It's a fine autumn day, 1823. A new school year has begun at Warwickshire's Rugby School. Among other things, that means the students have have begun to play the in-house ball game again during free time, just like every year for as long as anyone can remember.
The rules never change. They will be the same this year as they were last year—which is to say, the same as they were ten, twenty, fifty years before. And given that Queen Elizabeth I's royal grocer Lawrence Sheriff founded the school in 1567, maybe two hundred plus years before. No one really knows. Alumni and former teachers only know the Rugby School ball game was there when they arrived, there when they left, is still there now, and that when they're old men and their grandsons attend, it will still be there. The game is a constant over generations.
So the scene this day out on the large, rectangular front lawn is the same as it's been for decades, or even centuries. Two big teams of howling, jostling boys are trying to advance a ball across the other's line (drawn across each end of the field, like an NFL end zone). The boys advance the ball either by kicking it along the ground (as in soccer), or punting it downfield.
When punted, an opposing team member either punts it back from where he catches it, or starts to kick the ball along the ground again, moving it forward.
If the latter, opponents try to stop the boy either by deftly kicking the ball away from him, or more commonly, attacking him (tackling, elbowing him, shoulder-charging him, piling on top of him, etc.), and then stealing possession.
To prevent this, however, teams often use a group tactic when ball-kicking along the ground. Draping their arms around each other's shoulders, a group of boys charges forward as a single pack, kicking the ball as they go. Inevitably, opposing teams form a pack of their own to push back. The front rows of the opposing packs push directly against each other, with their teammates pushing from behind. The front rows of each pack, now physically engaged with each other with their heads down, start to throw elbows, punches, kicks, and headbutts. They'll do anything to push the opposing pack backward and advance.
Whenever a boy touches the ball down across the other team's line, play stops. A designated kicker on his team then tries to kick the ball through the uprights for points. The team with the most points at the end of the time wins.
But one thing we don't see this day is anyone running with the ball. That's strictly forbidden, and always has been.
But that's about to change. During the typically brutal game today—five years before Headmaster Arnold arrives—a Rugby School student named William Webb Ellis decides he's had enough of the thrashing mobs. In open defiance of the rules and centuries of tradition, he picks up the ball and begins to run.
William's gambol shocks everyone. Outraged, the opposing team begins chasing the cheeky student. His excited teammates sprint behind, shouting for a pass. Now too frightened to risk a look behind him to find a pass receiver, William just keeps running. Eventually, however, his enemies catch up with him and tackle him to the ground.
A boy calls for the game to stop. William Webb Ellis has broken the rules. What now? In the ensuing chatter, the boys agree his roguery has created a lot of fun. William enjoyed trying to dodge tacklers. His opponents enjoyed chasing and tackling him. His teammates loved the thought of catching and passing the ball and attempting their own runs.
And so it is, this very day, that the Rugby School boys decide to permanently add ball-running and passing to their game (with the proviso that passes only be lateral or backwards). In that moment, the boys create the prototype for the modern game.
At least, that's the legend. As it happens, there's no contemporary evidence for Ellis' gallop. What we do know is that one William Webb Ellis did indeed attend Rugby in 1823. He did excel at sports. But the first report of his innovation appeared in 1876, four years after Ellis's death, when an alumnus named Matthew Bloxam (who had attended Rugby School along with his older brother while Ellis was there) described the event in a letter to the school newspaper. A subsequent inquiry uncovered no further evidence for the claim. In fact, several former students recalled that ball-running and passing entered the game only after Headmaster Arnold arrived in 1828. In short, while Bloxam's claim can't be discounted, there's some reason to doubt it.
Nevertheless, Bloxam's account of William Webb Ellis' cheeky, game-changing sprint has served as rugby's origin myth ever since. To this day, an engraved plaque at Rugby School reads:
This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis
Who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time
First took the ball in his arms and ran with it
Thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game
I mention all this because game play is one reason why Rugby students wanted to keep—or couldn't stop—playing the game after graduation. (And if you'd like to see what rugby looked like during Headmaster Arnold's tenure—including passing—you can watch this short, but accurate, 1940 film re-enactment),
For starters, rugby maximally engaged a player's entire body. Between place kicking, tackling, scrummaging, passing, punting, catching punts, catching passes, kicking along the ground, rucking (binding with teammates to push opposing players back from over a tackled player), line-outs (throwing the ball in from the sidelines), ball-running, mauling (forming into a giant group to protect a ball-carrier, which then moves together down the field), no body section was left out. Fingers, hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, torsos, hips, legs, feet—even heads were involved, since heading the ball was permitted. Every part of the body had to work together, with both maximum finesse and coordination as well as maximum power, to thrive during a match. Or even survive a match, since serious injury was always a possibility. Achieving this "total stud" level of whole body coordination, finesse, power, speed, and toughness, was itself a big thrill.
Then there was the intellectual part of the game. You couldn't play without developing a spectacular level of cognitive ability. So many things happened so quickly every moment of a game, at so many levels, with such high stakes (i.e., instant injury) that no other activity compared cognitively, save for perhaps actual melee combat. And the game's rules were complex enough that there was no end to the strategies one could deploy. To end up being able to think that quickly, that strategically, that intensely, and that many levels, was itself a huge thrill for players.
Then, there was the fact you could not win, or even begin to play, without developing the ability to immerse yourself psychologically into a single mind made up of your mind, and your teammates'. Yes, you used words to communicate. But much stranger, and more addictive, was the communication that often began to develop without words. It felt something like telepathy.
To watch the world's great sports teams in action—say, the NBA's Chicago Bulls during the 90's, the NHL's Edmonton Oilers of the '80s, or the New Zealand All Blacks of the early and mid 2010s, etc.—is to get a sense of this from the outside. But to experience it from the inside is something else entirely. You're in the middle of high speed action, and suddenly, something like a CB radio band seems to form between you and your teammates. You know what they're going to do; they know what you're going to do; they know what you want them to do, and then they do it, and vice versa; and it feels like the boundaries of consciousness have begun to dissolve, as yours glides together with others'. It's bizarre, exciting, connective, and addictive.
There's more, too—but I'll continue this next week.
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