This Is What The World’s Biggest Gay Rugby Tournament Looks Like


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The Melbourne Chargers battle
the Sydney Convicts in the final match of the Bingham Cup.
The Chargers defeated the Convicts 20–7.

Joe Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

ID: 9380915

Early on a Friday morning in May, in the middle of a
rugby match in Nashville, Tennessee, something strange was
happening: stillness. You don’t expect much stillness from
rugby, a game that’s easiest to explain to non-ruggers as a
sort of cross between soccer and American football with nonstop
play (and no pads). Things like scoring and rule-breaking will
bring a game to a quick halt, but otherwise play surges on
fiercely, unforgivingly — unless somebody’s bleeding.

And right now, Kazu Hishida was bleeding.

The Nashville Grizzlies and the Montreal Armada were bunched on
a makeshift pitch at Ted Rhodes Park, standing together in
small groups or taking a knee, calmly and quietly waiting while
41-year-old Kazu — Kaz, for short — was escorted to the
sidelines, blood streaming freely from his eye socket. His
coach, 47-year-old John Purdom, tended to him. Kaz looked
annoyed at having been pulled from the game. Dark-haired and
handsome, he stood a little taller than Purdom, who wore a
Grizzlies jersey over a kilt and scratched his white beard with
concern.

“Are you ready?” John asked him, after the worst of the
bleeding had stopped.

“Fuck it,” Kaz said, flecks of red mixed with dried mud still
staining his cheek. He ran back in.

This is rugby, a sport that is now played in more places around
the world than ever before: According to World
Rugby’s 2015 report, there are 7.73 million players in 120
countries. Men’s and women’s seven-player rugby are debuting at
the Rio Olympics this summer, in a testament to the sport’s
booming international popularity. But something was different
today than what the world will soon see in Rio. In the
bleachers at Ted Rhodes, a guy in his twenties wore a pink crop
top jersey with his boyfriend’s name and number on the back
amid a backdrop of rainbow umbrellas, tutus, and tank tops.
Among the standard screams of “Hit him! Hit him!” and “Look
where we are, boys!” were the additional cheers of “Move those
cha cha heels!” and “Yaaass, honey!”

The Nashville Grizzlies celebrated their club’s 10-year
anniversary this year by hosting the Bingham Cup, the world
championship for international gay rugby, and the second
largest rugby tournament for 15-player teams in the world. The
Cup brings together amateur teams whose players rely on
flexible work schedules, forgiving bosses, supportive partners,
and high pain tolerances to make rugby a large part of their
lives. For Bingham 2016, players on 42 teams from 21 countries
poured into Nashville to duke it out for the championship — as
well as to reconnect with old friends, get to know a new city,
and pound the requisite gallons of beer. Since 2002,
gay-inclusive teams have gathered every other year at a
different spot on the globe to compete, celebrate gay inclusion
in sports, and honor the memory of Mark Bingham, for whom the
Cup is named; he was a founding member of two of the first gay
rugby clubs in the United States before he died on United
Airlines Flight 93 during the attacks on September 11.

When, in 2015, Grizzlies veteran Jon Glassmeyer spearheaded the
proposal to bring Bingham to the American South for the first
time, he wasn’t expecting that a rash of anti-LGBT bills were
poised to spread across the country, particularly below the
Mason-Dixon line. In April, the month before Bingham was held,
Tennessee’s governor
signed a bill allowing counselors to refuse service based
on their beliefs; critics believe the measure targets LGBT
therapy-seekers. And in the neighboring state of North
Carolina,
House Bill 2, signed in March, has inspired widespread ire,

celebrity condemnations, and mass boycotts — most recently,
the NBA announced it would
no longer host its 2017 All-Star game in Charlotte in
protest of the law.

Amid a tangible swell of anti-LGBT sentiment, hundreds of
unapologetically gay ruggers, along with their friends and
families, poured into Nashville to play in an unapologetically
gay rugby tournament — regardless of the political turmoil
unfurling around them.

Jeff Wilson, the 2012–2016 chairman of International Gay Rugby,
told me over the phone that when he spoke to the European
Parliament about bringing Bingham to Nashville, the biggest
thing its members were concerned about was social impact, and
the protection of the players in the American South. It was the
kind of concern that carried all the more weight after the
tournament had ended — just two weeks later, a shooter opened
fire at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49
people and injuring dozens of others. “Someone could have shot
up our opening ceremony,” Wilson reflected.

Pulse reminded a country of LGBT people — especially those of
relative privilege who have fallen into a kind of complacency
around queer struggle — that the war has not yet been won.

