From Hoe-Downs to Scrum-Downs: The Vassar Farm and Vassar Rugby

by Charles Williams, Class of 1980

I have been a part of Vassar rugby culture, a proud tradition that started in 1974, since arriving during the fall of 1976. I actually spent my first night at Vassar (the Before School Conference) out at the Farm. Little did I know how much a part of my life at college the Farm would play, nor could I have imagined continuing to return there half a dozen times or more each year some 35 years hence. Vassar rugby has grown to incorporate both men’s and women’s teams, and many of my fondest memories, especially the more recent ones, actually involve the women’s play (so don’t interpret the concentration on men’s rugby to be in any way demeaning the equally proud tradition of women’s rugby at Vassar).

In the fall of 1976, Vassar rugby took its first steps toward independence. Since 1974, the men had fielded a team that combined with local Hudson Valley players, and it was only with the arrival of the Richard Moll-recruited Class of 1980 in the fall of 1976 that the early Vassar rugby leadership felt certain that a full team could be fielded using only Vassar players. We were a peripatetic lot, practicing or playing at Prentiss, behind Joss, at the Ballantine Fields, but that fall we were offered the use of a portion of the Farm’s former pastureland as a playing field. It remains our home today. The field was severely rutted and had several barely-buried rocks as prominent geographic features. At that time, the rugby team was also offered the use of a dilapidated sheep pen for purposes of storing equipment and changing, but after several hours of enthusiastic shoveling of the earthen floor (a coating that turned out to be more dung than dirt), efforts were quickly abandoned and the pen was eventually demolished. Subsequent use of a corn crib facility for equipment storage followed with greater success and continues today.

The Farm immediately provided us with one of the few full-size rugby pitches in the Metropolitan Rugby Union, guaranteeing an exciting and wide-open version of rugby that was sometimes lacking at the other pitches that offered a smaller playing area. The goal posts were initially cobbled together from a set of portable soccer goals, quickly abandoned in favor of rickety constructions of lagged-together 2″x 4″ lumber graciously supplied by Buildings & Grounds. These were constantly falling over (they weren’t placed in proper concrete foundations or sleeves) and were occasionally splintered by aggressive four-wheeling marauders—long before 4-wheel drive vehicles became ubiquitous.

Over the years our attempts at marking the field became increasingly professional, resulting in the proud setup you can see on display nearly every weekend in the Fall and Spring. Given the conditions that many other teams played under, we realized that we were lucky to have a full-size, regularly shaped field with no broken glass, syringes, or manhole covers to be dodged! We simply kept our ankles taped and dealt happily with the minor inconvenience of the ruts and bald spots.  The college has been kind to the program and, over the years, the field has been rolled and leveled, reseeded, and even irrigated, with bleachers and a videotaping platform appearing, and the finest set of goal posts on the East Coast have been installed, padded to protect player safety.

Unfortunately, the earliest Vassar teams found that their early competitors’ programs had experience, longevity, and superior athletic talent to draw from, and those who took greatest advantage of the open-play at the Farm seemed to wear the colors of visitors. In those early days, there was a less-structured rugby program for colleges and Vassar rugby found themselves scheduling Ivy League (Yale and Princeton) and Little Ivy (Williams and Amherst) opponents to go with local schools (Manhattanville and West Point), the occasional college sides from the greater tri-state area (Pace and St. Johns), and even the occasional men’s club (Albany Knicks and Old Maroon/Essex).

While the Vassar won/lost record may not have been stellar, we didn’t back down from tough opponents and took each mismatch as an opportunity to test our durability and resolve. We found our victories in other ways, winning scrums or lineouts, playing hard to the end, playing an additional half or an additional match to make sure all the visitors got a game in for their travels.

We also prided ourselves on being consummate hosts. In the 70s and 80s, rugby culture enforced sportsmanship and conviviality, and we held our end of the bargain by making sure that there was always a cold keg of local beer (unfortunately, it was, more often than not, Genesee Cream Ale) to gather ‘round at the end of the match and serenade each other with bawdy and creative songs that drew heavily on a rugby tradition established long before there were such things as jukeboxes or stereos. Some years, we even were able to broker a deal with Campus Dining that would allow us to treat our visitors to a meal served in the Executive Dining Room in exchange for a few pitchers of beer for the staff! Our road trips were most often met with similar hospitality and we had dozens of great nights spent on foreign campuses with new friends singing ribald songs until our voices croaked and our post-match limping became boozy staggering.

Rugby is a demanding and rough sport. The collisions can be vicious and individual players, left unprotected and unsupported by close ranks, are in constant danger of injury. The nature of the game requires players of different sizes and skill sets to come together and work as a team for two grueling 40-minute periods of play. We bonded with and defended each other. Many of us had limited experiences with team sports in high school, while others came from overseas and had some prior experience with the game.

Despite the fact that we all had a good bit in common, bound by a competitive drive and a desire to express our confused energy in intercollegiate athletic competition, Vassar rugby was every bit the melting pot that the larger Vassar community was. We were able to forge bonds with each other that still exist today. We attend weddings and funerals, celebrate births, and commiserate over failed marriages. We are there for each other through our respective triumphs and tragedies, remembering each other’s weaknesses and character flaws, but reveling in each other’s moments of brilliance and triumph. Years of players overlap, seniors remember freshmen, new players rise to prominence, and old friends die too young.

The annual Alumni game, played on Founder’s Day, is a tradition that was initiated by the rugby team but quickly adopted by other teams, and allows us to return and not only celebrate the reunion, but also to witness an ever-new generation of Vassar rugby players, see them grow into their adult bodies, and eventually join us in the annual return as accomplished equals. With such a long tradition now, it’s unfair to attempt to limit those memories to the charismatic sway of a few individuals or to some key moments frozen in time; instead we—and I speak for the nearly 1,400 men and women who have played rugby at Vassar over the generations—are lucky to be able to transfer all that emotion into one place: the Farm at Vassar College.

An anecdote: Our longtime coach, Dennis Chanmugam, had returned with us to Vassar for an alumni game after an uncharacteristically long absence. It was a Friday evening as we descended upon the campus for the weekend and we drove as a group out to the Farm, before even entering Main Gate. My car had arrived first and I was standing at midfield with another ex-captain, Chris DuMont ’84. We turned around, Chris’ video camera filming the glory of the Farm in the growing dusk from the viewpoint of the rugby pitch and saw Dennis arrive, leaving his car. We watched from a distance as he slowly approached the chalked line nearest the road, knelt and touched it, before looking up and scanning the field from one set of posts to the other. DuMont crystallizes a moment that really didn’t need the elucidation: “Five bucks says he’s crying.” No one would take that bet, we all were.