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The Happy Hooker

Intrepid reporter Harry Hurt III visits the Gotham Knights rugby football club and discovers that wearing skimpy-ish shorts and chasing after balls is quite the exciting thing to do.

Rugby players forgo the helmets and shoulder pads of American footballers and play only in shorts, rugby shirts, cleats and kneesocks.

 

I must say, I rather like being a hooker.

It’s a chilly fall night at Field 74 on Randall’s Island, and I’m in the middle of a scrum with the Gotham Knights Rugby Football Club. I’ve got my arms and shoulders interlocked with those of two brawny forwards—the equivalent of offensive linemen in American football—who are crouching, bowlegged, on either side of me. We are literally head-to-head against three similarly positioned opposing players.

The oval-shaped ball suddenly comes bouncing in between us. A battle of grunting and pushing and thrashing of legs ensues. As a hooker, my job is to curl, or “hook,” my foot around the ball and kick it backward so our side can gain possession; but the ball careens off my right toe and squirts sideways instead. Luckily, an agile teammate outside the scrum, the equivalent of a halfback in American football, somehow manages to pick it up.

“Well, done, lad,” he shouts with gracious aplomb.

I now see why the English, who originated rugby in snooty private schools in the mid-1800s, say that soccer is a sport for gentlemen played by hooligans, and rugby is a sport for hooligans played by gentlemen.

Formed in 2001, the Gotham Knights is an amateur team dedicated to fitness, fun and refuting negative stereotypes about the gay athletic community. Although many of the club’s 60 active members are not gay, they all share a commitment to honoring the memory of co-founder Mark Bingham, a gay former University of California rugger who died in the crash of United Flight 93 on 9/11.

Veteran Gotham Knights coach Junior Blaber is putting me through a mini-boot camp designed to acquaint me with some of rugby’s basic rules, moves and formations. Despite the fact that players wear shorts, kneesocks and rugby shirts but none of the helmets or shoulder pads of American footballers, they’re plenty rough-and-tumble. Some of the forwards weigh more than 250 pounds, and several of the halfbacks are rawboned chaps fleet as deer. At age 61, I’m twice as old as virtually all of them.

But, in keeping with the rugby spirit, the Gotham Knights treat me as gentlemanly as the innate hooliganism of their sport permits. Rather than going full-contact, we play the equivalent of two-hand touch football, a game of nonstop action in which runners try to advance the ball by throwing it sideways or backwards to their teammates before they’re “tackled” by opposing players.

I also get to jump for the ball in a formation known as a “lineout.” Acting as “props,” two forwards lift me high over their heads while I vie against an opposing “lock” to catch an in-bounds pass.

By night’s end, I’m winded, sore and a bit bruised in the knees—but my only regret is that the Knights’ fall season is over and I’ll have to wait till full-fledged tryouts in March before I can become a real hooker.