The scene was reminiscent of the final out of the World Series or the last seconds of the Super Bowl. Not that anyone mistook the San Francisco Fog Rugby Club for the Yankees or the Raiders, but the pride and exhilaration shared by players and fans Saturday at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco were genuinely big league.
When the final whistle blew, ending the inaugural Mark Bingham Invitational Rugby Tournament, the victorious Fog embraced each other in triumph.
They were a battered band, sporting black eyes and bloody noses, and one of seven predominantly gay rugby teams from the United States and England participating in the weekend play.
When the cameras stopped flashing, the players, called ruggers, hobbled around on bruised legs and took turns hoisting and drinking Guinness from the freshly minted Mark Bingham Cup.
The San Francisco Fog, one of five American Gay Rugby Clubs, was Mark Bingham’s last team, and in many ways, they and the tournament they held in his honor are a living testament to him.
On Sept. 11, Bingham was a passenger aboard United Flight 93. The plane was hijacked by terrorists and crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Many believe Bingham was one of the passengers who fought the terrorists, ultimately preventing the passenger jet from hitting an intentional target.
Bingham, owned a San Francisco public relations firm. He was working on opening a New York City office, which was why he was on the flight from Newark, NJ to San Francisco.
Bingham’s teammates remember him as a kindhearted, gregarious man. But, to anyone who watched Saturday’s tournament, it was Bingham’s passion for Rugby, starting on three collegiate national championship teams at UC Berkeley, which will be his greatest legacy.
Rugby is barely a blip on the U.S. sports scene. Most sports fans know it only as a rugged foreign game, in which combatants, usually endowed with 20-inch necks and tree-trunk size legs barrel into each other at full speed without the slightest bit of padding.
But for Bingham, the competition and the camaraderie on the Rugby field, called a pitch, gave him confidence and comfort to be himself.
When his friend, Derrick Mickle formed the Fog in 2000, Bingham withdrew from his more competitive team to work with the new club, the majority of whose members had never played Rugby or any other team sport before.
The Fog now has more than 70 members, and since the publicity surrounding Bingham’s death last September, three new gay Rugby teams have formed, in Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York. Across the country, gay ruggers are finding in rugby the same joy and sense of belonging that Bingham cherished.
“Gay men have always wanted to be athletes, but they never felt welcome. These teams allow them to be comfortable as athletes and gay men,” said Mickle.
For Jason Rosado, who has been with the Fog for about a year, his rugby experience has been inspiring. “I’ve never been with a greater group of guys,” he said. “The sense of camaraderie we have is amazing. I’ve never experienced it in any other sport.”
For experienced players, the gay-friendly teams have encouraged them to return to competitive play, or like Bingham, leave their straight club.
“A lot of us felt we could never truly be ourselves on straight teams,”said Scott Glassgen, founder of the New York club. “I played for straight teams, but I could never say to them ‘this is my boyfriend.’”
Russell Jaszewski, a rugger for the Manchester Spartans, which along with the Kings Cross Steelers traveled from England for the tournament, says the situation is identical across the Atlantic. “There’s a huge difference,” said Jaszewski, who recently joined the Spartans after playing for a traditional team in Scotland. “It’s so much nicer to be yourself on a gay team.”
Gay people aren’t the only ones who have felt welcome on the clubs. All of the seven teams in the tournament had some straight members, who prefer the cooperative spirit that thrives on the teams.
The Fog’s, Derrick Kundargi, is straight and played rugby in high school and college, but said he got burnt out on the “macho stuff.” “It wasn’t the vibe I wanted,” he said. “The Fog is more about support than putting someone down to win.”
In the United States, each geographical region has a rugby league. The Fog play in the Northern California Rugby Football Union, and like the other predominantly gay teams, their opponents are all straight teams within their region.
To a man, the ruggers attest that the togetherness they enjoy on their clubs has been matched by the acceptance they have received from the their opponents.
“I don’t know why it is that rugby has a unique culture, but as soon as it’s all over we’re mates,” said Cameron Geddes, the Fog’s captain and graduate student at UC Berkeley.
Part of rugby’s culture includes a tradition that home team takes the guests to the pub of their choice for drinks and singing rugby songs. According to Brian Stansberry of the Washington Renegades, the first U.S. gay rugby team, the postgame partying has resulted in amusing and positive experiences for everybody involved.
“Washington DC is still a fairly conservative town, so for a lot guys, we’re taking them to their first gay bar. On the flip side, they take us to places we probably wouldn’t ever go on our own, but it’s always a great time.”
For the ruggers that played in the Bingham tournament, the camaraderie and sense of belonging they have gained from the game is important, but it is their competitive drive that motivates them, as evidenced in the Fog’s final huddle before their championship match against the Kings Cross Steelers of London Saturday.
“This is the world cup final. Nothing matters but the next forty minutes,” shouted Gettes.
The Fog went out and played like champions, dominating play, and outscoring their opponents five tries to one.
When the game was over, the players’ focus shifted back to their teammate. They celebrated with Bingham’s mother Alice Hoglin, lifting her onto their shoulders, and chanting her name.
“Mark was such an inspiration for the guys on this team,” Mickle said.
Hoglin was touched by the outporing of emotion for her and Mark.
“I’m so proud that my son was the inspiration for this,” she said. “I really think Mark’s spirit is here today.”