Football players join men’s rugby, saving them from a short roster

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Cal State Long Beach Fall Rugby Classic Tournament, where the team placed second on Nov. 5, 2017 on the George Allen Field in Long Beach, California.

The unforeseen cancellation of the Fall 2017 football season at Occidental opened the door for football players to join the rugby team. Before the administration canceled the season, rugby player Will Ayres (senior) joined the football team to add to its insufficient roster. When it became clear that the team did not have enough numbers to continue, several football players decided to join Ayres on the rugby team instead. Currently, 12 football players are practicing consistently with the rugby team and plan to play when the official season begins in the spring.

According to Ayres, rugby team alumni Doug Raff, Conrad Arjoon and Jim Dietle encouraged him and two of his teammates to join the football team this semester as a gesture of support and a means of generating interest in rugby. Because of the demanding football practice and game schedule, two other rugby players, George Geicke and Brian Suh, dropped off the football team, leaving Ayres as the only rugby player to remain, but the season was cancelled before he got any playing time. When the administration canceled the football season, Ayres welcomed football players to the rugby team.

“Will [Ayres] from the rugby team came over to help us when we didn’t have enough football guys, so a lot of us started to think, ‘maybe we’ll help him out back,’” Carlton O’Neal (junior) said.

O’Neal has been on the Occidental football team since his first year, playing slot receiver and punter. He was the first football player to join the rugby team, and his teammates soon followed. According to Ayres, football participation in the rugby team began to snowball following O’Neal’s decision.

“It kind of started with a trickle,” Ayres said. “A couple guys came over, they said they were having fun, and then a couple more guys came.”

Cal State Long Beach Fall Rugby Classic Tournament, where the team placed second on Nov. 5, 2017 on the George Allen Field in Long Beach, California.

Out of the 12 football players who joined the rugby team, O’Neal is the only player with experience, having played rugby in middle school. He said that his current fly-half position on the rugby team is very similar to both of the positions he covered on the football team.

Kazim Apaydin (senior) was one of the next players to join the team. Having no prior experience with rugby, Apaydin said he would never have played if the administration had not cut the football season short. Apaydin said that he does miss football, but the opportunity to try a new sport gave him the chance to compete in a less nerve-racking environment.

“It’s way more relaxed and fun,” Apaydin said. “With football, there’s not much that’s more stressful than having a big game coming up — it’s just a build [up] of pressure and stress and every single play is stressful. But rugby is fun, you just show up and play a game. There’s some great guys there, too.”

According to O’Neal, Occidental football alumni influenced the football players’ decision to transfer to the rugby team. For these alumni, playing football in the fall and rugby in the spring was a tradition.

O’Neal said he hopes that after he graduates, younger football players will continue to resurrect this tradition. According to O’Neal, playing on both teams is manageable, something he would not have thought prior to joining the rugby team. Now that he has played rugby, he said that he knows how much safer it is than football.

“I think a lot of guys will do both,” O’Neal said. “Now that I’ve played rugby, I’ve realized it’s totally reasonable to play a whole rugby season and not get a major injury.”

Ayres said that he thinks both teams are strongest when they help each other out, especially at a school with a limited number of athletes. With the additional 12 football players now on the rugby team, Ayres said he feels confident about the upcoming season. According to him, the rugby team has struggled to fill its roster in the past.

“Like with the football team, we’ve been suffering with numbers the last couple seasons,” Ayres said. “Now we’re at like 25 guys, and that’s about what you need because there’s 22 on a roster on game day for rugby. Without the football guys we would have been a pretty diminished group.”