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Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man

COM lecturer’s “ultimate existential experience”

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Jay Atkinson first fell in love with rugby as an undergraduate at Acadia University. Now, 35 years later, he’s still at it, playing in open competitions and tournaments all over the country. A College of Communication lecturer in journalism, Atkinson has written about his passion for the sport in his new book, Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man: Guts, Glory and Blood in the World’s Greatest Game (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012). As the title suggests, it’s filled with lively anecdotes about escapades on—and off—the field and recounts his numerous injuries (broken bones, torn ligaments, etc.), all the while presenting a cast of memorable eccentrics.

The memoir is the seventh book of the essayist, short story writer, critic, and investigative reporter, who grew up in nearby Methuen, Mass. Also an accomplished hockey player, Atkinson is perhaps best known for his nonfiction books Ice Time and Legends of Winter Hill. He was once described by Men’s Health as “a cross between the poet Robert Frost and the Bruins’ Bobby Orr,” and his book has been hailed for its exhilarating prose. At one point, he notes: “Playing in a rugby match can feel like being trapped in a tipped-over phone booth while a gang fight rages all around you.”

Comprising short scenes of intense in-game play and eye-opening stories about rugby’s rowdy social culture (copious amounts of alcohol are consumed in these pages), Memoirs contains moments of genuine fear, such as hearing his vertebrae grind under pressure during a rugby scrum or the time he found himself looking down the barrel of a gun after a bar fight. The most poignant chapter concerns the death of Atkinson’s father at 52, a life-changing event he recounts in heart-wrenching detail. The book’s quick and frequent change of gears makes it a compelling read.

The book has garnered praise from critics. Kirkus Reviews hails it as a “testosterone-laden tale deserving of an audience well beyond the locker room.” In a Boston Globe review, Chuck Leddy describes it as a “stylish, unabashedly macho memoir.” And the Wall Street Journal notes, “This is a book suffused with happiness, and that is something rare.”

BU Today spoke with Atkinson about how rugby captured his heart, why he continues to play at an age when many athletes have quit the game, and the similarities between ice hockey and rugby.

BU Today: What led you to write this book?

Atkinson: My first book, a novel called Caveman Politics, fictionalized a series of events that occurred during a rugby season in Florida, and now, with my seventh book, it was time to write a memoir about my love for the sport, which has been one of the central preoccupations of my life.

You fell in love with the game in college. Do you still play now, at age 55?

I played in two matches two weekends ago in Missoula, Mont., for the Billings Bulls Rugby Club, and a couple of weeks earlier, with an invitational side called Vandals North, vs. the Cape Cod Rugby Club, down in Hyannis, Mass. This summer I plan to play a few more matches, in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and elsewhere. For me, it’s therapeutic.

What adjustments have you made to compensate for age and injuries?

I still play in open competition against players who are much younger, typically. I train six days a week and play in a few tournaments a year, usually with the Vandals Rugby Club, and in cool places like Montana, or Steamboat Springs, Colo. I can’t play every week anymore, like you would during a club season, but I get a few good runs in.

Would anything ever make you hang up your boots?

Rugby is the ultimate existential experience: when I am playing rugby, I feel more alive than I do at any other time. I don’t question it, or plan for it, I just wait till I find myself out there playing and there it is—that electrifying moment we’re all searching for.

You write about numerous incidents where your life was literally on the line. Is it fair to characterize you as an adrenaline junkie?

I am always after peak experiences. Some of them, rugby especially, include adrenaline rushes, but others are more introspective, thoughtful events, like teaching effectively, or hitting a tricky shot in miniature golf (especially with my rugby friends, who are ultracompetitive), or kneeling down in a quiet church to pray. I am trying to squeeze every last drop out of my time on this earth, as I believe everyone should.

How would you describe the social culture surrounding rugby, which much of your book addresses?

For me, rugby represents an ideal version of society—there are no class distinctions in rugby, as bricklayers and garbagemen routinely play alongside surgeons and professors, nor is there racial bias, as the only color anyone sees on the field is the color of the jersey. I’ve hated the living guts out of an opponent I thought was trying to destroy me on the rugby field, and then shook his hand and met his mother and his wife afterwards. The world would be a better place if more people played rugby, an opinion that has been reinforced by my playing experience in 14 different countries.

Did you have any qualms about including anecdotes of you engaging in some fairly reckless behavior?

A lot of what is described in the book took place more than 30 years ago, when I was a young man full of piss and vinegar, as the saying goes. If you’re not telling the unvarnished truth in a memoir, it probably isn’t a very good book.

In Ice Time, you write about your relationship with ice hockey. Do the two sports have similarities?

In both sports, you put in your mouthpiece, shut up, and play. Simple, really.

Ben Carsley can be reached at bcarsley@bu.edu.

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