Gay rugby clubs were few and far between on Sep 11, 2001 when Mark Bingham, along with 43 other people, died as United Airlines Flight 93 slammed into a Pennsylvania field. Bingham used his cell phone in his final moments to tell his mother, “Some of us here are going to try to do something.”
He was a member of the San Francisco Fog gay rugby team. In 2002 the International Gay Rugby Association and Board (IGRAB) named its biannual international rugby tournament the Bingham Cup in his honour. Subsequently the number of IGRAB rugby clubs has grown to 36. I am captain of Muddy York RFC, Canada’s only gay rugby team.
In early June, Muddy York was one of 32 teams — about 800 players — that met in Dublin, Ireland to vie for the Bingham Cup. Toronto, we did you proud. We wept a little. In truth, I wept a lot.
We all stayed in the residences at Dublin City University. It was like being back at school but in the warmest, coolest and hottest university ever. The Aussies were beefy and hard, the French never stopped smoking and the Danes were great. We were all in this beautiful bubble where hundreds of new friendships formed every hour. The competition and community were stunning. Facebook friend lists mushroomed.
The opening ceremony was held on the field early in the morning before the first game. All the competitors stood together in unusually clean uniforms on the lush grass and listened to Mark’s mom. She wished us well. This tiny, charming, heartbreakingly sweet woman told us about the dead son she loved. The players range in age from 20 to 55, so few of us have not lost someone. The camaraderie and the poignancy were too much. Anxious, touched, and thinking about my own mom, I teared up. I saw a number of other players discreetly wipe their eyes too. In a few minutes we’d be slamming each other senseless on the pitch. This was no time to go soft.
The teams at Bingham all trained long and hard to be there. Rugby is a violent sport. Ending the game with a clean jersey is shameful and bruises are shown off like trophies — usually in the bar after the game over beer with the opposition.
In the morning game 15 men crushed me repeatedly. I had no serious injuries but lots of mosh-pit soreness. My hands, hair, knees and jersey were all well-rubbed with grass and dirt.
The 30 team-cabanas were clustered together in a meadow near the pitches. Between morning and afternoon games we used them to ice, eat lunch and warm up again. I popped Advil like candy.
Everywhere I looked guys held bags of ice to joints, ate and grinned. A few men had shiners. We looked like extras from a war movie. Shirtless, hairy manflesh abounded. The aroma was intoxicating.
Two days of hard play later, my bruised left arm felt like it belonged to someone else. I sat in a corner of our team cabana and unwrapped my sandwich with my one good hand. The endorphin rush from the morning game was fading and the hits on the pitch were catching up with me. I wept for a bit but the pain from those minor bangs goes away fast. A little ice makes a huge difference and we were playing well.
The Bingham tournament hands out awards in four different divisions: Cup, Bowl, Plate, and Shield. We were seeded in the lower division. The competition for the Shield came down to a final between Ulster and us. We were all euphoric. We had never been so close to a trophy.
Our coach delivered the perfect inspirational speech. I would have gone to war for that man.
We played hard but Ulster played harder.
Ulster had four tries to our one with just minutes left in the game. It was clear we were not going to win. Then one of our players got hit hard and didn’t get up. We stood ready while he was examined right there on the pitch. We stood there exhausted, elated and anxious for our fallen mate. The beautiful bubble was bursting in slow motion. I felt like I didn’t have another ounce of strength to play but I didn’t want the game to end and I wanted my fallen player to be well. He was strapped to a backboard as a precaution. The ambulance drove him away to respectful applause from both teams and spectators. At that moment I could not have loved my team more.
We ambled back to the cabana compound where somehow all the other teams already knew about the injury. Thirty minutes later our fallen guy walked into the compound with a clean bill of health to more applause from all sides.
We ended the tournament with showers, ice, beer and hugs. The closing party featured a video highlight montage. Pictures of spectacular tackles and hand-holding ruggers were backed by Chumbawamba and Coldplay.
There was lots more weeping. I’m a sentimental man. I’m also a man who understands joy is not to be squandered. We were hundreds of men with our competition behind us. The dancefloor filled instantly and shirts flew off. I was clearly not alone in the proud, generous, open, good feeling washing over me. All around me teammates, competitors and new friends were hugging, laughing, dancing and comparing bruises.
It was a tremendous feeling to be part of a big, somewhat lustful, circle of brothers. But most of all I didn’t want the profound camaraderie to end.
Muddy York practices twice a week until early autumn. New players are welcome, no experience necessary. To learn more about Muddy York check out Muddyyork.ca.