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NORTH KINGSTOWN â If you entered a crowded room â Starbuckâs on Ted Rod Road, say â and were looking for a rugby player whose day job involves setting up massive stage equipment for rock concerts, your eye would immediately fall on Mike Martin.
He is, well, burly and looks as though he could hold his own in a scrum.
In fact, Martin recently experienced two sports milestones: he returned, with the Newport Rugby Football Club, from six days in Ireland during which time the team played two matches; he also coached the Salve Regina Menâs Rugby Club to the National Small College Rugby Organization championship at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colorado, which Mike calls âthe rugby Mecca. Once you make it there, itâs a great achievement.â
It marked the third time Salve had gone to the final four, finishing fourth in 2009 and, last year, third. After defeating Franciscan University in the semis, the Seahawks beat the California Maritime Academy Keelhaulers 22-15 to win the title.
The final four matches were broadcast live on Fox TVâs soccer channel and DVDs capturing the events were recorded.
âFour years ago I started helping out,â he recalls. âWhen the coach stepped aside, the kids asked me to take his place. I was blown away because I knew nothing about coaching.â
Clearly, Mike was a fast learner.
By all accounts, says the proud coach, these are the best of times, a 21-day opportunity both here and abroad to bask in the spotlight of a sport he fell in love with while a student at Newportâs Rogers High School.
Except, of course, for his torn distal bicep tendon â an elbow injury he received in Ireland while making an arm tackle and for which he underwent surgery on Monday. At 39, Mike expected the doctor to order him to hang up his cleated boots, but the news was surprisingly positive.
âI thought heâd tell me Iâm too old but he said he wanted to do the surgery now so I could get fit and get back on the pitch [field.]â
It was not his first sport.
âI broke my foot playing football for Rogers. It didnât heal right so I tried for the baseball team and got cut. I was hanging around with older guys who played rugby.â
It seemed like so much fun that, Mike says, âIn 1989, I took it up.â
At 17, he played in his first real game, in Nova Scotia, and was hooked.
Now, the North Kingstown residentâs three kids play the sport and he met the guys who work for him at Quonsetâs CAT Entertainment Services â a division of Caterpillar â through rugby.
While acknowledging that rugby lags behind more popular American pastimes, Mike notes interest in the sport is picking up. âThereâs been a growth spurt in the last five years. We have the Aquidneck Youth Rugby Football Clubâ with three divisions at ages six, nine and 12 playing a flag version of the game and those 15 and older learning regular tackle rugby.
Itâs a sport that encourages newcomers. âAs long as you can boot up and get out there and play, youâre welcome,â Mike declares. âItâs a lot easier to learn by playing than by standing on the sidelines watching.â
Thereâs not a lot of protective gear such as the helmets and padding found in football, a pared-down approach that some feel actually minimizes the numbers of injuries. Players tend not to slam into each other at full speed in rugby because thereâs nothing between them but breakable body parts.
âWe have mouthpieces, neoprene tops, shorts and [cleated] boots,â Mike explains. âSome wear whatâs call a scrum cap.â In photos, this device looks like a glorified swimcap. Mike rejects the covering but, then, rugby is a sport of individualists.
Nothing is more indicative of the devotion of die-hard players and fans than the triumphant overseas tour.
âI got to take my club to Ireland,â says Mike, who is the groupâs president. âI showed the younger guys the difference between Newport and the real world.â (United Kingdom countries and their affiliates are huge rugby enthusiasts; it is the national game of Australia.)
âWe played a game in Dublin and another in Kinsale, which is Newportâs sister city.â
The Newport club has more than 150 members, some of them social supporters who donât play; 49 players and associates made the trip to Ireland.
Last Saturday the Newport club played Providence for the Rhode Island Cup, a match slogged out in the mud. âIt changes the pace of the game,â Mike observes. âMy group likes it to be an overcast and 50-degree day.â Providence won.
Because his doctor says Mike will play again, he hopes to still be on the pitch at 40 and heâs got his grand finale already planned.
His vision? âWeâll be playing at Fort Adams. Iâll score a try [similar to a touchdown but with a few more requirements] in my last game then Iâll walk down to the edge and throw my boots in the water.â
This may not happen for another decade.
âSome guys,â says Mike, âcompete till theyâre 50.â
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at email@example.com.