On a chilly Saturday almost eleven years ago, seven guys booted up and began the practice of a fledgling gay rugby team—they included Ben Marks, Adam Ross, Doug Sladen, Chris Sanders, Daryl Woods, Richard Benoit, and Stan Schklar (who at 55 is still playing despite various broken bones, among other injuries). At Tribe after that first practice, they chose the team’s name based on where they’d initially found their shared interest in rugby (Bear411)—the lack of grizzly bears in Tennessee be damned.
Flash-forward to 2006’s Pride festival, which is when I first spoke to John Purdom, who would become another long-time player and long-time assistant coach. After that, I decided to attend the next Tuesday night practice. From the little I knew about rugby’s specifics, it seemed liked it might be both a nice hobby and a nice workout. I was right, and as someone who grew up playing soccer and wrestling from middle school through high school, it felt great tackling a much bigger guy everyone else probably thought I never could. And as much as it pushed me, I know it pushed the rest of this nascent group of ruggers. What we had in enthusiasm, though, we lacked in practical knowledge.
A month later, three players from the Atlanta Bucks drove up and conducted a boot camp. However, it was our first full-time coach, Shannon Bustillos, who would begin to whip the team into shape. “Warrior Princess,” as she was called, agreed to coach the team when, after one practice, all present knelt and asked if she’d be our full-time coach. She agreed. With thirteen years of playing experience and six years of coaching experience at the time, she brought a wealth of knowledge, drive, and encouragement to our rag-tag group, some of whom had never before played a contact sport. Bustillos stayed with us through the spring 2007 season, when she was offered a job at Marquette University that she couldn’t pass up.
Following the vacuum Bustillos left, several players—including me, Purdom, David Glasgow, Doug Sladen, and Mike Wright—decided we could coach ourselves. Three of us even traveled to a weekend coaching clinic in Memphis. However, to quote Purdom, “This was a disaster.” As the cliché goes: there were too many cooks in the kitchen.
Salvaging us from that melee, David Glasgow became our dedicated coach for the first time in 2008. That summer, a contingent of Grizzlies flew to Dublin, Ireland, to participate in the fourth Bingham Cup. Since we were unable to bring a full team of fifteen players, we were merged with the World Barbarians, coached by Gustavo Ventura, and ended up winning the Plate division.
In spring 2009, Toby Florek, who’d played for a local club formerly known as the Nashville Outlaws, took over coaching duties. He stayed on until September 2009, when Glasgow resumed duties as head coach. Glasgow would remain with us through many high and low points until January 2014, when Jimmy Arredondo, after serving as assistant coach for a couple seasons, took over the whistle and clipboard. Arredondo would lead the Grizzlies to their first winning season in fall 2016, and he has been pivotal in making the team more competitive and consistent.
Since our showing in Dublin, the Grizzlies have represented Nashville in the biennial Bingham Cup in Minneapolis, Manchester (England), and Sydney (Australia), as well as here at home. In addition to this major international tournament, the team has frequented the Dallas Diablos’ Hell Fest, Muddy York’s Beaver Bowl, Seattle Quake’s final running of Magnitude, the Queen City Crown, our own Music City Cup, and the occasional Jugg Fest in Pigeon Forge with our sister team, the Charlotte Royals.
Over the years, with the indispensable assistance of Richard Kennedy, the team attained its 501(c)(3) status, and players and supporters have participated in charitable work with Habitat for Humanity and Nashville CARES, among many others. This year we started volunteering at Launchpad, a resource for homeless LGBTQ youth, with Nashville CARES.
We also brought the Red Dress Run (which is now more of a stroll) to town. It is our biggest fundraising event of the year. The dresses at the Pub-Run-Crawl range from the unnecessarily sequined number Joe Clark has worn (at least twice—tsk, tsk), to matronly numbers for the shy, g-strings and angel wings for the shameless with phenomenal “attributes,” to more basic off-the-rack numbers from Target or Ross. The first couple of years this event took place in Hillsboro Village and 12 South, benefiting The Belcourt Theatre. Since then, it has moved over to the East Side and has benefited the Friends of Shelby Park and Nashville CARES.
I wound up playing on the team from June 2006 through May 2013, and I came out of my hobbling “retirement” to play in the 2016 Bingham Cup hosted by the Grizzlies here in Nashville, which marked the first time the tournament had happened in the American Southeast. Because both the Grizzlies and rugby inspire a special brand of loyalty, I’m not the only person who laced my boots back up.
Through this team I’ve made friends with men who I sincerely call “brothers,” and I’ve met people from all over this country and the world. Not surprisingly, our team’s motto is Tecum Fratre, which is Latin for “With You, Brother,” and “With you” is what Mark Bingham would always say to let his teammates know he was there to accept a pass once they got into trouble. Better still, I can say with absolute confidence that I know what I’ve experienced is the rule, not the exception.
To sum up this rather brief history of the Nashville Grizzlies, rugby can bring out the best in everyone, allowing space on the pitch (i.e., the field) for people of all genders, all orientations, all body types, and all skill levels. This might be one of the reasons why rugby is the fastest growing sport in the nation. And while I’ve seen people severely injured and carted off in ambulances, and while this sport can be brutal, bloody, and bruising, I’m sure those who have played and those who still play for the Nashville Grizzlies wouldn’t exchange the occasionally flared tempers, the long-lasting friendships, and the easy camaraderie for the world.
April 7th, 7:30 PM at PLAY Dance Bar
A Bachelor Auction & 11 Years of Grizzlies Rugby Celebration
Music provided by HeyDay Revival
* $10 at door includes some catered food
* Silent auction will end at 9PM
* Bachelor auction begins soon after
* All Proceeds will go towards the Nashville Grizzlies Rugby FC & Tennessee Equality Project