-defunct Old Blues. Some took up coaching jobs at community colleges or high schools, where the student players in turn looked to Cal as their ultimate college destination.

Hudson’s alumni also returned with open pocketbooks. Clark tells of a recent meeting with an alumnus who ran the ball during the Depression era. He’d invited Clark over for homemade scones and coffee, and as the coach got up to leave, his host pushed across the table an $85,000 check to cover the team’s road meals. The alum said he didn’t want another member of the Cal rugby brotherhood to play on anything less than a full stomach. As for Witter Field, it’s named after that Dean Witter, whose family paid for the construction. Eleven Witters have played rugby for Cal.

All of this continued to distinguish Cal from its fellow rugby clubs, which were paupers by comparison. At Berkeley and a handful of other colleges, rugby was at least deemed a varsity sport, giving players recognition in the form of a letter, and providing the club an official link to the school’s athletic department. Still, any club that signed up to play collegiate rugby had a chance of drawing Cal on the schedule, no matter how ragamuffin its outfit. To help even things out, divisions were created, with each club’s status depending on its past performance: Consistent winners, like Cal, moved up while the losers dropped into the lower divisions.

Before 1980, there had never been an organized national rugby championship, presumably because of the lack of mature programs. Teams such as Air Force and Harvard manned squads of consequence, but even they slunk in the shadow of Cal. So when coaches of the top-ranking teams got together to plan a national tournament through the sport’s de facto governing body, USA Rugby, many viewed it as a self-serving event for the haves, and a ruse for the have-nots. In the tournament’s first year the Bears, coached by Ned Anderson (who played under Doc Hudson), beat Air Force, kicking off Cal’s unrelenting dominance at the event. Four years and four championships later, Anderson passed the coaching torch to one of his own former players: Jack Clark.

Clark speaks in such awe of his predecessors, the ghosts of the past all but appear in his office, and he takes a humble comfort in their presence. He has coached Cal for nearly twenty years, yet portrays himself merely as the bearer of a legacy, a competent conduit for a sporting tradition that will prevail long after he has gone.

The evidence, though, suggests Clark has made his own mark on college rugby. To say he set out to change the perception of the rugger from brawling beer bum to refined athlete would be untrue — he received help from Hudson et al. in that regard. But to say he has elevated Cal rugby to the level of a Division I varsity sport is completely accurate. Under Clark’s watch, the program has implemented a sport-specific, year-round conditioning program — unheard of in college rugby. Clark’s players train every day, whether huffing through miles of wind sprints under his gaze, or studying hours of videotape of rival teams. And when his team hits the road, Clark asks that players not drink, even if that means declining a night of “hosting.”

Cal’s approach has been greeted with dismay by many old-schoolers who want to keep rugby out of the win-win machine. Perhaps only in this sport, where joviality and carefree attitude translate as ethos, could Clark draw such criticisms. One member of Walnut Creek’s Olde Gaels’ rugby club who admires Clark’s trophy case — “In that way, he’s a god” — adds in the next breath: “But he’s managed to coach all the fun out of rugby. He runs his players into the ground, and they never touch the game again.”

Clark, however, has also won over some of his would-be detractors. John Collum, a cigar-chomping fixture in Northern California’s rugby community, has a deep connection to Cal rugby. His father played and coached there, and even though John went the community college route himself, he helped Ned Andersen coach the team in the early ’80s. Collum regularly referees matches at Witter Field and coaches both male and female rugby teams at Piedmont High School. He knows local rugby the way Bob Costas knows baseball.

“To a degree, those concerns about Jack’s coaching techniques are true,” Collum says of the grueling workouts. “On the other hand — and it actually took me between eight and ten years to get to this point — I gotta say, Jack is doing great things for the game of rugby. There’s nothing in the Laws that says you have to go drink and make an ass of yourself and sing crude songs to the other side.

