When I was 14 what mattered to me more than anything?
What mattered was having my father there. What mattered were the words he spoke to me. What mattered was his presence. What mattered was the rite of passage he offered me from his world – to play rugby like the men.
Much of my childhood I watched my Dad play. Every Saturday we’d go to Lazards Sports ground and I played with the men, often for hours and hours. After the game, beyond dusk, the cheap florescent bar lights illuminating the muddy grass, one of the guys would usually hang out and play with me, show me how to hold the ball, pass and kick. I’d learn special things my Dad hadn’t taught me. The men’s world mattered. I loved being part of it.
It’s a wet, windy day out on the school playing field. It’s cold. We’re playing a strong opposition. They were usually better than us – the other teams. Our record defeat was 0-78. Dads litter the touchline. I’m playing number 8 this day. (This is the guy that sticks his head in the back of the scrum, mauls into other guys when he picks the ball up from the back of the scrum, and tackles everyone) Now I wasn’t big, but I was brave, and I’d tackle anyone. It was a matter of honour. I’d do anything to prevent a guy getting past me. Especially when my father was watching.
What mattered most was hitting the earth, body and body, wound on wound. What mattered was that they didn’t score.
When I played full back (that’s the guy right at the back of the team wearing 15) I used to tackle a cascade of boys who broke through. I was the last line of defence. And even though I was small I’d hit these guys, heroically saving many points. (No team ever reached 100 against us). I loved playing the hero; when all else was lost I’d save the day, do the very best I could for the team.
I was learning that I had what it takes.
So, I’m 16, a few years older and it’s cold. It hurts when you mis-tackle someone. You get your body in the wrong position technically and if the guy’s bigger than you, which virtually all of them were, it really hurts.
So I’m at the back of the scrum and we’re under pressure. One of their team picks up the ball in the loose and for a split second there’s an option. I know it’s going to hurt. I’m out of position and this boy is 3-4 stone heavier than me. But he’s my man. And as he charges through like a young bull, I hit him and down we go.
The earth, the blood.. bodies.. contact.
There’s no sound from the touchline. There were a lot of players around us. Did Dad see? That was the best tackle I’d ever done. Did he see it?
The game goes on and I quickly recover from the hit.
Just a word, I need just a word.
The game ends. Somehow the score’s irrelevant. The players clap each other and mill off, some to the changing rooms, to each other or the touchline.
I need to hear his voice.
I loiter around, not asking but needing.
“That was a great tackle on their number 8.”
My heart shifts a beat and I’m welling up with an enormous feeling of pride, unity and belonging. He said the right thing, but not only that. He felt it. He’s been there, in the wild country of the sports field, he knows exactly how I feel. He noticed me in my stepping up. This joy I experienced in my father watching and tending to me was second to none.
I wonder now what type of masculinity I was subscribing to when I stepped up to the mark. What exactly was I ‘manning up’ into?
When I was younger I cried. Or was it the feeling of longing to cry? I’d get tackled and winded, and everyone used to want to hit me hard as I was the teacher’s son. Dad was reffing. I remember one time particularly, I’m 10 years old and it’s a house 7-a-side rugby game, so for a 10-year-old it’s basically a cup final. I’m playing scrum half, the pivotal position in the short game, and I get tackled hard by a friend and go down wheezing.
I don’t want to cry.
And I can feel my father with me, struggling to be with my withheld tears as well as playing his role as referee and teacher. It seems to go on for ages. I’m embarressed in front of the other boys. Somehow a boyhood wound is shaped.
Is it impossible? To develop as a boy with direction, certainty and purpose, to stand ground when others around are failing, is it possible to become this fully embodied masculine man and CRY playing sport?
Can the boy become the king without a wound? Wounding is important to be with and overcome. And what kind of space for wounding is the modern sports field? It’s one of the few spaces for men to go. How is it boundaried and held?
Last night I saw the fantastic film The Hunter. If you want to understand men a little better go and watch this. It’s terse, direct, staccato, beautifully shot and WILD. During the fantastic climax, where the Daniel Dafoe character, Martin, confronts the essence of his own beautiful, untamed wildness, more of those lost boyhood tears stream down my face, unashamed, cleansing and pure.