On Saturday, March 20, 1971, Blackthorn Rugby Football Club played its first match (in Hatboro, PA, USA). It also was my first rugby game as a player. Caught up with the excitement, I knew immediately that I’d begun something I would want to continue, but I had no idea just how much rugby would influence my life. That’s the way it is with so many turning points in our lives. We might not notice them at the time, but they have their effect.

As psychological theorist Albert Bandura would put it, a change in behavior (joining a fledgling rugby club) led to a change in social and physical environments (including on-field and off-field interactions with opponents and teammates), which led to change in what Bandura calls “personal factors,” including my view of myself and my appreciation for the unique culture of rugby.

Only five of my fourteen first-day teammates had played before, so the day provided quite the orientation and initiation for the rest of us. Not surprisingly, we took it on the chin, losing badly to St. Joseph’s College (now University), but we learned and improved over the next weeks. By May, we would end the season with a winning record

Except for the housing in the background, these pics from our first season look like relics from Matthew Brady’s Civil War catalogue. When I arrived at my Pennsylvania School for the Deaf classroom on Monday morning with a massive and colorful egg below my right eye, my high school students greeted me with a loud chorus of hoots and hollers.

Immediately following the afternoon’s thrashing, both sides re-convened a few blocks away at the home of club founder Marshall Sturm. There we experienced the game’s “third half,” meaning we traded songs (mostly rude and filthy) with our opponents over pitchers of beer from the kegs in the driveway, doing our best to out-drink and out-sing them. I was hooked. 

In one weekend, my social network had changed. But I didn’t lose my previous friends. I recruited them to Blackthorn.

I looked forward to practice sessions and to games. I learned lyrics to songs and discovered that my voice wasn’t as bad as my third-grade nun had convinced me it was. The guy who’d stopped playing organized sports after 8th grade now played rugby, and wished he’d discovered it long ago.

For me and the other newbies, our non-job calendar was defined by the rugby schedule. My summer 1971 visit to Ireland included meeting members of Galway Corinthians, the club for which Blackthorn’s original Outside Center Bob Kirkpatrick played when he’d lived in Ireland. (Naming the club Blackthorn had been his idea.) I couldn’t buy a pint in their clubhouse. I still have the leather rugby ball they gifted me when I left.

Gallaudet Rugby’s first game, with 7 borrowed players from Blackthorn, 1973

When I moved to Washington, DC to attend graduate school at Gallaudet College (now University), I founded GCRFC, the first rugby club for the deaf in the US. Returning to Philadelphia, I resumed playing for Blackthorn. When Kathleen and I were married on campus in 1975, deaf and hearing teammates from Gallaudet and Blackthorn signed and sang at the service and reception.

A half-century after that first match in Hatboro, Blackthorn offers youth, high school, men’s side, and old boys rugby. Two years ago, they launched an inclusive, mixed-skills rugby program, the first of its kind, to my knowledge, in the US. They continue to make me proud to be a member.

As the years passed, I played rugby less often and sang more—performing, songwriting, and recording solo and as a member of Sacred CowBoys. My writing of club newsletters evolved into other kinds of writing as well. I played in old boys games and enjoyed pilgrimages to the Saranac Can-Am Rugby Tournament in the Adirondacks.

Part of the 1996 25th anniversary tour group to Northern Ireland, Ireland, and England. Five of us pictured here played in that first year and on this tour 25 years later.

As a college teacher, counselor, rugby player, writer, cook, and musical performer, I felt drawn to work alongside others who were better than I was. It made all the difference. The first time I observed the impact of others on me was with rugby. And I saw it happen to other ruggers.

Current Blackthorn Men’s captain E Pearson charges forward with support right behind

For us, changing, learning, and knowing that you belonged came through rugby. The club became a family, something that rugby players around the world understand. For you, it might come through something else, but learning/changing/growing can go far better when we work in collaboration with others, and in a climate that builds our strengths and our awareness.

I owe a great deal to rugby and to my brothers and sisters of the ruck and maul. Without rugby, I don’t know if I would have been able to see the connectedness of things in life, a realization that heavily influenced my approach to teaching. Without rugby, I doubt very much that I ever would have sung in public. I needed that turning point.   

We don’t grow up being told to pay attention to the life influences around us. When I co-taught linked courses in psychology and academic writing to first-generation community college students, I made sure they learned about how learning works, especially the interpersonal factors that affect learning. Having been exposed to learning theory, they wrote about how psychologists would explain the circumstances that had led to specific instances of learning in their own lives. You’d think that sometime between kindergarten and college graduation, students—especially the most vulnerable—would be taught something about how science explains learning, but by and large that doesn’t happen. I wrote about that in Open Admissions 

People who know more than we do are often in sight when we struggle or just have a question. I was and still am a slow learner, but I stopped worrying about that a long time ago. I look around me, like I did in that first rugby game, and I usually find a teammate.

Thank you and Cheers to all of my Blackthorn ‘mates. Happy Fiftieth!

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Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on nedbachus.com and on his OPEN ADMISSIONS Facebook Page. City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.

2 thoughts on “TURNING POINTS—A Half-Century of Belonging—and Learning

  1. Ned,

    Love this! I was an early member and captain (1970’s) of the WB Breakers. We had some great matches back in the day with the Irish! In fact, a very good rivalry! This was a wonderful account of rugby life. Like you, rugby gave me so much! I wish I could still play but at age 69, and facing knee replacement in July, not likely. Thanks for sharing this great article.

  2. Ned, I have enjoyed reading about the early days. At the time I joined Blackthorn I had no idea that the club was still fairly young. As with you rugby changed my life. 47 years later I am still active in rugby. Currently I will be helping the NE Irish. Keep writing and thanks.
    Mike Dugan

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