“And for years, I felt the other way,” he adds. “I thought drinking and singing and turning a restaurant upside down was all part of the package. But even I’ve come to realize that Jack is trying to raise the bar of rugby, even if it means skipping the bar after the game.”

Clark has heard his detractors’ arguments, and takes them like a good bloke, steering away from criticizing those who “might be stuck in the past.” He certainly won’t apologize for the way he handles his team. “A lot of teams — and this is not to suggest they’re doing it wrong — approach it as a recreational activity, and it’s not much of a priority in their life,” he says. “They get some joy and satisfaction out of being a recreational rugby player — that’s fine. That means they practice a couple nights a week and they play as hard as they can on the weekends and they call it quits right there. I would say a lot of the rugby played in America follows that model.”

Clark’s model, on the other hand, is so sophisticated that he’s created a coaching dilemma: How to keep his players competing on the “knife’s edge,” as he likes to call it, when they’re not being challenged regularly on the field? In a typical season Cal plays twenty matches, and Clark figures only ten will match Cal’s mettle. Many times, his second and third sides (strings) demolish the first sides from other schools. Cal’s second side, in fact, is commonly referred to as the second-best club in the nation.

The Utah team, a brother in the exclusive fraternity of competitive rugby, was set to arrive in Berkeley in a few days, and Clark hardly looked concerned. Instead of spending hours studying videotapes, he focused his squad on practicing fundamental techniques and running its own plays. When Clark talks about conditioning for any given opponent, he displays a trait common in undisputed champions: unapologetic self-indulgence. “We’re not worried about what they do,” he says. “We’ll take a good look at ourselves, and see how we can make ourselves the best players on the field that day. It’s not about Utah — it’s about us.”

More precisely, it’s about Matt Sherman. They call him the Worm because he’s always had an elusive way about him, no matter the sport. Like most American players, Sherman didn’t know much about rugby until high school, and only embraced it then after realizing his above-average skills in basketball and soccer weren’t enough to land him on a college team. In today’s well-oiled recruitment process, talented bodies are chosen and groomed from puberty, and walk-ons are practically nonexistent. But thanks to rugby’s unknown status, it’s a sport athletes can learn later in life and still play at college level.

That, for Sherman, was a big part of the allure. His main obstacle was actually learning the sport. “At first it all looked like chaos — people running around everywhere,” he recalls. “I had no idea what was going on, but it looked like a lot of fun.”

The young man didn’t know it at the time, but he was destined to be captain of the best collegiate rugby outfit in the nation. “Matt wanted to learn the game quick,” recalls Collum, Sherman’s coach at Piedmont High. “He’d get videos of pro matches and fall asleep watching them each night, figuring out what was going on and what plays were smart plays.”

Some players come to the game lusting for violence. Others, such as Sherman, approach it from a more intellectual angle. The young man played point guard in basketball, a position that taught him how to organize his team’s offenses. That skill translated well to rugby’s fly half position, where Sherman must call out offensive attack formations without the luxury of a huddle. He’ll yell “Texas” to spread his men out wide and thin the rival’s defense, or call his offense in tight to pull a misdirection play.

As a high-schooler, Sherman made himself known to Cal at “Jack Clark’s Rugby Camp,” billed as an educational workout for youthful ruggers. (Clark catches additional flak from league critics who complain that he uses the camp for recruiting, giving his program yet another advantage.) Sherman won the session’s MVP award and the attention of the Cal coaches, but for reasons unrelated to rugby, decided on Dennison College in Ohio. After one semester, though, he made arrangements for Clark to facilitate his speedy transfer to Cal, and within a few weeks of the holiday break, was the team’s new starting fly half.

Sherman has been on the field for every Cal championship since 1999, and the team has been so dominant during his tenure that he’s hard-pressed to recall where one of his decisions has led to a loss. The best he can muster is a close game against Brigham Young University two years ago, when Cal had to come from behind to eke out a win. (BYU, incidentally, has long viewed Cal’s stranglehold on the title as a ruse, since the championship game is traditionally scheduled on a Sunday, when the Mormons can’t compete.) Besides that, Sherman can’t even recall a rough patch of games. “We get so little real competition,” he says, “that it’s exciting when we actually do.”

