The Great Gridiron Divide: American Football and Rugby
By John Roberts

Super Bowl Sunday is not mentioned on the standard calendar. But it is one of America's most celebrated events. For three hours on February 6, life in our country will come to a virtual standstill as 130 million of us gather at homes and Super Bowl parties to view a game - and commercials that cost more than $1 million for a 30-second spot - that have become part of our culture.

But had it not been for Walter Camp, we might very well be watching rugby.

A popular sport in Europe, rugby was making inroads in America when Camp joined the Yale rugby team as a freshman in 1876. During his junior year, Camp, then captain of the Yale squad, suggested some rule changes to the association that governed rugby at eastern colleges. He wanted the number of players on the field reduced from 15 to 11. Fewer players would create more wide-open play, he argued. And there would be less difficulties in obtaining faculty permission for 11 players to travel.

Camp's suggestions were not adopted until after he graduated in 1880, but these new rules - and others that would soon follow - signified the great gridiron divide that would lead American football and rugby down different paths.

By the early 1900s, players such as Jim Thorpe and legendary coaches Knute Rockne and Pop Warner popularized football, while rugby nearly disappeared from the American athletic landscape. Rugby traces its roots to folk football, a violent and brutish game that was played in parts of Great Britain during the 18th and early 19th century. Folk football pitted hundreds of men against one another. In Derby, for example, the games - often played on Christmas, Easter and New Years - involved about a thousand men. And in Sedgefield, 400-member teams competed. Docks, walls, roads and other town landmarks, three or more miles apart, served as goals. Although rules varied from town to town, the ball was generally advanced by any means possible, running, kicking and passing. Entire towns closed for theseepic battles.

"Down-towners playing up-towners; in wet weather, bad roads and played through the village," observed one fan, "breaking windows, striking bystanders, the ball driven into houses." Fighting, bloodshed, broken bones and even death were not uncommon during these unruly contests.

By the mid-1800's folk football began to disappear after the government banned play, saying the games were a threat to public order. In the late 1800's a form of folk football - called rugby - was growing in popularity at British public schools. According to legend, the sport began in 1823 when during a game of football at Rugby School in England, student William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it. The run was a clear violation of the rules of the game that later came to be called association football, or soccer. English soldiers, students, diplomats and engineers carried the game to South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina. By the turn of the century, France, Japan and Romania also fielded teams.

Today, rugby is played in more than 100 countries and is second only to soccer in worldwide popularity. In 1999, the Rugby World Cup, which is played every four years, was broadcast in 205 countries and viewed by 3.1 billion people. Rugby has the elements that many Americans crave in sports. Like basketball and soccer, the game is fast-paced. And it has the hard-hitting of football and hockey, only without the pads. For the most part, though, rugby remains an enigma in the U.S., relegated to early-morning television games on cable that feature British-accented commentators.

But this may soon change.

Though rugby will never rival its son, American football, interest -and enthusiasm - in the sport is growing. According to the United States Rugby Football Union, a non-profit group formed in 1975 to foster growth in the sport, more than 42,000 rugby players registered with the organization last year compared with 21,000 in 1993. There are more than 1,200 rugby clubs in the United States, and the game is one of the most popular club sports on college campuses.

The fastest growing segment of the game is women's rugby, and high school and youth leagues are also sprouting in some metropolitan areas. The U.S. Rugby Football Union separates teams into divisions and crowns 10 nationalchampions each year. The finest players are selected to play for the men's and women's national team - the Eagles.

Though most adult ruggers learn the game in college, rugby is an all-inclusive sport that attracts laymen and lawyers alike. All rugby players and teams are amateurs. They ruck, scrum and maul for the love of the game. Fewer athletes are as passionate about their sport as rugby players. It's a game that breeds uncommon camaraderie, loyalty and sportsmanship. Following each contest battered and bruised participants offer three cheers to the referee and the opposing team. To be sure, the games are heated, some even violent, but afterwards both squads normally gather for post-game revelry that often includes song-singing, game-awards and beer drinking.

"What happens on the pitch, stays on the pitch," is an oft-quoted rugby truism.

After age and injuries end most rugby players careers, many remain connected to the sport. Some coach or referee. Most colleges and men's clubs have an "old boys" weekend when club veterans and old teammates form a makeshift squad to take on the current team. These are good-natured, comical contests in which the referee always favors the old guys. An unwritten rugby rule is that anyone in these games 65 years or older cannot be tackled. Though post-game parties and beer drinking are part of the rugby culture both here and abroad, the U.S. Rugby Union Football is working to project a more serious image. The union encourages all clubs to celebrate responsibility, bans alcohol consumption at college games, and hands down stiff penalties to players and teams involved in shenanigans.

This spring, hundred of rugby teams - men, women, college and high school- will take to the pitch to scrum, ruck and maul. The very best will advance to regional play-offs in April. National champions are crowned in May. So, if you haven't had your fill of contact sports after the Super Bowl, I encourage you take in a local rugby game. You won't be disappointed, and there are no commercials. ​​

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