| ANDREW JOHNSON
I JUST HAD a rugby player’s ball in my face. Though a number of gay men probably dream of uttering those words, my experience was a little different. It came about midway through the practice I attended with the Columbus Coyotes, the Columbus-based rugby club, where I saw firsthand their hard work, struggles and the support that they provide each other as they play a game they love.
Rugby can best be described as a cross between soccer and American football (minus those pesky pads and helmets). The full-contact sport is played on a field (aka the pitch) and at either end of the pitch is a try zone (similar to an end zone) and an H-shaped goal. Matches consist of two 40-minute, uninterrupted halves, separated by a 10-minute break. After a kick-off at the 50-meter line, play continues uninterrupted until one team scores, the ball goes out of bounds or until the referee blows his or her whistle to indicate a penalty or injury.
“[A successful player] is someone with the heart to just keep pushing and learning regardless of ability, as well as someone who can put his own ego aside and realize it’s about supporting the entire team, not just proving how awesome they may be,” Coach James Hale said.
Justin Whitney was one of those players who came with zero experience when he joined in 2012. He had just broken up with his boyfriend, moved back to Ohio from New Jersey and was struggling to meet people and stay focused on his fitness. He met a rugby player at Union Café and decided he’d give it a shot.
“I knew nothing when I joined. It can be challenging and get you out of your comfort zone, but it’s totally worth it. Once you’re a rugger, no matter where you go or do, you’ll have camaraderie and friendships to last a lifetime.”
Just watching the practice, I saw that support, as teammates cheered on other guys who were in pain, tired or angry at their own mistakes.
“There is a brotherhood amongst our team. They are the best group of guys I have ever met,” said Mike Frost, a forward who has been with the team since 2012.
Although the Coyotes are a member of the International Gay Rugby Association and Board, the team is not exclusively LGBTA. A number of the players on the team are heterosexual, and the team plays USA Rugby Division III teams from around the region. Team members agree that the LGBTA aspect of the team isn’t an issue. It’s just about playing the sport.
“I have found that for the most part, once we hit the pitch or the third half, where we drink and eat with the other team after the game, any consciousness of gay or straight doesn’t exist. We all go out there to play the game the best we can and have a great time doing it,” Whitney said.
Joe Hasel, both a player and board president, boasts that the Coyotes have the lowest membership dues in the area, thanks in large part to sponsors and community fundraising.
“Since I became involved with the team I’ve been very impressed with the overwhelming support we have received from the LGBT community. Whenever we need something, the community has done a great job of providing it for us,” he said.
“I am also impressed with the support we’ve received from Columbus as a whole…we’ve been wanting to expand into
a shorter/revised version of the game called 7s, and, thanks to the support of our friends, the Columbus Castaways (another Columbus-based rugby team), who invited us to practice throughout the summer, we were able to participate in our first 7s tournament.”
The Coyotes play both a fall and spring season, with practices on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and games typically on Saturdays. The team encourages anyone who is interested to give it a try. Anyone looking to join should visit: ColumbusCoyotes.com or look for the team on Facebook.
“It’s a great sport, definitely not for everyone. There have been times where I was in a really dark place in my life; with one swift tackle to my butt, both figuratively and literally, the sport and the friendships made with it put me back into the light,” Whitney said. “There is not a day that goes by where I don’t thank God for running into that team member. Joining this gang of guys is one of the best decisions I have made in my life.”
PHOTOS | KARI JASINSKI