“Having events in places that aren’t traditionally accepting
and safe is still important,” said Wilson. “You can’t look away
from the social justice piece of gay-inclusive sports — from
Nashville to Columbus, Ohio, to Nairobi, Kenya.”

“We’re still fighting for rights,” he added. “Sometimes the
best way to do it is to invite people to play a rugby game.”

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The Charlotte Royals at the
Bingham Cup opening ceremony. Joe
Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

ID: 9380927

An old saying goes that rugby is a hooligan’s game
played by gentlemen. After tearing each other apart on the
field, ruggers tend to their wounds and transition almost
seemingly into their “third half” — drinking and singing and
shooting the shit together, as brothers.

I joined women’s rugby my sophomore year of college partly to
get exercise, but mostly to meet girls. I didn’t do this
consciously — I was still half-closeted at the time — but
women’s rugby is stereotypically packed with lesbians. Maybe
it’s because the power and strength rugby demands of its
players connotes butchness. Maybe it’s because all the touching
and hitting and lifting can “look gay” to spectators who don’t
know any better. Maybe it’s because (in the US, at least) rugby
isn’t widely played, understood, or appreciated — it’s an
underdog sport that attracts people who are used to living
outside of the norm.

Most of the men I spoke with at Bingham had found rugby the
same way I did: They were
looking for community, for connection, and maybe they’d
find it in a sport where you knock the shit out of other people
without wearing so much as some light protective padding. Many
of the 62 Grizzlies players have only started playing within
the last year or two. It’s a complicated and barbarous sport to
leap headfirst into for men who, in some cases, haven’t played
contact sports before — or any sports at all. When I asked one
Grizzly if he’d ever participated in organized sports, he asked
me if marching band counted.

Stan Schklar, a fit, stocky 55-year-old with a short white
beard, clear blue eyes, and a soft Southern accent, was a
founding member of the Grizzlies 10 years ago and now is the
team’s oldest player. “It’s like a family reunion,” he told me
on the sidelines of a pre-tournament Grizzlies practice, after
the fifth time this had happened. “All my rugby friends I don’t
get to see, and they’re all here in my hometown! Unbelievable,
unbelievable.” He laughed and waved at another friend. “Good to
see you too, sweetie!”

Stan didn’t play sports growing up, but when a friend asked him
to help start up a rugby team, he knew nothing about it — “I
didn’t know what a rugby ball looked like, for that matter,” he
said. It was a way to get up and moving, for a small group of
gay friends to do something new, something different. At first,
Stan thought it would just be a casual hangout sort of thing. A
lot of other guys, later on, would join for similar reasons: to
meet new people and to get to know the gay community of
Nashville. Many had no idea it would eventually become
something that felt essential to their sense of self. “At
first, I don’t think we realized how profound it would be,”
Stan said. “A lot of people, a lot of the guys here, grew up
thinking they couldn’t play sports, that they wouldn’t be good
enough,” he added. “Now I’ve seen so many guys excel at this.”

“A lot of the guys here grew up thinking they couldn’t play
sports, that they wouldn’t be good enough. Now I’ve seen so
many guys excel at this.”

ID: 9381510

Mark Pilkington, a 27-year-old blonde, bearded scrum half and
soon-to-be-elected Grizzlies president, joined the team nearly
five years ago. He had friends on the Royals (based in
Charlotte, North Carolina), who were playing a game against the
Grizzlies soon after Mark moved to Nashville. He came to a
practice, just to check it out, and got hooked. He had
previously been a college cheerleader for four years at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He told me that in
terms of athleticism and stamina-building, he was well-prepared
for the transition to rugby. “Cheering for a four-hour football
game and hoisting young ladies above your head in the heat is a
real thing out here,” he said. “But I don’t know how you can
prepare yourself for getting run over by men twice your size.”

Both of the Grizzlies’ captains, however, are rugby veterans.
Co-captain Michael “Scurvy” McKervey, a 33-year-old ball of
spritely energy with wispy light brown hair and the features of
a particularly fit elf, leads the forwards: the guys
responsible for tackling, scrum downs (where eight guys from
each team bind together and push the opposite team’s scrum over
the ball, which kinda looks like a giant group hug but with a
lot of grunting), and rucking (a bit like mini-scrums, a few
guys pushing over the ball to clear it for play). He’s been
playing rugby since he went to college in Michigan. As a
straight guy, he hadn’t been actively seeking out a
gay-friendly team but liked that the Grizzlies “had this great
family feel,” he told me.

