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Rules of the Game: Rugby's Early Days at P&S

By Sharon Tregaskis

rugby teamBack in the mid-70s, the right answer to one simple question from Dean of Admissions Andy Frantz could significantly boost an applicant's prospects for entering the first-year class at Columbia P&S, or so the story goes. "Dr. Frantz absolutely loved rugby and when he saw that someone had been an athlete, he'd ask whether they'd be interested in playing," says Melvin P. Rosenwasser'76, the Robert E. Carroll Professor of Surgery of the Hand at P&S. "The scuttlebutt on the street was to tell Dr. Frantz you'd play rugby and it got you a plus on your interview." 

That tactic wasn't an option for Dr. Rosenwasser and his buddies, who earned their spots in the Class of 1976 the old-fashioned way. Sure, P&S had student activities when they enrolled, but the sanctioned options tended toward the recreational – polite and well- mannered. The athletically inclined gravitated toward one another in the Bard Hall gym, where they lifted weights and shot hoops. Then John Wood'76, who had played a bit of rugby in college, met a general surgical resident at St. Luke's. The resident was a native of Scotland and an enthusiast of the game. Within weeks, Wood had spread the word: Interested parties were to assemble for a preliminary practice on a makeshift – and ungroomed – pitch down along the Hudson River. "Most of us had never played rugby, knew nothing of the rules, or the flow of the game, or strategies," says Dr. Rosenwasser, who became match secretary of the newly formed Columbia P&S Rugby Football Club. "We practiced, took it seriously, learned strategy, and got better."

rugby players

field work

on the field

two teamsThose early days, however, were grim. The Scotsman, tapped to coach the nascent team, struggled to educate his players on the tactical distinctions between American football and the more rugged European version of the game. "Few of us had any experience playing or even watching rugby, so it was quite foreign," recalls Dr. Rosenwasser. The med students held the ball when they should have passed, frequently losing possession and frustrating match referees with their ignorance. Undeterred by their early incompetence, the players crafted a little reference book of terms, talked to friends who had played in college, and stole ideas from competitors. "We got more sophisticated in understanding the play, when we'd see other teams doing things we didn't even understand."

Among them, the players anted up for balls, shin guards, tear-resistant jerseys, even the shorts mandated by the Metropolitan New York Rugby Football Union. "We looked better than we were, initially," says Dr. Rosenwasser, whose duties as match secretary included making arrangements for games with teams comprised of Columbia undergrads, West Point cadets, Merchant Marine midshipmen, and one of their more significant rivals, Cornell Medical College. Like clowns in a circus car, seven players would fold themselves into Dr. Rosenwasser's banged-up Firebird while another player put his VW van – with a rotted out floor – into service, ferrying the P&S RFC to matches on Randall's Island, in Newark or Princeton, or locations throughout the five boroughs. "Sometimes we'd win and sometimes we didn't," he admits.  "Sometimes we would get our heads beaten in, literally."

Yet the culture of rugby at P&S in those early days extended far beyond the scrum, and injuries served as badges of honor. "You fight to the death on the field," says Dr. Rosenwasser, who earned the handle "Mad Dog" for his tenacity in the scrum, "but afterward you party with your opponents." There were pre-match parties on Friday nights, post-match celebrations replete with rowdy renditions of traditional songs, and on Monday morning, scores posted on blackboards at the front of lecture halls throughout P&S. "It became a major social event, a focal point for the entire medical school." He opens his guest lecture to contemporary first-year students with a brief slide show from the early days. "The competition wasn't about grades, what residency you were getting. It was a different kind of effort, a lot of fun."

Team camaraderie infused the classroom, too. "The rugby players always sort of sat to the back of the amphitheater," Dr. Rosenwasser recalls. "We populated the higher rows, where the oxygen was thinner." Who's to say, he admits, whether the game attracted a certain personality type that thrives in such environs, or if those were simply the safer seats in which to snooze. Or, perhaps, it was a holdover from the team's origins. "At the beginning this was not a sanctioned team; it was somewhat of a rogue thing." Forty years later the solidarity forged of blood, sweat, and tears persists. "People from that group still talk about rugby, remember anecdotes and vignettes of crazy things that happened."

trophyIn 1975, the upstart P&S RFC prevailed in the division championship, bringing home a trophy and garnering a glint of legitimacy in the process. "It was a galvanizing moment for the team and everyone from our era," says Dr. Rosenwasser, who played his last match at Baker Field during his internship at Roosevelt Hospital. An ill-advised tackle that afternoon left his right arm hanging limp; his drive home was an adventure of left-handed shifting. "I said, 'I think I'm done now,'" recalls the orthopedist, who would go on to treat team contusions and fractures as an attending in orthopedics. Forty years later, it's not unheard of for a member of the P&S RFC to determine that discretion is the better part of valor, never mentioning to his elders how, precisely, that black eye came about. "There's this medical school camaraderie that overpowers the parental influence," Dr. Rosenwasser admits. "The enthusiasm is very high."

Dr. Rosenwasser's daughter, Katie, a fourth-year medical student, has caught the rugby bug, campaigning for permission to sport her father's tattered jersey. "It looks like a calico because it's been ripped off my back and sewn back up again. I told her maybe she can wear it under her graduation gown." 

Images courtesy of Melvin Rosenwasser'76 (shown below with his wife circa 1973-74).

Mel and Phoebe Rosenwasser