Charlie Whitmore, the founder of the Montauk Rugby Club, had played football at East Hampton High School, but had never played rugby, he said during a conversation the other day, until, at the age of 20 or 21 he saw a flier at the Edwards sporting goods store in Riverhead, put there by the Pleiades Rugby Football Club seeking a few good men.
Or bad ones, as the case might be. Whitmore seems to remember the flier as having said criminal backgrounds would not be viewed prejudicially.
“It was in the spring of 1973, I think. They practiced in Riverhead, at the high school. I went to a practice and before I knew it I was in a game!”
“At what position . . .? I forget. I didn’t know the positions. I was young and eager. The first game I played in was with Drew University. I think we played their C side! And we won! I scored a try. I got tackled in their end zone and, in falling, the ball touched the ground [the ball must be touched down in the try zone in order for a try, rugby’s equivalent of a touchdown, to be validated].”
“I was hooked from then on. It’s such a great sport . . . Everyone gets to run with the ball and to tackle — it’s great fun. Rugby’s a contact sport, not a collision sport. And the camaraderie among the players, no matter whose side they’re on, is great. In football, you wouldn’t socialize with the other team after a game. Football’s not like that. Nor does football have the international tradition that rugby has. We’ve had many players from here, Chris Carney, Frank Bistrian, Robbie Balnis, and Mike Bunce among them, who’ve played on the West Coast and for clubs all over the world. . . .”
Conversely, a number of experienced foreign-born players, from such countries as South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, and Australia, a number of whom later became American citizens, have in recent years helped young ruggers here learn the game’s fine points. Though, in the beginning, after the Pleiades club’s quick fade following the spring of ’73, there was just Charlie Whitmore.
“I was desperate to keep playing — I was so passionate about the sport. I tried to get friends of mine out here interested, and I also went out to the bars at the Montauk docks and got a lot of fishermen to play. That’s how we came to be called the Montauk Rugby Club.”
Asked to name some of those early players, Whitmore said, “Well, there was Tommy Keller, Scotty Spratford, who had been a pro football player for a couple of years, Greg Walsh, Jerry Knowlan, Chucky Morton. . . . Almost none of them had ever played. . . . We’d be giving instructions right up to game time! Most of these guys had been football players, so they were used to blocking. But you can’t do that in rugby. That was probably the biggest problem in them making the transition.”
Though the club joined the Met Rugby Union early on, most of its games, said Whitmore, were “ ‘friendlies.’ We had the guys from Montauk, and some players from up west on the Island started coming out. We’d go to games with 12 or 13 guys, say, and borrow a couple of players from the other side. Mostly we lost in those early years — there were no expectations. Just being able to play was great, whether it was at the Montauk School, Southampton College, Herrick Park, which soon became our home field, or at Randalls Island in the city.”
“There were those Division 1 teams in the city — Old Blue, the New York Athletic Club, the New York Rugby Club, the Manhattan Rugby Club — but I’m not even sure there were leagues then. . . . Anyway, we struggled through the ’70s. It wasn’t until the ’80s that we began to get strong, with that first group of young guys — John Kalbacher, Bob Kelsey, and Michael Bromley. . . . It was somewhat like it is now with experienced players, guys like Dan Voorhees, Dan Vasti, and myself, coaching the younger ones. That team in ’80 or ’81 went 14-1-1.”
At the club’s recent holiday dinner, Whitmore, whose last game was in “the early ’90s, at the age of 38,” said — and he meant it as a compliment — that when he came to the games at Herrick this fall he didn’t recognize any of the players.
“Things have always gone in cycles . . . up and down, up and down. Now, we’re on the upswing [as evidenced by Montauk’s undefeated run this fall in Met Union Division II play]. Four or five of these guys — Connor Miller, Matt and Erik Brierley, Mike Bunce — are second generation. It’s great to see these young guys. Who wants to see the same old faces? It’s great to see people coming out to see the games again. For the next two or three years it should be a lot fun.”
“We were perennnial Northeast champions in the ’90s, and we’ve had some great 7’s [rugby’s quicker, pared-down version] teams, too.”
When this writer said he thought this season had been the fourth in which the side had gone undefeated in Met Union play, Whitmore said, “At the least.”
It had been his dream, he said, to “come out to Herrick Park and see those wonderful goal posts and a wonderful match.”
“Though I never thought,” he added, with a laugh, “that I’d be this old!”
Cutting Room Floor
There was a snippet missing from the end of last week’s story on the Montauk Rugby Club and Old Montauk Athletic Club’s holiday dinners. In speaking of the rugby side’s front row, Rich Brierley, Montauk’s coach, said, “The front row is our offensive line, our engine room. We go as they go.”