Though LGBT people are very visible in gay rugby leadership
roles, many of the team captains at Bingham were straight —
oftentimes since they’d been encouraged in sports their whole
lives. According to Out on the Fields, an
international study on homophobia in sports commissioned in
part by the Bingham committee, a majority of lesbian and gay
youths participate in organized sports, but 7 out of 10 of them
believe sports don’t offer them a safe environment. An equal
percentage are closeted while playing youth sports, fearing
discrimination from other players and officials. Lesbian, gay,
and bisexual youths are also more likely than their straight
peers to quit at earlier ages and move into more singular
activities. Leaders on gay-inclusive teams may include more
straight people than one may expect simply because straight
players tend to have been playing team sports longer.

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Nashville Grizzlies captains
Josh Buchanan and Mike McKervey. Joe
Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

ID: 9381089

Scurvy’s 35-year-old co-captain, Josh Buchanan, is also
straight. Tall and reddish-brown-bearded, Josh wrangles the
backs: These are the players responsible for running the ball,
or, as Scurvy calls them, “the fast guys with good hair.” Josh
and Scurvy complement each other well in terms of leadership
styles. Scurvy is a self-described “naturally very loud
person,” whereas Josh has a deep, soothing voice and and a
slow, easy-does-it smile. In rugby, sometimes you need someone
to scream bloody hell at you because you’ve gotta get in that
ruck, goddamnit, and sometimes, when the ref fails to call an
obscenely high tackle and your endorphins are encouraging you
to retaliate, you need someone to calmly talk you off the
ledge.

On Thursday evening, in front of the Parthenon — Nashville’s
somewhat garish full-scale replica of the original, built in
the late 19th century inside Centennial Park — the Grizzlies
warmed up with a few basic passing drills under some
ominous-looking clouds. One of the things rugby newcomers tend
to struggle with is that you can only pass the ball backward,
not forward.

Scurvy is unfazed at the prospect of teaching newbies. “It’s a
challenge in every rugby team,” he told me from the sidelines
at practice. “Everyone’s accepted, regardless of athletic
ability,” Josh added.

All weekend, players kept telling me how accepting rugby is,
even though it might look brutally unapproachable from the
outside. Perhaps, at this point, it’s a self-fulfilling
prophecy. According to the Out on the Fields study, gay men are
more likely to play rugby in either amateur or professional
leagues than any other sport. Last year, International Gay
Rugby coordinated the
signing of agreements with both World Rugby and USA Rugby
with the aims of promoting inclusion and eliminating homophobia
from the game across all levels and teams, setting an
international standard for what gay-inclusive sports can look
like.

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Nashville Grizzlies captain
Mike McKervey talks to his team during a Bingham Cup
tournament match. Joe
Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

ID: 9380937

The opening ceremonies were supposed to be held on
Thursday evening outside on one of Vanderbilt’s beautiful
lawns, but as the first cracks of thunder boomed out over
Nashville, dozens of teams in carefully coordinated outfits
(“Make America Gay Again” hats; lots of rainbow ties, kilts,
and booty jorts) trooped inside a Vanderbilt auditorium.

The night’s host, scrum half and ex-cheerleader Mark
Pilkington, took the stage in a glittery gold blazer to
introduce the night’s speakers. One of them was Mayor Megan
Barry, who wore an honorary Grizzlies jersey and spoke to a
cheering crowd during the opening ceremonies about state pride
— and sometimes, lack thereof. “When we say we’re from
Nashville, we don’t always add Tennessee,” she said. Nashville
is, much like Austin, Texas, a dot of blue in an ocean of red —
Nashville, Knoxville, and Memphis are the only cities in the
state to offer ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the
basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Scott Ridgway, the executive director of the Tennessee Suicide
Prevention Network, thought hosting Bingham here was sending a
clear message that there are members of the Nashville community
committed to breaking down barriers. “We are in the Bible Belt
— it’s much more difficult for some folks to have acceptance
for sexuality than in other areas,” he said via phone. He’d
been involved with the Grizzlies since his partner, Jon
Glassmeyer, joined about eight years ago. (The pair were
integral to making Bingham happen in Nashville — Scott had
chaired a host committee, raising tens of thousands of dollars
through small individual donations alone.)

Other speakers that night included Tennessee Rep. John Ray
Clemmons, IGR Chairman Jeff Wilson, and a video call from
country stars Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, and Ty Herndon.
While Mayor Barry was especially cheered for her warm Southern
welcome, there was perhaps no one more eagerly anticipated by
the growing-antsy crowd than Alice Hoagland.

