How rugby arrived—unexpectedly—at UC Santa Cruz

Begun in the late 1960s, rugby teams remain a force on campus, and committed alumni have launched a new tradition of an annual rugby reunion

The original UC Santa Cruz rugby team, pictured here, started a tradition that has been going strong since 1967 (photograph courtesy of Carl Norris)

Nearly half a century of rugby playing at UC Santa Cruz started off with a chance encounter, a burst of curiosity, and a weird-looking spheroid flying through the air.

In the fall of 1967, a few young UC Santa Cruz undergraduates including Carl Norris (Stevenson '68, economics) were hanging out on a sports field on campus when they noticed a couple of professors throwing, kicking, and knocking around an object that looked like a strapping, plus-sized, pale-white football.

The whole thing looked a little strange, but the professors were having a good deal of fun.

Intrigued, the students started chatting up physics professors David Dorfan and Ron Ruby, who explained why the method of play, and the ball in question, were so unfamiliar: The rugged pastime they were enjoying – rugby – was an import from Great Britain. Ruby, an American who had played on National Champion teams at U.C. Berkeley, and Dorfan, who grew up in rugby-mad South Africa, loved the sport, but had no idea they were helping to instigate a movement.

It didn't take long for those students to be hooked and start a fledgling team on campus.

Rugby is a highly physical game with loads of tackling, running and jumping. It is a ‘continuous action’ sport that requires brute strength as well as a high degree of proper, sporting behavior. Following the match, all players must shake the hands of their foes on the playing field and give them a cheer to boot.

As the saying goes, “Football (soccer in the U.S.A.) is a gentlemen's game played by hooligans, while rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen,” said Norris.  

Rugby reunion

All these years later, rugby remains a force at UC Santa Cruz, with not one but two men's teams and an active women's program, battling Stanford, the University of Nevada at Reno, and state universities across Northern California.

Now, Norris and other committed alumni have launched a brand-new tradition: the UC Santa Cruz rugby reunion, which will be held every year.

The inaugural event, which consisted mostly of original team members from 1967-1968, was held in March 2014. An upcoming reunion has been scheduled for April 1 and 2, 2016, in the Santa Cruz area and will be open to all UCSC rugby aficionados. One of the highlights will be a match on Saturday, April 2 featuring Leland Stanford Junior University playing UC Santa Cruz’s team.

"For the first reunion, we had 50 people and raised nearly $8,000 for the rugby program, and I am hoping that we can triple the size of the event," Norris said.

Staying connected

While the group is now fundraising to ensure future reunions, the Internet helps keep their connections fresh.

After the most recent get-together, past players as well as coaches began to circulate mini-biographies of themselves to give their former teammates a sense of what they've been up to since their rugby days.

The result is a newsletter of sorts that is hilarious, rueful, and tragic at turns, with reports of aging and hip replacements, overseas vacations and remarriages, and entry titles such as "A Banana Slug's Slog Through Life." One rugby fanatic, Greg Ward, remarked that in his post-sporting years, "I discovered the true path for channeling aggression and competitiveness: being a trial lawyer."

Many of the life stories are quite complicated. Norris used to work in the aircraft industry, then became a teacher, returned to the aircraft industry, and retired. But the one consistent thread that will always connect them is rugby.

Surprise appearance

As Norris admits, rugby's sudden appearance on campus, during the second year of its existence, was highly unexpected. Only 1,000 students were on the campus at the time.

"These were the years of peace, love, and flower children," Norris said. "So the question of how athletics would fit into this brand-new campus was way, way down on everyone's priority list. Little or no thought had been given to an intercollegiate athletics progm."

In other words, the fledgling players had "an extremely small base" from which to develop any kind of sports program.

But those paltry numbers could not stop them. Right away, they formed a proper rugby team—and don't you dare call them intramural.

They took their games on the road and played many hard-fought matches. Some they won. Some were massacres.

 Jock Reynolds (Stevenson '69, psychology), in an email thread to various UC Santa Cruz rugby-loving alumni, recalled his team getting "roughed up" on a less-than-regulation-sized rugby field "and scored on often" at UC Berkeley. 

Another player, Bob Bell, from the Class of '69, had a more vivid—and not necessarily pleasant—memory of playing at Berkeley, though it seems a lot funnier now. The moment the “proud UC Santa Cruz team” ran onto the field in the Cal stadium, they were greeted by "monster-big football players in their off-season, one of whom said, 'Santa Cruz sent a (expletive) track team.'"

The game, not surprisingly, was quite an ordeal—but it made for some extraordinary memories.