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The Oldest Player

by David McIlveen-Wright

The Oldest Player sat crumpled on a bench in the back corner of the university locker room, covered in mud, a bit of blood, and quite a few bruises. He had a blissful look on his face. Had he scored the winning try? Put over a drop kick from half-way? Sprinted 30 yards, even once? Nope. Much more significantly, the Oldest Player had made it through the rugby game with all his body parts still in the right places.

Every part of him hurt, but he was glad he would be able to walk, rather than hobble, all the way home later that evening. He knew from long experience that he’d manage to get up the next morning, just a bit stiff, to take the kids to the park. His wife would not complain, too much, about him playing again next week. Total Success!

The Captain, who had scored the winning try, dropped a goal from half-way, and sprinted 30 yards many times, strode out of the shower singing his favourite post-match ditty “She Loves a Gang Bang”. The Captain was single, 23 years old, and handsome as a movie star. That song reflected his lifestyle. He noticed The Oldest Player sitting there, paused, shook his head slowly, then came over.

“There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you”, he said. “Do you mind telling me why you still play? Not that you don’t pull your weight, I mean, you really anchor the front row. But you used to play on the First XV before most of us were born! Now you volunteer to play for us down in the fourths. I don’t get it.”

The Oldest Player smiled. “Lots of people have asked me that”, he responded. “My wife says the same thing before and after every match. Been doing so for twenty-eight years, poor lass.”

“What do you tell her?”

“Something different every time. It drives her crazy.”

“Like what?”

“I used to say I play rugby to stay fit, to have fun, and to hang out with the guys. But I don’t say that anymore.”

“Why not?”

“Well, mostly because it’s not true anymore.”

“What’s true now?”

The Oldest Player sat up a little straighter, pulled out a beer and gave it to The Captain. Then he took a cold can for himself. He drank one long swallow, as if it were the best brew he had ever had. He slowly looked The Captain up and down, seeing himself long before the mortgage, the twins, the grey hair, the bills, and the career that ate up so much of his time these last few years. He scratched himself, thoughtfully, and said:

“Do you really want to know? I’ll try to explain, if you have a few minutes.”

The Captain didn’t really want to be seen hanging out with The Oldest Player. He might get strange looks from the younger guys. But it was unlikely anyone would notice him here, in the quiet end of the room, for a little while.

“Shoot,” he said, and sat down opposite.

“Sometimes I tell my wife I’m on a quest.”

“A quest?”

“Yes. You know, like a surfer looking for that perfect wave. I’m looking for the perfect peel off the back of the line-out.”

“The perfect peel off the back of the line-out!”

“Yeah. Remember that one I did in the Homecoming game? Went over for a try from it. Tied the match.”

“That’s what keeps you playing?! A line-out move?!”

“Yes, partly. Not just that particular move, but any good piece of teamwork and timing. Scoring is a bonus.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all. It’s a quest for perfection. Very elusive. But isn’t that what life’s about? Overcoming opposition, danger and fear. Being courageous. Acting out of love and friendship, rather than personal gain. Trying to do everything as well as you possibly can, every time.”

“This is too much!” The Captain exclaimed. “You make those things sound holy! Rugby as a crusade for the meaning of life!”

“It’s not just a crusade, searching aimlessly for the meaning of life. Those things are the meaning of life. They make life worth living.”

The Captain, a wing three-quarter, was impressed. He had always thought forwards must be a bit thick to willingly go into scrums and mauls and such.

“Wow! The meaning of life, eh? And I thought playing rugby was just a cool excuse to beat up other guys and impress the ladies!”

The Captain stood up and slapped The Oldest Player on the shoulder, forcing a wince and a rueful grin. Shaking his head, and still mumbling “Wow” to himself, The Captain wandered slowly off toward the locker room door. The Oldest Player smiled and opened another beer. He held the cold can against that nasty scrape he felt on the side of his head. Next time he would tell The Captain about the mystical role of beer in his quest. Now that was a concept the younger players might understand.