“This is the culmination of a magnificent life of rugby, and
I just wish Mark were here to see it in person.”

ID: 9381511

Alice is the mother of Mark Bingham, whom the tournament
honors, and is nothing short of beloved in the Bingham
community. She’s got shoulder-length white hair and one of the
biggest smiles you’ve ever seen, enclosed with a few
parentheses of laugh lines. Players shake her hand, hug her,
take pictures with her, tell her how Mark inspired them to play
rugby after years of thinking there was no place in sports for
them, and chant “AL-ICE! AL-ICE!” whenever she takes a podium.
She has seen the tournament grow from its humble beginnings 14
years ago to one of the largest rugby tournaments in the world.

She looked absolutely delighted to be up at the podium tonight.
She thanked Nashville for being so welcoming, and she spoke
about courage. Being gay, she said, doesn’t mean you can’t be
tough and strong. Mark taught her that.

“This is the culmination of a magnificent life of rugby, and I
just wish Mark were here to see it in person,” she said. “I
look out here and see these faces, and I see my son’s face
looking back at me.”

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Mike Slaydyk and Sam Minter
practice with the Nashville Grizzlies before their Bingham
Cup tournament games at Centennial Park.

Joe Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

ID: 9380953

For so long, planning Bingham had been about the
logistics — raising money, prepping the fields, working with
vendors — but now it was really dawning on the Grizzlies that
three days of fierce competition lay ahead of them. And they
wanted to win.

Bright and early on Friday morning, the Grizzlies arrived at
Ted Rhodes Park. The Grizzlies have two different sides: The B
team would play in Division 3, while the A’s simultaneously
competed in Division 2. Games would be played across seven
different fields from early in the morning ‘til late in the
afternoon for three straight days — it was rugby everywhere you
looked, teams doing dynamic stretches and passing drills to
prep for impending kickoffs. The teams were competing across
three different divisions for a host of different awards, the
most coveted being, of course, the top prize: the Bingham Cup.
Tucked in the middle of the fields was the player’s village,
featuring a canopy tent for each team, in which players would
seek respite from the sun between games.

The Grizzlies B team was about to face off against the Montreal
Armada. I sat on drooping bleachers next to an older woman with
short white hair and a rainbow visor, who, after kickoff, asked
me if I knew what was happening.

“Have you seen a rugby game before?” I asked her.

“I’ve watched Invictus,” she answered.

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Onlookers cheer during the
Bingham Cup final game. The Melbourne Chargers defeated the
Sydney Convicts to take the cup. Joe
Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

ID: 9381104

Many of the spectators I chatted with over the weekend shared
similar sentiments. Unless you’ve played it, watched Matt Damon
do it, or found clips on YouTube, you may well never have seen
rugby played before. Even I struggle to figure out what the
hell is going on sometimes, when all you can see is a pileup of
players 50 yards away, their limbs flying in a violent blur.
But this is also one of the beautiful things about US rugby: It
tends to foster a culture of openness in which learning is
encouraged and celebrated. A die-hard football fan might sneer
at you for not knowing what’s going on in a game, but an
American rugger would usually delight in being able to share
with you this crazy, imported sport they love so dearly.

At practice the day before, I chatted with Nathan Jones, the
warm, buoyant partner of Grizzlies player Jamie Roberts, who
told me that this community is just as strong for players’
significant others. There are certain universal truths
understood by everyone who shares a life with a rugby player:
“Saturday is a total waste, because Saturday is rugby day. And
you have to be immune to mud,” he added.

“In terms of the gay rugby wives, brunch is
legendary.” 

ID: 9381514

From traveling with Jamie to away games, Nathan has gotten to
know the partners of rugby players all over the country. “In
terms of the gay rugby wives, brunch is legendary,” he
said. “In any city, we know where the bottomless mimosas are.
It’s such a close-knit family. Any city we show up in, it’s
ready-made community the minute you’re there.”

He added that the Grizzlies, in their regular season, faced all
straight teams this year. “Down in Chattanooga, one of the
player’s wives walked up to me like, ‘Is it okay if I sit with
you, honey?’ And I said, ‘Of course!’ And an hour later I had
no idea people were tagging me in a photo — it’s me and 11
other women. It’s like your best girlfriends ever wherever you
go.”

When Nathan and Jamie moved to Nashville a couple years ago,
rugby helped them find their people. “With Bingham you see how
that extends internationally, no matter where you are,” he
said.

