Resident columnist Kam Raslan shares how playing the sport as a child lead to an important self-discovery
A friend of mine has recently become a father for the first time and he’s worried about how he will raise his son. Will he allow his growing child the freedom to go out and play and ride his bicycle unsupervised to have adventures just as he did when he was growing up? Or will he be like every other modern parent and keep his child locked up in the house because he is afraid that the world is now a dangerous place? My friend would like his child to become independent-minded and tough enough to take on all of life’s challenges, and so he would like his child to roam free. But obviously, he will keep the child locked up and safe. You have to these days. It’s not the 1970s anymore.
I grew up in the 1970s and my school made me play rugby to toughen me up. I was ten years old. You may not know the game of rugby so let me explain the rules. It’s exactly like a battle in The Lord of the Rings, and whoever is alive at the end of 60 minutes is declared the winner. I think a strange-shaped ball is also involved but I never understood its purpose because I made sure it never came near me. I’ve always been very short-sighted so I never had any idea what was happening on the pitch. If a vague, blurry blob started to grow bigger, then I knew that a mass of boys was coming towards me and that I had to run away. But if the blob stayed small then I knew I was safe.
My school created a team for even the worst rugby players, and I was forced to join a team called the 5th 15, which meant I was the 75th worst rugby player, and there weren’t even 75 boys in my year. We had to practise on a pitch that was on a slope so steep that when we played football on it, if you kicked the ball up the slope, then it would simply roll back down into your own goal. It was more like climbing Mount Everest than playing rugby, except without guide ropes and oxygen tanks.
Eventually the day came when we had to play against another school, and I was terrified. I knew we were going to lose, so I wasn’t afraid of that. Our best player had to wear an eyepatch, which meant he had no depth perception. If you threw the ball to him then it always hit him in the face and then he would lamely clap his hands together two seconds later. It’s a sporting cliché to say that a team was “crushed” but we were literally crushed. The vague, blurry blob constantly came towards me and then rolled over me. I tried running away and I even tried to surrender to the enemy but nothing worked. And then, amid all the mayhem and violence, something happened to me.
For one brief moment in my life, I decided to try being brave. One of the enemy was running towards me. He appeared to be holding the strange-shaped ball, so I guessed that he was the focus of the game at that moment. I was the last person between him and the end of the pitch, where I knew that something significant would happen (scoring a goal? match point?). I decided that I would stop him and I ran towards him. For five strides, I felt like I was the strongest and bravest person in the whole world even if I had no idea what I was going to do when I actually got to him. And then he put out his hand and I ran straight into it. I saw a brief flash of white light as I collapsed onto the ground and he ran past me into his own glory.
My moment of bravery when I was ten years old did nothing to change the game and nobody else noticed it. But I noticed it, I was surprised by it and I am still surprised by it. I didn’t want to be playing rugby and I don’t ever want to play it again but I must reluctantly admit that because of it, I discovered that somewhere inside me there lurks some courage.
I know my friend wants his newborn son to grow up experiencing the freedom and mayhem that he enjoyed and somehow managed to survive. But I know he won’t do it. It’s not the 1970s anymore.