Nor is there much action to be had off the field — nothing sanctioned, at least. “We party, but [the coaches] don’t want to know about it,” one player explains. “They want to keep that stuff away from the program. They’d be pissed if they knew I said that much.” As a result, Cal’s hosting tradition has been waning. The bitch of it is, it’s too difficult to survive Clark’s training regimen with a hangover.

“It’s certainly different here,” Sherman concurs. “Even in high school, we were much more social about it. And here, they’ve tried to make it a traditional type of program, and with that comes the good and the bad. Sometimes it means less fun, but sometimes it means you get big rewards. I like to work hard and train hard, and I don’t like to waste my time. If I’m going to play rugby, I’m going to do it at the top level.

“Frankly,” the fly half concludes, “I wouldn’t want to be a part of a lot of the programs I see that just dick around on the field.”

Two years ago Cal’s traditional archrival refused to step onto the field with Sherman. In March 2001, Franck Boivert, Stanford’s head rugby coach, sent Clark an e-mail announcing his team’s forfeiture from the upcoming Big Game, an annual ritual that had stood up for the better part of a century. Boivert had first met with Stanford’s athletic director and alumni, well aware that his gesture might appear cowardly. But as Boivert explained, his students were hurting — injuries and surgeries during the season had left the team unable to field a competitive starting fifteen. The Cardinal players voted, and a majority said they’d rather stay home.

“The majority of players played hurt the whole season,” Boivert wrote, “and now they are burned out and do not have the heart to play a team vastly superior to them in size, weight, and speed.

“Taking the field against Cal this year would make a mockery out of the so-called ‘Big Game,'” the coach continued. “The Stanford rugby players have too much respect for the tradition and their predecessors from Stanford and Cal to ridicule this tradition. … When a featherweight is to fight a heavyweight, there is no rivalry; it is a farce, just like if a VW Bug was to race against a Formula 1 car. Stanford playing Cal in rugby has reached this farcical stage, and Stanford rugby wants to be no part of a farce.”

Boivert pointed out that his players weighed an average 175 pounds to Cal’s 235. His missive also jabbed at Cal’s overall program, concluding with a punch aimed directly at Clark’s coaching style. “Maybe some year Stanford will have a team physically strong enough to challenge Cal,” Boivert wrote, “or maybe one day rugby will be again a sport for the students.”

Clark’s response came two days later: “I can only imagine the confusion of those team members who desired to play. As custodians of this tradition, our approaches differ. I would have regarded the players’ uncertainties in honoring this match as a significant coaching opportunity. … I believe that coaching is a medium for life’s lessons, not merely an exercise in winning and losing.”

Then Cal’s coach became less diplomatic, calling Boivert “disingenuous” for his contention that a forfeit would better uphold the tradition of the contest. “I found this to be a pathetic ‘spin job,'” Clark typed. “I am in awe of your ability to continually lower the setting of the bar for Stanford rugby without being challenged. To repeatedly insist that there are insurmountable structural advantages between our programs is a ridiculous overstatement.

“Lastly,” Clark wrote, “I found your closing comment concerning rugby one day being ‘again a sport for the students’ insulting to the very ethos of the sport. How dare you not compete and belittle the accomplishments of those who do.”

The exchange instantly became fodder for ridicule within the Cal-Stanford rivalry. When the news leaked out to Berkeley’s student newspaper, the Daily Californian, Stanford’s acquiescence was celebrated. A group of aging rugby alumni who’d played for Doc Hudson way back when wrote the Stanford coach offering to cleat up against his players.

Sherman and many of his teammates supported Clark’s stance and were confused by Boivert’s reasoning. “Didn’t make sense to me,” the fly half says. “The guy has a good rugby program, and he can compete. He could’ve at least showed up to try. I mean, what does that say to your players?”