Now, I walked the lady in the rainbow visor through a few of
the plays: During scrum down, after the ref yells out CROUCH,
BIND, SET, the teams’ hookers are battling for the ball,
kicking it back through their second line, past the eight man,
so the scrum half can pluck it up and toss it to the backline.
After a few strong runs in a solid but relatively uneventful
game (discounting Kaz bleeding from the eye for a hot second),
the Grizzlies B team beat Montreal 15–5 for their its game of
the tournament. Whooping and grinning, they ran through a
tunnel the Grizzlies A team made by standing in two lines and
extending hands for slapping, to congratulate their fellow
brothers.

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The Nashville Grizzlies leave
the field after a Bingham Cup match. Joe
Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

ID: 9380961

“Hey, girl!”

Off the pitch, this was the casual greeting of choice. It was
refreshing to hear male athletes call each other “girl” as a
means of insider welcome, rather than a means of debasement and
belittlement. When my women’s rugby team in college would
practice across the field from our men’s team, their coach and
captains would often scream at the guys to “pick it up, girls”
— pussies, sissies, wimps, weaklings — as if we weren’t putting
in the same amount of backbreaking work 10 meters away from
them.

In men’s rugby — particularly in the US, where people aren’t as
familiar with the sport — some straight players feel the need
to over-emphasize their straightness and masculinity because
they’re playing something that allegedly “looks” gay. “The
activities you do in rugby, taken outside of the context of
rugby, would seem…very homoerotic,” Scurvy told me. “You’re
gonna grab a dick once in a while. Tackling, locking, just
accidentally. It happens!”

One of the ways casual misogyny has infected rugby culture is
in the dissemination of rugby songs from generation to
generation, rugger to rugger. They’re an enormous part of rugby
culture for university-level ruggers — a kind of shared
language between teams, raunchy nonsense to sing over beers and
“shooting the boot,” a cringeworthy event in which a rugger
who’s just scored their first try gets to drink beer out of
their cleat from the day’s game. The men’s team at my school
would gather on the central green at night and scream songs
between chugs of Natty Light, including one that included a
lyric about burying a woman alive and digging her back up to
have sex with her.

“We’ll host straight-player appreciation nights where we’ll
go bowling, or something we wouldn’t normally do.”

ID: 9381516

Alistair Kitchen, the 24-year-old co–club captain for the
Sydney Convicts — reigning Bingham champs and, according to
some of the American players I spoke with, the “It girls” of
the tournament — joined Australia’s first gay-inclusive team,
even though he was straight. He told me he was looking for a
group without “the macho, over-masculine environment that … has
poisoned a lot of sports.” At his residential college in
Australia, the rugby songs were a big turnoff for him. “It’s
like they didn’t even think they can be funny in a song without
being misogynistic.”

My college team skipped songs about violence against women, but
we did sing a hell of a lot of traditional rugby
songs with explicit sexual references — we’d often just
swap genders or change pronouns to make them gayer, or we’d add
in new gay verses.

The Grizzlies make similar edits, in the spirit of inclusivity.
Josh McCluey, a 29-year-old wing, said that they tend to stick
to the typical scripts, but “maybe with a gay flair to them.”

“We’ll make a lot of them gayer,” Thomas Hormby, the Grizzlies
secretary, told me. “Unfortunately, they’re still often just as
explicit, but not misogynistic, racist, or anti-Semitic.”

Scurvy was more blunt: “We expand songs so they’re horrible
across all genders.”

Making pointed changes to rugby songs is one of the small ways
in which gay-inclusive teams are rewriting the scripts for what
rugby culture is supposed to look like. Straight players will
sing gay songs, go to gay clubs for socials, and don drag for
team benefits. For Bingham’s opening last week, one straight
player dressed as a silver fairy and performed “Superstition”
by Stevie Wonder.

John Purdom, the Grizzlies’ assistant coach and a retired
player, told me the accommodations go both ways. While a lot of
socials involve viewings of RuPaul’s Drag Race or a trip
to the gay bar, “we’ll host straight-player appreciation nights
where we’ll go bowling, or something we wouldn’t normally do,”
he said. “We’re learning about each other in that respect — how
traditional masculinity in our world has transformed for our
straight players, and how we transform for them.”

