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April 26, 2013

Playing Hurt

We'd run through our warmup drills and now it was time to beat the shit out of each other: scrum practice. Josh was running things tonight; he pointed at me. "Jay - flanker, blindside." I nodded. He saw vacancy in my eyes. "Dude, you volunteered for this. Wake up."

I blinked. Focus. Get your mind here, now, or you'll end up in the hospital. I had indeed volunteered to play flanker; my tertiary position, after outside center and inside center, respectively. The flankers are the ball hounds in the scrum - when the ball comes out, they're the first to peel off, looking for someone to hit. Between the weeks of practice and a commitment to not eat like shit, I'd dropped some 20 pounds since the beginning of the year. I felt lighter on my feet, which served me well as a back - I needed to be quick. Flankers need to be solid - not necessarily big, but strong. I looked over at my opposite number. Those 20 pounds I'd lost, he had apparently found. The pack bound up, Josh yelled "Crouch, touch, ENGAGE", everyone surged forward and slammed into each other. Flankers are the outside men in the scrum. I knew in theory what my positional responsibilities were: come off the scrum as soon as the ball comes out, go after the guy with the ball if we were defending, run in support and get into the rucks if we were on the attack. In rugby reality, everything goes to hell as soon as the ball is in play. My shoulder, buried in the ass cheek of the prop in front of me, felt like it was going to pop out of its socket. The ball came out, I peeled off. We were defending. My opposite took a pass, I lowered my shoulder and charged into him, I bounced off, and got my left hand stomped on as he ran through me. Of course he was one of two guys wearing standard rugby shoes, with the long aluminum cleats. Of course.

We ended up at Grubby's, as we'd done following the past couple of Sunday night practices. The pinky and ring finger on my left hand were starting to balloon up. I could move them, which was a good sign; not very much, which was bad. I picked a bar stool and ordered a stout. Graydon, my big South African teammate, an affable outgoing guy I'd known for a couple of years as a fellow coach on our boys' rugby team, sat down next to me. "How's it going?", I asked. He looked at me, despondent. "Not good, mate. Janice and I are separating. Getting a divorce." There were about a hundred things I wanted to say. I had only just started telling people about my separation, a few close friends, my parents. Instead, I just held up my throbbing left hand. He saw what wasn't on it. "Oh, shit, mate. Yeah?" I nodded. "Yeah." 

We joined a couple of the guys in the back, tearing into burritos. One, Bryan, had been divorced for a few years. The three of us talked, a veteran and two rookies. There was no discussion of reasons, of whys, of pasts, of details. Just of what would come next, and the kids. Always the kids. 

It got late. Bryan gave me a bone-crunching handshake (the right hand, thank God) and a pat on the back; Graydon pulled me into a bearhug. We were now teammates of a different sort. I walked to the car, climbed in, winced as I gripped the wheel. It hurt like a motherfucker. Everything did. I'd have to play through it.


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