Boivert, however, had hit a nerve. He had challenged Clark’s grasp of sportsmanship, an accusation almost certain to deflate the thrill of victory for a championship team. In another e-mail to Clark, he suggested that if the Bears’ coach expected competition, he might consider scheduling matches only against squads with varsity status, or professional clubs, and lay off the college clubs such as Stanford.

“There is no parity between programs,” Boivert wrote. “Who would imagine a college sport like football where one team has varsity status and basically recruits the best players, and other teams in the league would be just club sports [that recruit] through flyers on their own campus? Everybody would laugh at that and not take it seriously. Well this is exactly the situation in college rugby. In ice hockey [and] lacrosse, college championship is divided in the club sports championship and varsity out of fairness; it will have to be the same in rugby.”

Clark counters that the only difference between varsity and club rugby is a letterman’s patch. He points out that as recently as a few years ago Stanford’s team went to the final four and even beat Cal once in the mid-’90s. As far as university financial support, Clark considers all rugby programs as having the same disadvantages. It’s just that he and his predecessors worked hard to build up theirs. “He’s got a good program that he can do something with,” Clark says of Boivert, “if he wants to.”

Earlier this season, Boivert and his Stanford club returned to Witter Field for the first time since the forfeit. The Cardinal showed up at a bad time. The previous week, Cal had suffered its first defeat in two years to the University of British Columbia, momentarily losing its footing on the knife’s edge. The surly Bears took out their frustrations on Stanford, nailing them down 98-0, albeit without serious injury. “We brought some pent-up energy into the match,” Clark said later.

Collum was the referee. “It was,” he recalls, “as ugly as it sounds.”

It’s been a stellar season for the Bears ever since. They beat UC Davis 57-0 and Sacramento State 54-10. Then, using only second-side players, Cal routed Clemson 76-6. This week, the team begins its “April Drive,” its annual month of twice-daily workouts leading up to the nationals in May. The training sessions start at 6 a.m., leaving little room for nighttime carousing. “When you wake up at that time of the day, with fifty other guys, it’s a shared sacrifice,” Clark says. “It’s like you’re purchasing your victory right then and there.”

It seemed Clark and his team were already paid in full by the time the Runnin’ Utes made it to town a few weeks ago. Still, Utah wasn’t ready to give up. After the Utes ran Sherman’s intercepted pass into the end zone, they managed to quickly score another touchdown, bringing the tally to a respectable 20-10.

Collum was on the sidelines, watching the game through a cloud of Cuban cigar smoke. He’d refereed an earlier match, and was still wearing the blue outfit and knee-high black socks. Passersby twisted their noses at the smoke, but Collum ignored them. “Matt’s playing a hell of a game, isn’t he?” he said, pointing at his former player. On cue, Sherman made a skillful drop-kick for a field goal, widening the Bears’ lead.

A few plays later, Cal’s Mike McDonald — at six-one and 260 pounds the biggest man on the field — took off on a run, leaving a wake of downed Utes in his path. One rival player threw his shoulder into McDonald’s massive thigh, and fell to the ground. McDonald broke off in another direction, and a flurry of bodies followed, leaving the would-be tackler face down in the turf. The body spasmed once, then went limp.

The action stopped and trainers rushed to the player’s side. “Oh, jeez,” Collum said, wincing. “That kid made the horrible mistake of trying to tackle Mike McDonald.” As a referee, Collum had tended to many serious injuries, and he knew from twenty yards away that this kid was out cold. “Don’t touch ‘im,” he called to the gathering players. “Don’t anybody touch ‘im.”

An uneasy silence overtook Witter Field as the player’s father descended from the stands and knelt at his son’s side. After five empty minutes, the two trainers turned the body over on its back, and some parents let out hesitant applause. It was premature. Another five minutes went by with no movement from the kid. On the sidelines and in the stands, a murmur started to rise, the voices of people trying to reassure themselves. “He moved,” Collum said, but it came out like a question. “I saw it. He moved.”