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The Nashville Grizzlies
practice before the Bingham Cup tournament at Centennial
Park. Joe
Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

ID: 9380992

Friday had been a day of buildup, of acclimation — the
first few games of pool play, the competition not yet life or
death. By Saturday, the mood had shifted. The DJ was blasting
Bieber. Contributions from the Nashville community were visible
everywhere: a local BBQ tent for the lunch crowd, a stand for
free HIV testing, and custom-made field goals designed and
constructed by Grizzlies secretary Thomas Hormby’s elderly
father, Dave, who watched every one of his son’s games sitting
atop an orange ladder he toted from field to field.

When I’d been watching the Grizzlies B team on Friday, Jason
Crowley of the A’s had fractured his scapula; everyone prayed
today that they’d paid their dues to the injury gods. There
were ambulances hovering expectantly in the far parking lot,
just in case. A girl in army print cargo pants and big
sunglasses, standing on the sidelines of the Grizzlies A team’s
first game of the day, was telling a friend about how she has
to carry tampons for her boyfriend so he can shove them up his
bloody nose, should such a situation arise.

Today, the stakes were high — playoff qualifications loomed.
The Grizzlies goofed around a bit less before taking the pitch,
looking serious and ready for a fight. They were facing off
against the C team from London’s Kings Cross Steelers, which
started the first ever gay-inclusive team in 1995. One of the
Steelers later told me their team took up an entire dorm in
Vanderbilt, since so many of their players (who total over 200,
from over a dozen different nationalities) had come to compete.
They’d brought along dozens of their family and friends, too,
which meant the Steelers had the biggest fanbase of any team
present at Bingham, aside from the Grizzlies. You couldn’t walk
around the fields without hearing “STEEEE-LLUUuuuUURS” being
screamed by an extremely enthusiastic Brit (or 20 of them).

“You’re gonna grab a dick once in a while. Tackling, locking,
just accidentally. It happens!”

ID: 9381518

But the Grizzlies fought their way to an early lead; even when
they were ahead, Josh kept them in check. “What’s the score,
boys?” he yelled after their first try. “Zero–zero!” they
yelled back.

After playing the first half, Stan Schklar spent the second
hollering at his team from the sidelines, when he wasn’t being
approached by a friend to take a selfie. The Steelers game came
to an end, Grizzlies ahead 17–7. But the A team’s good spirits
were short-lived. Later that day, in an absolutely bitter match
against Colorado Rush, they lost an early lead in the last few
seconds of the game to finish in an agonizing 14–12 defeat.

Scurvy ran up to me afterward, blood streaming from a gash
above his eyebrow. “Stitches, do you think?” he asked me
grimly. He was seething from the loss. “At least I made my
fucking tackle.”

I told him yeah, that seriously looked like stitches. And maybe
even a concussion?

“I don’t get concussions,” he said.

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A Melbourne Chargers player has
his fingers taped during their final match against the
Sydney Convicts. Joe
Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

ID: 9381001

Scurvy showed up for the A’s game against Toronto Muddy
York Sunday morning, shirtless and wearing a pair of khaki
shorts and bright orange glasses; he wouldn’t be booting up
today. He had 17 stitches. He’d tried to convince his doctor to
let him play, but his skull had been visible. He stood
dutifully on the sidelines, sporting the edgily shaved-sides
haircut he’d gotten for the tournament, unfailingly
cheerful.

It was the hottest day yet, not a single cloud in the scorching
sky. An exhausted player lay on the ground beneath the
bleachers, getting an IV for dehydration. Guys were freely
peeing in the bushes around the fields, not daring to go into
porta-potties that had been stewing for three days in the
unforgiving sun.

A breezy 15-nothing win against Muddy York put the Grizzlies in
the running for the Hoagland Shield, named after Alice, who was
swiftly on the scene to take a group picture.

The Grizzlies’ final game drew their biggest crowd yet. The
entire B team, which had ended its tournament run after a 19–17
loss to Dallas Lost Souls, was there for support. A lot of the
guys stripped to their bare chests, some revealing farmers’
tans that had evolved into full-out blistering sunburns. A
young woman named Ella, who played rugby at Alabama before
becoming a pastry chef, heard a rugby tournament was coming to
Nashville; the Grizzlies have now gained a new fan.

And there was a guy in futuristic-looking blue sunglasses and
gingham shorts, who had come up from Memphis to support some of
his friends on the team. He looked admiringly out over the
field as the Grizzlies and the Dallas Diablos warmed up. “Kind
of cool you don’t just see the Fire Island kinds of sculpted
bodies, huh?” he mused. He was right: While the players tended
to be bigger guys, there were all kinds of bodies out there,
the speedy little backs and the hulking forwards, all
exhibiting different sorts of strength.

