This is the story about how a severely hung over law student and future boxing icon came to re-start the University of Michigan rugby team after a 69-year absence from the campus — because he was envious of possible Harvard suntans.
That’s our story and we’re going to stick to it.
The Wolverines can blame it on Sugar. Bert Randolph Sugar, to be precise, author of some 80 books – and counting, from boxing and baseball to blackjack and Houdini – a ringside fixture identifiable by the fedora and cigar and an inimitable way with words that’s as long gone as the Marquess of Queensberry.
But before we get to Sugar, we need to revisit the Ann Arbor campus on Monday, Sept. 29 in 1890, when the first-ever issue of the Michigan Daily ran on its front page the intriguing story, “Our Rugby Team: The Neucleus of It Practicing Daily on the Campus,” wherein the unnamed writer coined a phrase that, under the right conditions, could be a rousing rugby battle cry:
“Of course the boys are all ‘soft’ and short winded as yet, but if they follow . . . Captain Malley it will be soiled meat and sand that Cornell runs up against this year.”
Soiled meat and sand! Who cares what it means, it sounds like lyrics to an American haka.
In any case, Michigan played the likes of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth and Amherst; there are references to the team going to Buffalo and “the Tech” for matches, but we can’t be sure what schools those might be. (Thanks to former and current UMRFC officers Wes Farrow, Kurt Sarsfield, Craig Williams, Kevin Barlow, Niall O’Kane and Charles Berklich for digging up and sending the 120 year old newspaper clipping.)
As it did on other campuses, rugby at Michigan made way for the current gridiron football program once Walter Camp’s innovations – the forward pass, line of scrimmage, and other abominations – became widespread. Rugby was played no more at Michigan.
Which brings us to Bert Sugar’s hangover in the spring of 1959. The law student – he boxed and played football at Maryland as an undergrad – says that in a “stupor I read in Sports Illustrated that Yale and Harvard were going out to Bermuda to play rugby. And I thought, Why don’t WE go to Bermuda?”
“Because there was no WE, there was just me!”
Sugar, who was also in the doctorate program as well as grad school, ran an ad in that same campus paper that suggested, “Free beer, we’re forming a rugby and cricket club,” he says. “Seventy or 80 turned up, mostly for the free beer, but a couple of football players and a lot of guys who had played [rugby], maybe 20.”
From that humble beginning the team would soon claim the title, says Sugar, “the champions of the Big 10. That’s because nobody else had a team.”
In fact, Sugar had to drive to Detroit to get balls and a rugby law book, which he read while running down the field at the first practice. “I’ve seen better organized prison riots,” he says.
But he was hooked after the first knock on. “Certain aspects were marvelous, and the camaraderie, unbelievable. My girlfriend-and-bride-to-be, we though this was just great.”
And that, despite the trip to the hospital – on their first date – to fix his broken nose. “I was bleeding all over the place. Somebody was cleaning their cleats with my face.”
The newbie Sugar, standing at 6-1, played a skinny prop before “some South Africans and Aussies showed up – real players – and moved me to second row.”
Wait. Back up. The newspaper ad said “cricket” too? “I had no idea what the hell that was either,” Sugar deadpans. “It sounded classy.”
Sugar was co-captain of the Michigan squad despite his inexperience. The team caught on because “we got some sort of stature by the fact people were joining us who had been players in other countries.”
Still, the three-times-a-week practices lead to some tense, testy encounters – with the marching band. “We were on their field and we wouldn’t get off so they could practice,” Sugar says. “We’d never leave.”
Finally the time came to play the first game, against – what the what? – the far more experienced visiting University of Toronto.
Michigan took the field wearing Lippman Delicatessen soccer uniforms. You can’t make this stuff up.
“What else did we have? We hadn’t played a game yet,” Sugar says. In a strategy that has been used uncountable times for uncountable rugby clubs, the hosts held a party the night before in the visitors’ honor and “we got them all drunk and we won. By the time the game started they were throwing up on the sidelines. We won 10 to 6. I got kicked in the balls. I got right back up and went after the guy who had just kicked me in the balls.”
And in the best rugby tradition, all was forgiven at the post-match celebration. “I thought this was a hell of a sport,” Sugar concluded at the party. “Looking back, this was one of the most fun things ever.”
These days Michigan has a men’s and women’s team and, says Sugar with pride, “I’m told now 1,000 people have belonged to the club” since 1959. For his part, Sugar last played in a 1999 alumni game, but he’s attended other anniversary functions held by the club.
And did Sugar ever make it to Bermuda?
“Nah,” he says, “never got to Bermuda. We went to California instead. We chartered a plane but some of the guys volunteered to deliver hearses out west for General Motors. They slept in the back.”