by Kevin Waite '09, former President
There is a stretch of turf down at the far end of Cole Field where, every fall Saturday afternoon, a motley crew of 30 Williams students engage in an athletic ritual that is primordial at worst, bestial at best. Human progress turns its back on lower Cole for a few hours every week as these young men duke it out with other similarly masochistic New England student-athletes in a game everyone’s heard of, but few really know.
That game is rugby, a national phenomenon in countries like England, Ireland and New Zealand. But in America, it is still a sideshow.
At Williams however, some of the rugby fever that predominates in other countries can be found. Though it hasn’t garnered the attention or funding of Williams’ celebrated varsity sports, the Williams Rugby Football Club (WRFC) boasts a large squad of talented athletes, a self-sufficient system of team management and one of the top coaches in New England.
At Williams, Bruce Stephenson conducts the athletic cacophony that is rugby, and for the men’s side, this grand maestro somehow produces harmony.
Some may question, “Is it actually someone’s job to conduct this ritualized mutilation?”
But for Stephenson, it’s more than a job, it’s a calling.
“There are a couple of things I need in my life to make it complete. One is rugby, one is history and the other is historical miniatures,” Stephenson said. “Most think I’m daft for doing miniatures. I guess they think I’m also daft for doing rugby.”
But for those who think that, consider this: how many men do you know who can put a medley of pain enthusiasts into high striped socks and tight white shorts, make them grapple with other men for a few hours and bring them off the field with a shred of human dignity?
I only know one.
“Bruce means everything to our club,” co-captain Nick Carter ’07 said. “He loves the game of rugby and he loves teaching it.”
Stephenson – who received an undergraduate degree from Keene State, a Master of Art from Penn State and a Master of Education from Harvard – is a born teacher.
He currently co-runs a program to educate dyslexics in basic reading skills, while also teaching mostly adjudicated teenagers history at a Vermont community high school. Prior to that he had been the director of college counseling at a boarding school in California, and the head of the history department at another boarding school in New Hampshire.
But all work and no play would make Bruce a dull boy. And if Stephenson is one thing, it certainly isn’t dull.
That’s why he has been associated with the sport of rugby for 37 years. In his protracted tenure with the game, Stephenson has played (for eight clubs), coached (for two), refereed, advised and helped organize rugby clinics. If rugby were a meal, he’d probably eat it three times a day.
“It’s such a deep-seated passion,” Stephenson said. “It may even be irrational. I just love the sport so much.”
Given his extensive experience with the sport it’s hardly any wonder why Bud Fischer – then the interim athletic director and now the Nordic ski coach – hired him 11 years ago.
Prior to his arrival, the WRFC was in a state of juvenile delinquency. Coachless and largely directionless, the 1995 team was far better known for its off-the-field antics than anything it did in games.
Dig through the archives of the New York Times around this time and you’ll come across the club’s most dubious distinction. The Times managed to snap a picture of some kegs left out on the pitch the Friday before a game. When the picture showed up in the next day’s issue, the New England collegiate rugby community was appalled. Sure teams had social components, but few of them left their social components on the field the night before a match. The WRFC was immediately demoted from Div. I to Div. II, where it remains today.
When Stephenson arrived on the scene in the fall of 1996, things gradually began to change.
“I had three original goals,” Stephenson said. “I wanted to improve the technical aspect of their game, reduce injuries and deal with the more outrageous social aspects.”
In his first fall the team went 1-5. “I think the team was drunk in their first two out of three games,” he said.
But in his second year the team went 7-2, won the conference and advanced all the way to the Northeast Rugby Union (NRU) finals.
As much as the club had changed, it was still a far cry from straight-laced. And that’s where it remains today, somewhere comfortably between sinner and saint.
(Well, maybe a little more on the sinner side. After all, the WRFC isn’t exactly the Sandra Dee of the college athletic world.)
When your coach responds to someone complaining that the team is trying too many new techniques with the statement, “Rugby is a lot like sex: there are many ways to get to the desired end,” you know you aren’t dealing with a typical coach. But then again, the WRFC has never dealt well with typical.
But it has always dealt well with Stephenson, and Stephenson has always dealt well with it.
Stephenson has dedicated over a decade of tireless service to the WRFC. Not only a coach, he acts as mentor, strategist, father and maid. Every Saturday, Stephenson brings freshly washed jerseys, medical supplies, water and Gatorade for the team’s over 30 players.
His level of sacrifice for the club is sometimes staggering. A resident of Brattleboro, VT, Stephenson takes a 100-mile round trip four times a week to coach at Williams. In his 21 seasons, spanning 11 years, he has driven over 60,000 miles for the sake of the WRFC – that’s roughly two complete trips around the world.
Romeo never did that for Juliet. Antony never did that for Cleopatra. But Stephenson, for the WRFC, does all that and more. If indeed love can be measured by distance traveled, effort given and time devoted, then Stephenson and the WRFC are the stuff of Shakespearean romance (only platonic).
The love has been historically unrequited.
When the club started in 1959, the College donated old JV football practice jerseys for rugby uniforms. To remedy their shabby appearance, the club’s first couch, H. Peter Pearson collected jerseys from the Huddersfield Rugby Club in England. To this day, the WRFC wears Huddersfield claret and gold instead of Williams’ purple and gold.
The WRFC continues the tradition of being overlooked to this day. In the last three years the team has been barred from the use of the trainer’s room due to the increasing congestion and expense that comes with allowing club sports the use of such facilities.
Trainer’s room, college uniforms, and sufficient funding or not, Stephenson’s mission will not change. “I just want to convey some of the love I have for this sport and pass it on,” he said.
If that’s the case, the hundreds of young men Stephenson has coached over his 11 years at Williams can attest: mission accomplished.