Roy Wayne McCoy II, a hooker for the B team in his mid-twenties
whose baby-round face is half hidden by an enormously bushy
beard, had told me earlier that when he took his straight
girlfriends to beer busts, they whispered to him, confused.
“They’ll be like, ‘So how do you know which ones are gay?’” he
said. “And I’m like, ‘All of them that are here are gay.
Because we’re at the gay bar.’ It’s kind of strange when
you go to the events, and you explain, yeah, the majority of
these people are gay, and they’re like, ‘But they look like
they can beat up anybody!’”

For so many of the men I spoke with, playing rugby was in part
about proving to the world that there is no such thing, really,
as “looking gay.” Gay rugby is rugby. There are as many
different kinds of people playing and excelling at this sport
as there are different kinds of queer people in the world.

Right now, excelling at rugby was the only thing that mattered.

“Who are we?” yelled coach Jimmy Arredondo.

“It’s kind of strange when you explain, ‘Yeah, the majority
of these people are gay,’ and they’re like, ‘But they look
like they can beat up anybody!’”

ID: 9381522

“GRIZZLIES.” There was also a less classy cheer, which they’d
picked up as a slogan for the weekend: “EXPLOIT THEIR HOLES.”

Off the kick, the Grizzlies were losing their rucks, getting
pushed back, back, back. After someone got pushed out of
bounds, there was a lineout to Dallas, which promptly won it.
The Dallas defense was showing up right out the gate: They won
a scrum, won ruck after ruck. Then, Chris Ursery, the
Grizzlies’ star back, stole a glorious breakaway for a try,
shifting the tone of the game.

“Go sports!” yelled a group of Grizzlies fans in the bleachers.
“Great job sportsing!”

“A try means a goal, right?” Futuristic Glasses asked, jumping
up and down as he cheered.

The game surged with moments of preciseness and control that
kept collapsing into a brutal, wild messiness, back 10, back
10,
everyone’s adrenaline spiking, the coaches screaming,
the scrums groaning under the weight of so many sweaty men, the
hits so hard we in the stands could feel them in our bones.

The Grizzlies were up by 8 when the whistle blew: 32–24, that’s
it, done. They’d won.

“Come on, Nashville!” shouted someone from the bleachers. The
pitch swelled, fit to burst with people: ruggers and fans,
Nashvillians and Europeans, winners and losers, queer guys and
straight girls and straight guys and queer girls, lovers and
mentors and friends.

The Grizzlies were in a tangle in the center of it all, hugging
each other so tightly it looked as though they were afraid
they’d never be able to hug each other again. The tears were
abundant. Stan was grabbing every guy he could see, his face
bathed in sweat and tears.

There is something raw, something deeply and agelessly primal,
about playing rugby — particularly with people you care about.
People you love. You’re lifting them into the air, pushing them
forward, slamming guys out of their path, linking together into
a giant mass and moving together as one. It feels, in so many
ways, like life or death, like you’ve gone into battle, like
you’re smashing and clawing and hitting your way to a
breathless victory that exists, somehow, outside of time and
space. Your body’s ravaged but you keep peeling yourself off
the ground, getting up and getting up and getting up, rejoining
the fight even though you feel like you’re about to be split in
half. Because the people beside you, covered in blood and sweat
and mud — they need you. And you need them, too.

Jon Glassmeyer, the Grizzlies vet who spearheaded the proposal
to bring Bingham to Nashville, presented the Grizzlies with
their shield. Josh and a few other players held it high
overhead.

“It’s not fair!” Scurvy yelled, jumping to reach it. “I’m not
as tall!” But he was laughing, smiling, sad he hadn’t gotten to
play but thrilled nonetheless that his team went in there and
did the goddamn thing.

There was still plenty of rugby left in the day: The finals
would see a whole bunch of Australians duke it out for the
Bingham Cup. The Melbourne Chargers, in a 20–7 win, would
unseat the Sydney Convicts, the four-time Bingham winners, and
add their name to the trophy for the first time. The bustling
players village would slowly but surely empty out, players
piling onto school buses to take them back to Vanderbilt while
they sang and drank beer like overgrown camp kids. But for now,
the Grizzlies had only celebrating to do — and a responsibility
to fulfill.

Josh McCluey, one of the wings, had scored his first try, and
rules are rules: He’d have to strip down naked and run around
the goalposts while his teammates poured water all over him.
(My team’s tradition was just making girls chug foot-cocktail
beers from cleats after losing their try virginity, but the
Grizzlies only employ shooting the boot for flubbing a rugby
lyric at socials — scoring a try called for far more serious
measures.) So, after making sure there weren’t any kids around,
that’s precisely what Josh did.

