More than 750 former and current players and their families came back to campus this October to celebrate 50 years of the Fairfield University Rugby Football Club

More than 750 former and current players and their families came back to campus this October to celebrate 50 years of the Fairfield University Rugby Football Club

by Virginia Weir

On a gorgeous weekend at the beginning of October, more than 750 Fairfield Rugby alumni, student-athletes, and their friends and families gathered on campus for competition, camaraderie, and to celebrate 50 years of the boisterous sport at Fairfield. “This reunion was 50 years in the making and two years in the planning,” said Bill Connolly Jr. ’69, who co-chaired the event with Dr. Kurt Schlichting ’70, E. Gerald Corrigan Chair in the Humanities & Social Sciences and professor of sociology and anthropology at Fairfield.

Along with a volunteer committee of more than 100 rugby alumni and some enthusiastic spouses, they pulled together a weekend that will be remembered for decades to come.

It was a time to share stories, watch and play games, renew friendships, and celebrate the rich history of Fairfield’s first club sport, founded in the fall of 1963 by a group of students who were looking for a fun contact sport at the University. Pete Fallon ’65 stepped up as captain, and the late Dr. John Kenyon, professor of psychology, came on as coach. The Fairfield Rugby Football Club had begun. Since then, more than 1,200 men and women have played rugby at Fairfield.

Let the Games Begin

For the Red Ruggers from the classes of 1964 to 1979, the weekend started with a Friday night reception at the infamous bar near Fairfield Beach, formerly known to most ruggers as the Nautilus. At a reasonable hour the next morning, alumni of all ages faced off in two separate rugby games — one for the “older gentlemen” and one for those 35 and younger. No scores were kept!

Midday, the teams gathered centerfield for the rededication of Lt. Hans Grauert Memorial Field. At its original opening in 1969, the field (or “pitch”) located at the base of Fairfield Prep was one of the very fewdedicated college rugby facilities in the country, named after Lt. Hans Grauert, a Navy fighter pilot who died while serving in thearmed forces during the Vietnam War. His brother, Chris Grauert ’68, was president of the Rugby Club at the time, and the Grauert family decided the field was a fitting way to commemorate his brother.

Grauert read from text that was part of the original 1969 dedication, and thanked the crowd for “taking such passion and pride in Hans’s Pitch,” saying he was “delighted to know that ‘God’s Little Acre’ will continue to be the ‘Big Red Home Pitch’ for many more decades to come.”

Fairfield student-athletes competed in the afternoon — with the men facing off against Marist College in an exciting game that tied at 17-17, and the women winning 37-17 against Hofstra University.

A Fairfield Tradition

There’s something about Fairfield’s Red Rugger spirit and camaraderie that feels unique and sustains them far beyond the  game itself. Dr. Schlichting attributes at least some of that special affinity to the fact that, for the most part, rugby remains a club sport.

“There are very few varsity rugby teams in the country,” he said. “And so some of the things that make a sport exclusive — paid coaches, aggressive recruiting, and so on — are not part of the picture. In rugby, everyone has a chance to try out, and to play. And when the game is done, we go out with the opposing team and celebrate. We enjoy the game. And at this point, some of these guys have been my good friends for over 40 years.”

About 10 years ago, Dr. Schlichting said, someone suggested a meet-up at the legendary White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village. That gathering has evolved into a tradition. Now, someone sends a simple e-mail: “White Horse?” with a date, and up to 20 former Fairfield ruggers will meet at the bar.

That group has evolved into an alumni network, Friends of Fairfield Rugby, which raises funds for the current teams. Many of the alumni, who have gone on to successful careers, encourage current student-athletes tostay in touch with them and send along their résumés when they graduate.

For many Fairfield alumni, rugby is their connection to Fairfield. “The stronger this organization is, the stronger the ties to the University,” said Dr. Schlichting.

Toasts, Tributes, and Stories

The celebration continued under a huge tent on Bellarmine Lawn on Oct. 5, with a cocktail reception, dinner, and full multimedia program —with emcee Tom White ’84 making good use of his whistle to keep the noisier ruggers in line during the presentations. Following an invocation by former University President Rev. Aloysius P. Kelley, S.J., the toasts, tributes, and stories began.

One of the toasts was given by special guest Malachy McCourt, a highly regarded rugby referee in the early ’60s, and a well-known actor, writer, and politician. McCourt refereed a number of Fairfield’s first games and contributed to the early growth of the club by introducing all of the aspects of the game to the Fairfield players, including its laws, the way it should be played, and how the players should act during and after the game.

“Rugby,” he told the captive audience, “is a very strange thing for grown people to do.” He added, “Fifty years ago, some Fairfield University administration had no idea of the lunacy they were unleashing.”

Along with a beautiful commemorative 50th Anniversary journal, produced by Tom White, which included congratulations from U.S. President Barack Obama, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, and others, each guest received a two-disc video of the history of Fairfield Rugby, created and produced by Chris Galvin ’72. A clip of the video was shown, with photos from the five decades and interviews with rugby alumni across the country. Former Trustee Bill Egan ’67 sent his congratulations from California, and recognized original ruggers John Swanhaus ’67, Doug Ciacci ’65, and Jay Kirwin ’67 in particular for their contributions to the early club.

