Fifty years after Liam Humphreys founded GW’s club rugby team, the 1968 graduate traveled 9,000 miles from his home in Bangkok back to GW this weekend to watch his former teammates take the field once again.
About 30 men who played for the club over the years dusted off their cleats and returned to the pitch for the team’s 50th anniversary celebration. The event featured a reunion rugby match Saturday followed by a scramble golf tournament, happy hours and a gala dinner in the area.
Humphreys said he made the trek back to the District for the event because the sport – and the friends he made while playing – are still an important part of his life.
“Rugby is a very special sport,” Humphreys said. “It’s a special bonding kind of sport that results in somebody who is in his mid 70s still having these fond memories.”
Humphreys started the club rugby team in 1967 as a junior who just transferred from American University in Paris. When he first tried to gather a team in the fall of 1966, the only person he recruited was Anthony Coates, a former geology professor, so the men joined the Washington City Rugby Club instead of starting their own squad on campus.
But after the University discontinued its varsity football team in January 1967, Humphreys made another attempt, taking advantage of the newly displaced athletes and recruiting them to play a new, but similar, sport. He said his first recruit, Coates, became an “integral” part of the team because he secured funding from the University to make them a club sport.
Humphreys said along with the professor, they had law students, medical students, undergraduate students and later on, even people who weren’t connected to GW joined the team.
“We had a motley crew of American football, gridiron stars mixed with rugby players,” Humphreys said. “Anyone who wanted to play was good with us.”
The team – partly made up of men who had never played before – finished their first season with a 16-1 record and defeated Yale at their homecoming game, Humphreys said.
The team later became unaffiliated with the University in the late 70s and 80s, likely because the team was “too rowdy,” Humphreys said. The men’s rugby club became affiliated with GW again in 1989.
The Potomac Exiles Rugby Club and the Baltimore Chesapeake Rugby Football Club, current rugby clubs in the DMV area, faced off Saturday at the field at Burning Tree Elementary School in Bethesda, Md. That match was followed by a reunion game where the “old boys,” former GW players, squared off against each other.
The reunion was planned by Joe Bender, who graduated with a master’s degree in urban and regional planning and played on the team for about 15 years until 1993, and Ed Saughton, who never attended GW but played on the team for about a decade. The two men started planning the reunion with the help of about eight former players in March and wanted to bring teammates back together because of the camaraderie that comes with the sport.
“These guys all pretty much grew up together,” Bender said. “Rugby is a fraternity, as you can see. It’s wives and kids and dogs too, not just the sport.”
Ellen Wolfe said her 65-year-old husband Paul was the oldest player on the field during Saturday’s game. He trained for months to prepare for the reunion game, but he still got injured within the first 30 seconds of play, she said.
Wolfe said she wanted to come to the reunion game because rugby gave her a group of close friends when she moved to the District.
“I was a transplant, I arrived in D.C. and I didn’t know a soul,” Wolfe said. “When I started dating Paul, it was like I was dating 150 people. It was just the camaraderie that was wonderful.”
Joe Hancauch, the president of GW’s men’s rugby club, said the team celebrated the 50th anniversary in May at their annual reunion match. At the time of the May reunion, they had lost touch with older players because of the previous disaffiliation with the University, but Hancauch said he plans to incorporate that group with their existing alumni association for future events.
“It was just kind of cool to reconnect and discover that GW rugby is a much bigger family than we thought,” Hancauch said.