View this image ›

The Nashville Grizzlies
celebrate after winning the Hoagland Shield against the
Dallas Diablos at the Bingham Cup. Joe
Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

ID: 9381059

Later that night, at Marathon Music Works for the
closing ceremonies, all the teams were dressed to the nines:
the Grizzlies in Hawaiian shirts, Irish guys in head-to-toe
green, some guys in suits, some guys in shorts, and both a Left
and a Right Shark.

While everyone loaded their plates, I chatted with two of the
green-bedecked Irishmen, who were both retired from playing and
looked to be in their mid-forties. One of them, with a
salt-and-pepper beard and braces on his lower teeth, told me
that his gay-inclusive team is struggling to hold onto its star
players. “Some of the best players on the gay Irish teams are
being poached by the ‘straight’ teams!” There’s a lot of
competition in Ireland, he said, which means there are plenty
of teams competing for greatness. “The only thing that’s
different about us is we like guys,” he added, shrugging.

The DJ played “Hello” and hundreds of ruggers began to sing
along: It was the most rousing Adele rendition I’d ever heard,
their voices rumbling in the huge room.

Then there were the speeches preceding the awards. Mark’s mom
took the stage again. “Being gay and being strong are powerful
forces the world needs,” she said. “AL-ICE! AL-ICE!” everyone
chanted, their love for her clear and strong as ever.

“My grandmother was born in Tennessee in 1924, and she’d shit
her pants if she knew Mayor Barry lit up the bridge for a gay
rugby tournament.”

ID: 9381536

Jeff Wilson, the 2012–2016 chairman of International Gay Rugby,
gave a shout-out to the mayor and her work in progressing LGBT
acceptance — particularly for
rainbow-ifying the Korean Veterans Bridge, a large focal
point of downtown Nashville, to welcome the ruggers that
weekend. “My grandmother was born in Tennessee in 1924,” he
said, “and she’d shit her pants if she knew Mayor Barry lit up
the bridge for a gay rugby tournament.”

He later told me by phone that he hopes the next Bingham will
have a women’s component. “6 of our clubs has women’s sides in
multiple countries,” he said. “They’ve been around for awhile.
It’s just question of commitment and marketing resources.”

As both men and women’s rugby continue to grow in international
popularity, it’s hard not to look at a tournament like this and
want back in on the action. As I spoke with players throughout
the weekend, they all encouraged me to take up rugby again,
which I’ve only avoided because of how high your commitment to
the sport needs to be. It’s one thing to drag your beaten-up
body to a couple college classes a day, but quite another to
accommodate rugby around the annoying trappings of adulthood,
like responsibilities and jobs. But they all told me it was
worth it.

Scurvy explained why: “Two weeks ago, I was in a really bard
car wreck in Kentucky. I rolled my car four times.” After the
crash, he texted the Grizzlies’ group thread. “They sent
someone up for me. I knew that would happen because we’re a
family. That’s worth everything. It really is. To know that a
guy can get out of work early and drive 2 and a half hours to
pick you up because they’re concerned about you. Because they
care about you.”

The family feel had always been reward enough. The Grizzlies
aren’t used to more tangible awards. They’ve won a couple
prizes in past Binghams, but only when their teams were
supplemented with “whores” (foreign players who step in when a
team could use stronger numbers). But tonight, Scurvy accepted
the Hoagland Shield — the fourth out of six awards in Bingham’s
middle tier, the kind of placement the Grizzlies had worked so
long and so tirelessly for. And this was their first time
winning a tournament with 100% Grizzly manpower. It was a
victory worth celebrating.

After the closing ceremonies, Play, one of Nashville’s gay
bars, hosted all the players for one last hurrah. There was the
usual mix of superb drag queen performances and exceedingly
subpar ones. It could have been any gay bar on any weekend
night in the country, except perhaps the clientele this time
skewed a bit buffer than average. The tragedy at Pulse was
still a couple weeks away — here, tonight, there was no fear.
There was only exuberance, and joyous abandonment, and enough
pride to fill a thousand gay bars: pride in being rugby
players, being gay, being here, being present, being a part of
something bigger than any one man. After a weekend of putting
their bodies and hearts through the wringer, ruggers danced to
Rihanna under the spinning rainbow lights. •

View this image ›

Bingham Cup attendees dance
during the closing ceremonies in Nashville.
Joe
Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

ID: 9381049



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