Several alumni who are veterans of the Armed Services stood up to be recognized for their service. Will DeCamp ’74 spokevMalachy McCourt, former referee eloquently about how the companionship and values he experienced through playing rugby at Fairfield — teamwork, honor, courage, “how to hit and be hit and get up and get back in position” — were invaluable when he served as a combat marine officer.

The guests were silent during a short slideshow, as Bart Franey ’67 called out the names of 30 Red Ruggers who had passed away. The first club moderator, the late Paul I. Davis, affectionately known as “PID”, was singled out for his dedication to the Red Ruggers for over 20 years, as was Mrs. Leila Grauert (“Mama Grauert”) for her support of “all her boys.” Davis’ son Tom gave a toast to his father, followed by a standing ovation.

Dinner co-chairs Kathy O’Neill (wife of  John O’Neill ’71) and Diane Crowley (wifeof Tom Crowley ’69) created the festive gala venue, and coordinated a silent auction of rugby memorabilia, and table favors.

The evening culminated in the presentation of a check for $75,000 to the University, gratefully received by University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. This was followed by a presentation of special awards to Tom O’Connor ’75 for all his efforts on behalf of the club and for being the driving force behind the creation of the Friends of Fairfield Rugby; to Pete Fallon ’65 as founder of the club and its first captain; and to co-chair Bill Connolly as “Champion and Leader of the 50th Anniversary Celebration.” A surprise contribution of an additional $30,000 from the late Mrs. Grauert to maintain Grauert Memorial Field capped the festivities.

“It was the right time, the right people, and the right sport,” Fallon said. “I never use this word…but this has been awesome.” It seems pretty certain that these ruggers will remain friends and continue building Fairfield Rugby for another 50 years.

A Quick History of Fairfield Rugby
by John Torsiello

The Fairfield Rugby Football Program began in modest fashion in 1963 when a group of male student-athletes — lacking a contact sport at the University — did something about it.

Pete Fallon ’65, the first rugby captain in the fall of 1963, recalls arranging the team’s first match, against the Fordham University “B” team, with the Stags winning 8-6. Then came contests against seasoned clubs, such as the Boston Rugby Club, Harvard Business School, and Manhattan — teams that had many skilled European players.

Fairfield players took their lumps but learned the game. The squad was thrilled in late 1963 to put on brand new red and white uniforms for a tournament hosted by the New York Rugby Club at Van Cortlandt Park in New York City, proud to look like true “ruggers.” Fairfield beat four teams in that tournament.

By the 1967 season, the team was up to 23 players and was knocking heads with Harvard, Brown, and Penn State, splitting games with the latter school.

In 1968, the Fairfield “Red Ruggers” made their first international tour, a fivematch, two-island trip to the Bahamas, during which the team beat a squad from the HMS Leopold, a British antiaircraft frigate that was in port in Nassau.

The fall of 1968 and spring of 1969 saw some momentous victories for the team, which had a combined 12-3 record, beating rivals such as UMass, Fordham, Holy Cross, and Villanova. But the biggest win came over then third-ranked Columbia. Steve Carre ’69 secured the win by running 75 yards for a try and earning MVP honors for the contest.

The rugby program continued to grow in both size and skill in the 1970s, with impressive wins over such veteran and highly regarded teams as Army (at West Point, no less), and a senior club from New York — the Old Maroon — as well as Villanova and Yale.

The 1980s produced a number of stellar teams, including the 1981 squad that beat Georgetown in three matches by a combined score of 85-6. The1990s saw several trips abroad, including one to Scotland, where the Red Ruggers managed to behave themselves (or at least stay out of trouble) and earned points from their hosts for their style of play and toughness.

The team was fortunate to have several outstanding coaches and moderators during its growth years; namely, Jeff Bouvier, John Lugano, and Paul Davis. In addition to Bill Connolly Jr. ’69 and Chris Galvin ’72, Davis is a member of the Fairfield University Athletic Hall of Fame.

By 2000, Fairfield Rugby was competing against strong clubs from throughout the East. In 2009, Fairfield beat Iona to secure a berth in the regional playoffs. The Red Ruggers had demonstrated they would be a team to be reckoned with in the future.

Indeed, in 2012, Fairfield made a deep run in the Northeast playoffs, before falling one game short of making it to the National Tournament.

Fairfield women student-athletes joined the fun in 1995 and have since become a top squad under Coach RyanBirge ’05, who played for Fairfield. Thewomen’s team won seven times in the Met Union during the 2011 season, taking the league championship. Several players from that team were selected to try out for Metropolitan New York All-Star squads, and the program grew from 12 players before Birge took over to more than 30.

“The recent teams know that they have the support of 50 years of players behind them,” said Connolly.

A member of the University’s women’s team, Amanda Carchietta ’14, offered this observation: “I constantly tell the new players that when you graduate you will make more best friends on this team than you will make in the entire school.”