The Beginning – 1963

The Gimp Remembers: Fairfield Rugby 1963

It was a dark and windy night… No! That was the start of Snoopy’s novel.

Let me recall the nascent days of the Fairfield Rugby Club’s auspicious inception and birth; growing from a toddler; forged on the anvil of a most unique esprit de corps, and emerging from the crucible of competition into a laudably recognized member among scholastic/athletic university communities… with my apologies to Father Reddy for mixing my metaphors.

In September, 1963, Ray (the Crow) McDermott and I were living off campus: he having returned to Foo U. after an inauspicious exit from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy; myself swathed in the opprobrium of missing the required per semester weekly Masses when living in Loyola Hall, hence banished for a year to off-campus housing under the gracious but overly scrutinized watch of an elderly Italian couple, Giglio and Domenica Brunori… and their beguiling twenty-five year old granddaughter, Wendy, she being another subject matter…

Late one afternoon, Crow came into our room mentioning this unknown, formative, yet soon-to-be-renowned entity, the Rugby Club, a conceptual offspring of Pete (Ivy League Slob) Fallon and Doug Ciacci. Its tutelage was handled by Dr. John Kenyon, the quixotically paradigmatic Professor of Clinical Psychology, and the club’s original – but very sadly less historically appreciated – mentor. As I pondered the options, trying for the club seemed a more interesting proposition than continuing with baseball, so I decided to have a go at it along with Crow.

Tryouts were a fairly abbreviated process since the first match was scheduled for October 7th (if memory serves correctly) against Fordham’s Rugby Club, so each afternoon following classes for the next several weeks, “wanna-be” ruggers met at what became our hallowed “pitch” (field), an undulating acreage of green at the Barlow Road entrance to the campus, replete with a pastoral view of a weeping willow-fringed pond and embedded with its own steel-plated sewer cover… assiduously avoided. By the end of the tryout, Fairfield had its first ever players: John Bender, John Swanhaus, (Big) Mike Kelly, Jack Ploehn, Pete Fallon, Doug Ciacci, Dan Gatti, John Sullivan, Al Sullivan, Bob Batch, Ken Waters, Don Reddington, Carl LoGalbo, McDermott, Jeff (Looch) Campbell, and himself – me. Mike Carroll was the “trainer” for a seemingly excellent reason: he “wrapped a good ankle” in tape.

The Games: Our original schedule was with the rugby clubs of Fordham, the Columbia “Old Blues”, Harvard, Brown, Wesleyan, the New York Rugby Club, and – I think – MIT. In short, each team had fifteen players – and no replacements were permitted for injuries. A score (3 points) was called a “try” and was followed by an extra point kick (Ken Water’s specialty), the attempt being the ball’s placement perpendicular on the field to where it had been “touched down” in the end zone (hence, the origin of American football’s scoring terminology). There were “line outs” and “knock ons”, not to be confused with the consequence of hormonal impulses. Gentlemanly conduct, aside from attempting to wreak bodily havoc on the opponent, was mandatory, and a most illuminating breach was an instance when Dan Gatti was going for a try. He crossed into the end zone, was tackled from behind, and fell face-first into an upright… splitting his nose asunder and confounding the folks on the sidelines with verbal effluvia resulting in the referee exacting a penalty on us for “unsportsmanlike conduct”.

In all, our record for this first-ever season was 5-1. As was customary for the area’s clubs, there was a post-season invitational 7-a-side tournament held on Randall’s Island, NY. Unfortunately, on November 22nd blight was visited not only upon us but to the nation with the tragic assassination of JFK. This cancelled our last game, though I honestly don’t recall the opponent.

Since the club was not officially sanctioned by the University, we were left to our own devices to provide uniforms, sundry essentials (no insurance however), and away game travel and accommodations. This was always an adventure of and by itself, especially making our way to Boston… a favorite stop where there were myriad distractions (The Green Derby, Yard of Ale) and interests. Pete Fallon’s mother lived in the area, so several players boarded at Mother Fallon’s while alternative arrangements were made catch-as-catch-can… including staying at Boston College’s Annex 5 (thru Foo U.’s wincing influence), a home-away-from-home until B.C. had enough of us and retracted the once vaunted welcome mat.

The ubiquitous adage of “work hard; play hard” was no better professed than in the rugby milieu, an inveterate contract among the clubs to foster a spirit of aggressive competition salved by after-the-match gatherings among the players, friends, female compatriots, and accompanied by copious amounts of adult beverages supplied by the host club. Usually these events were in two parts: first, a beer-fest shortly after a game, usually at a pub, local hall, or the like, with snacks to assuage the munchies and infuse a thirst. A swaggering revelry of songs permeated the surroundings, commonly of Irish flavor. These were first introduced to our club by Malachy McCourt, of literary and thespian fame, the referee at our opening game with Fordham and the provider of the cultural genesis. After dinner, there was often a second part – and after-the-party party, an amalgam of mostly the same folks at another location, usually someone’s home or fraternity quarters. The signature theme here was usually a tad more ribald as the beverage selection was upgraded to include distilled spirits. Dates were provided by the host club – or by chance – and their pedigree depended on the host’s inclinations, be they kind, whimsically mischievous, or pure pot luck. To reciprocate at home games, we scrounged up whatever funds we could manage and luxuriated ourselves and our visitors by renting space at the Fairfield Fire House or one of the local watering holes like the Nautilus. (At the time, Fairfield’s disposition would not accommodate this sort of “collegiality”on campus.) As the Norwalk Hospital’s School of Nursing was only a short jaunt down the turnpike, an adequate supply of friendly company was usually available given brief notice, schedules permitting.

By Spring 1964, the success of the club had far surpassed even the most prodigious expectations, and with that came the expansion to an additional team. This brought along such luminaries as Frank Quinn, “Big Beef”, “Little Beef”, Jay Kerwin, and Rick Fuller (my apologies to those not recalled). Collateral schedules were arranged and in subsequent years the club blazed a continuum of exalted appreciation with participating clubs and in other circles.

Regardless of the degree to which these pioneering ruggers encountered situations you’d prefer not relating to mother or sister, there was never a point where reckless abandon or wanton behavior reared its ugly head. Though an occasional hormonal flare-up with some non-scholastic ingenue might be given a wink and a nod, there was an unwritten but conspicuous ethic of honor, civility, and moral probity – not just to ourselves but to the University and to those who’d endowed us with their trust.

In the final analysis, given odds not terribly favorable for success, I think we accounted for ourselves quite admirably, engendering respect among our peers and faculty – both at Fairfield and at other academic institutions.

Hopefully, this will continue to be a hallmark legacy of the Fairfield University Rugby Club.

Without my confabulation, such was the start, circa 1963.

Robert (Gimp) Sullivan