Now players from both teams bounced up and down on their toes, keeping their legs warm while stealing looks at the unconscious rugger. Eerily, ambulances, sirens ablaze, raced by the field, but didn’t stop. Someone near the gate hesitantly asked, “Should we … call … someone?”

Finally, in one slow wobbly motion, the trainers lifted the player’s torso so he was sitting up. His chin touched his chest. Another minute, then his legs and arms began moving as though he were awaking from a coma, which perhaps he was. The trainers lifted the body to its feet, and carried it to the sideline.

The crowd exhaled as one, and gave the player a standing ovation.

The mood quickly shifted from shared relief back to interest in the contest. The Bears scored a few more times, but now it was as if they were playing a team of mummies. Clark pulled Sherman and a few other starters, installing substitutes for mop-up duty.

As Cal’s tab went beyond fifty points, Collum, still working on his cigar, started in on a story about the construction of Witter Field. He explained how runoff from Strawberry Canyon drained into the far end zone. As a result, the engineers had to keep the nearside end zone downstream. From one end to the other, Collum explained, the field dropped a full eighteen inches.

You couldn’t see the grade from the bleachers, but its presence was a well-known factoid among coaches. And whenever Cal won the opening coin toss, its captain would make sure his team was running downhill in the second half, leaving the opponent to fight the uphill battle.

Try and Try Again

A primer to understanding the mother of American football.

To the untrained eye, rugby moves in a back-and-forth chaotic blur, like an ice hockey game played on turf, with just as many possession changes. As in football, the goal is to move the ball past your opponent’s try line (goal line) and into the in-goal area (end zone), while the other team attempts to tackle the ball-carrier and gain possession. But here there are no downs and no quarterback: The play is constant, and the ball gets passed player to player by backward laterals, not forward passes. A try (or, touchdown) occurs when a player carries or, far more rarely, kicks the ball across the try line and then touches the ball to the ground for five points.

After a try, the team has a chance to score a two-point conversion by kicking a field goal. A third way to score: Dropkick the ball through the uprights for three points — an on-the-run equivalent of football’s field goal.

Each team fields fifteen players of various body types for specific tasks. The bigger guys, as in football, are responsible for controlling possession.

The scrum, rugby’s most recognizable photo op, is where the large man earns his keep. When play needs to be restarted after a penalty (comparable to a jump ball in basketball), the meatiest players from both teams crouch and lock arms in a hut-shaped formation. At the referee’s whistle, the ball is rolled into the pack, and the players shove against each other to gain position over the ball, so that the hooker can kick it out of his team’s end of the scrum. At that point, it’s the job of a small guy with good hands, the scrum half, to pass it back to the correct teammate. At this point, the pack breaks up and the team with the ball tries to move downfield for a try.

This rarely happens neatly, hence the appearance of chaos. Even though pitching the ball back to a teammate sounds pedestrian, all hell breaks loose if the ball gets tipped away or hits the ground — and that happens a lot. Because of the ball’s oblong shape, it can bounce anywhere, which is one of the game’s most attractive qualities. In, say, basketball, where only five men share the court, one overly qualified player (think Shaq attack) can hog the ball for strategy’s sake. But in rugby, only the unpredictable bounce of the ball is assured, and every player needs to hone all the skills of the game — not only how to pitch it back, but who to pitch it to or, if the situation demands, how to dropkick it away in haste.

Of course, these decisions are made under the immediate duress that someone, often much bigger than you, is about to drill your shoulder blades into the turf. Keeping with tradition, rugby players wear little or no padding, and collide into each other with such bone-crushing violence that injuries are assured. Broken noses, dislocated shoulders, twisted ankles — such things don’t even stop the game unless blood flows. Once a player leaves the field, he can’t return, so trotting off for anything less than an amputation is viewed with contempt. .

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