Giving Rugby a Try
The veteran players on the Charleston Hurricanes and the Charleston Blockade can teach you how to play rugby, but that’s just one of the selling points for the local teams that make it a point to be welcoming and inclusive, even if you’ve never played sports at all.
As teams affiliated with International Gay Rugby, the Blockade men’s team and the Hurricanes women’s squad are part of a worldwide coalition that promotes and creates opportunities to play competitive rugby, all while advancing a message of acceptance of LGBTQ athletes from all backgrounds. Evidence of that inclusivity can be seen among the team’s ranks, where a tight-knit and diverse group of LGBTQ and straight players keep coming back week after week.
“We do try to make space and be sure to include anyone who wouldn’t traditionally be thought of as someone who would be involved in sports, especially a sport like rugby,” said Blockade team president Jay Lanham.
On the Fly
Stop by the teams’ Monday and Wednesday practice sessions in North Charleston and you’ll see former college athletes running drills next to new area residents showing up to meet friends, nevermind the fact they’ve never stepped onto a rugby field — it’s called a “pitch,” apparently.
With Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker” blaring on a Bluetooth speaker in the background, Lanham set up cones before warm-ups at practice last week. The weekend before, the Blockade had its first game since before the pandemic. It was a losing effort against the Gaston County Gargoyles from outside Charlotte. But again, it’s been a while.
A few steps away, where the Hurricanes are preparing for practice as well, Claire Cox is rehashing the team’s road win against the Savannah Shamrocks, 54-5. Cox played rugby in Columbia and Charleston for 10 years and is technically “retired” but is hoping for an odd number of teammates at this practice. “I’m kind of forcing my way in, a little bit”, she winks. Thirteen players today, she’s in.
With so many players new to rugby on both teams, practice is part skill test for veterans, part clinic for newbies.
“Talk!” Lanham yells to his squad as players weave up the field, passing the ball. “Move, move, move!” Leanne Hudson pushes on the Hurricanes’ side.
Blockade coach Ty Luke thinks the team is in good shape as it ramps back up.
“This time two years ago, we were a totally different team [in terms of] pace of play and confidence,” he said, sending one newish player for a lap around the field after attempting a rough tackle. “For a lot of our guys, it’s the first time they’ve ever played a contact sport in their lives — playing rugby with this team.”
Chris Deer was the third guy to join the Blockade in 2013, a few months after the team started forming. At 55, Deer has called it quits a couple times, but keeps coming back.
“It makes me feel alive at my age, being able to share your knowledge with new people … It changed my life,” he said.
“It was a self-esteem thing. You know: gay guy, never played a sport in my life, kids would mock me and all that kind of stuff,” the Hanahan and Summerville native said. “I’m never going to be an amazing rugby player, but I’ll be a good rugby player.”
After football never took as a teenager, Deer said seeing his father show up to a Blockade match four years ago is one of his most cherished memories with the team.
For Amy George, who grew up in foster homes across North Carolina, her Hurricanes teammates have become her de facto family.
“Quite literally, this rugby team is my entire world. They’re my family, they’re everything for me,” she told the City Paper.
The teams include law enforcement officers, teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and others, with some who end up working together — not as strangers, but teammates.
“We have all these relationships because of rugby,” George said.
South Carolina was one of a handful of states, this year, where GOP lawmakers pushed copycat bills to ban transgender students from playing on girls sports teams. The attempts were unsuccessful, but came as politicians also debated a state hate crimes law that ultimately stalled. S.C. is one of two states without a hate crimes law.
“We still face a lot of bias and some ideas that I and a lot of my team would consider backwards and wrong,” Lanham said. “We’re out there to provide some evidence that flies in the face of the traditional stereotypes around people like me.”
“I’m hoping what [others] come away with is that people who have some sort of sexual or gender identity that’s not considered the norm — if someone’s not white, straight and cisgender — that they’re still people,” he said.
“People enjoy playing sports and getting together with other people. Everyone’s good. We’re all people.”
Both teams play Saturday at the Danny Jones Recreation Complex in North Charleston
(1455 Monitor St.) as part of Charleston Pride. The Blockade plays at 12 p.m., the Hurricanes at 2 p.m.