50 Years and rucking strong: How a rugby team survives in football country


1981

It is a well-known and established fact that the great state of Texas is football country. Yes, there are other states where football is very popular, but nowhere does it come as close to a religion as it does in Texas.

That’s why Jerry Jones was hated by many after he fired the late, great Tom Landry. It’s also why they forgave him once the team won a few Super Bowls.

It’s why there are high school stadiums that cost $40 million and $60+ million, and why many small cities become ghost towns every Friday night. It’s why there have been scandals and law suits over grading standards geared towards making it easy for high school players to stay academically eligible.

People in Texas don’t just love football. They eat, drink, sleep, and dream football. To many, it is not everything—it’s the only thing.

But it’s not the only sport in town. Galveston Rugby RFC has been around long enough, and is popular enough, that it is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season.

Rugby has a humble beginning in Texas. Like many of the best things in life, it began with a simple purpose in mind. Dr. Truman Blocker, the University of Texas Medical Branch’s first president, established the club in Galveston back in 1967 to give students and faculty an athletic outlet.

Why a rugby team? We don’t know for sure, but it could have had something to do with equipment. To play football, every player needs equipment that costs hundreds of dollars. To play rugby all you really need is a pair of cleats and some athletic apparel you don’t mind getting torn, dirty and/or bloody.



The ball is a little different (basically a football that works out) and the field needs are very similar to football.

Why Dr. Blocker chose to start a rugby team remains a mystery, but a countless number of men and women over the years are certainly glad he did.

That may be the reason why the club lasted in the early days and remains as strong as it is today—the men and women, the comradery. New players are welcomed with open arms from day one.

“For someone like me, a foreigner coming to a new country, I can relate to all these guys because I play rugby,” Paul Mullens, a student at the Texas A&M branch in Galveston told James Lacombe from the Galveston Daily News. “So, straight away, you’ve got friends. … I like that I can travel anywhere in the world and basically have a group of friends pretty fast.”

Paul is from Ireland and has been playing rugby since he was 13. He came to Galveston in 2011 to study marine engineering.

Mardi Gras 1999

Acceptance is fairly universal in the rugby community in general, not just in Galveston. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first game, you’ll get some playing time. Need some pointers? A member of the opposite team is sure to be there with some advice. It seems as if everyone in rugby is in it together.

“There was just something about how welcome everyone made me feel and this was despite the fact none of them knew a da*n thing about me,” Jason Molina, a long-time Galveston Rugby player currently playing for nearby Bay Area Rugby, tells Sports Retriever. “I could have been a psycho, serial killer for all they knew, but all they saw was a brother in rugby. How could you not love that?”

If you need further proof of how the team treats everyone, consider the fact that it was founded and is sponsored by the University of Texas Medical Branch and students from the local Texas A&M branch play on it. People on the opposite sides of one of the most intense rivalries in sports on the same team—and it’s no big deal.

Age, race, political affiliation, school, socio-economic background, religion—nothing matters other than your affiliation to the team.

The team has been made up of doctors, surgeons, professors, nurses, students, research technicians, waiters, merchant mariners, troublemakers, roughnecks, cops, lawyers, you name it. Players have been as young as 17 and as old as 53. It didn’t matter as long as you stayed true to the club and showed up on Game Day.

Over the years, the club has seen its ups and downs. Like every rugby club in the United States, it has struggled to field 15 players on Game Day some seasons. A time or two, it even looked like it might be in danger of folding. But when times were at their worst, former players within the community made sure the club remained afloat.

Some years have certainly seen the club put a better product on the field than others. They won the Texas Rugby Union Division III Championship in 1994. Then there was the move to Division II a few years later that resulted in numerous ‘character building’ experiences.

2016

But even with a loss on paper, no one on the team felt like they were knocked down.

“No one likes losing, of course, but no one ever really felt like a loser,” Shane Aaron, a former player that still lives in Galveston, says about his early days with the team. “After the game, the whole team got to hang out with friends, drink large amounts of cold beer, and eat tons of food.”

So, is that the secret to rugby surviving in football country? What has allowed the team to last as long as it has? According to the players, it’s what they learned from the game and the team.

“As to what playing rugby has done for me, it has become, in a sense, my identity,” former player Patrick Kuhns explains. “Meaning that I will always identify myself as rugby player, not a soccer player, lawyer, EMT or Cross Fitter…. one rugby practice later, introductions were made, drinks were poured and friendships were made. Of our friends, the ones closest to us have come from rugby.”

Kevin Tipton, a former coach and player who is now a professor of Exercise Metabolism in Scotland, added that, “rugby has provided me with many great moments and many great friends throughout the world.”

Unlike football, where an L on a Friday night can mean a season wasted for a high school team, rugby is about more than winning. It’s about the teammates and not the record. Maybe that’s what Dr. Blocker knew and wanted all along.