The Peoria Piggies rugby team prepares to celebrate 50 years of competitive play and respectful camaraderie
Rod Pauli wasn’t sure if he wanted to play rugby.
In 1982, a friend invited Pauli to a Peoria Piggies home match, which he found interesting. But he was more impressed by the post-game gathering, known as a “social,” which the home squad traditionally hosts for both teams, by rugby tradition. Pauli was wowed that the two sides, after relentlessly walloping each other on the field for 80 minutes, could come together to share food, drink and goodwill.
“Great competition on the field became great camaraderie at the social,” recalls Pauli, 63.
He soon joined the Piggies, starting a relationship with the club that has lasted decades. That’s not unusual, as many “old boys,” as aging and former players are known, have stuck around to nurture newcomers and keep the club thriving. Their extra effort is the reason the Peoria Rugby Football Club celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
“For a club to stay together for 50 years, it says there are some good, solid people at the core,” Pauli said.
Football without the pads
In 1973, the club started modestly, with a ragtag group gathering at the Bradley University quad and playing amid the trees. For that initial squad, one of the first orders of business was figuring out the rules, which can seem complex but are fundamentally simple. It’s essentially football without pads, blocking or forward passing.
But though the sport is physical, it rarely gets as brutal as football. Without a helmet or shoulder pads, a cheap shot on the rugby field — known as a pitch — is likely to hurt the giver as much as the receiver. Overall, the emphasis isn’t on hard hits as much as ball movement and — when you’re about to keel over from exhaustion — finding enough wind and grit to keep going.
Athleticism is good. Often, perseverance is better.
“Anybody can play,” said Charlie Parod, 68, a player and coach with the Piggies since 1978. “You can be any size: big, little, whatever.”
Smaller players, often at a disadvantage with many sports, like the notion that they can use speed and cunning to succeed on the pitch. And bigger players, often relegated to roles such as football linemen, get excited to know they too get to handle the ball.
“It’s an inclusive sport,” Parod said.
A ‘good kind of crazy’
Still, it does pose some distinct challenges. Like a zombie hockey faceoff, scrums involve two masses of humanity lunging at and shoving each other to gain control of play. Like a pugilistic basketball tipoff, the lineout has the teams leaping and hoisting players skyward to grab a hold of the ball. Loose play, where shifty backs pass and swerve the ball to maneuver up field, has players galloping as powerfully and majestically as a herd of wild horses, or ping-ponging around in frantic confusion as if part of a “Benny Hill Show” segment.
And it all happens in an environment that can be lung-searingly hot or bone-achingly cold. Through it all, there is one constant. Amid the sweat and blood and mud, not to mention the gasping and grimacing and swearing, the one thing that is inescapable when 30 men barge, bump and burrow among one another for 80 long minutes is the stink.
“It’s not for everybody,” Parod said with a chuckle.
But pushing through all those challenges, regardless of the final score, brings its own reward. Winning is always the goal. But finishing hard carries its own glory.
And that’s the key to the social. Win or lose, squads respect one another. So why not celebrate surviving this strange game?
“It is different,” Parod said, chuckling again. “And it’s hard to explain. A lot of people (from the outside) say, ‘Are you nuts? Are you crazy?’ Maybe so. But it’s a good kind of crazy.”
Becoming the Piggies
The sense of whimsy played a part in the club’s nickname. In 1977, the squad was known simply as the Peoria Rugby Football Club. But that year, the ruggers traveled to Kansas City for a tournament. Heavy rains had turned the pitch into a mud pit. Afterward, as they posed for a team photo, an onlooker remarked that they looked like a pigs, said Don Gurik.
“We were just as muddy as could be,” said Gurik, now 74.
Thus, the Piggies were born. But don’t let the name fool you. Over the decades, the club has been known for solid, hard play. It’s arguably even more renowned for its top-notch socials, featuring wide food spreads and vast liquid refreshments, courtesy of Baumgarten Distributing in Peoria and Jimmy’s Bar in West Peoria.
The social is the backbone of the sport, the aspect that differentiates rugby from other pastimes.
“We’re not a team; we’re a club,” Pauli said. “I don’t think of other sports as a club. I don’t think of, for example, softball as a club.”
As Parod puts it, “A softball team might go out for a beer after a game. But it’s different with rugby. It’s such a battle when you’re out there playing. But afterward, at the social, you share comradeship. You get to know each other. It’s just a good brotherhood.”
And it transfers easily from one place to the next. Go to another town or another state or even another country, and the mention of rugby can instantly change strangers to brothers, said Parod, who has played as far away as New Zealand. Even there, rugby has provided him a tight-knit bond.
“It’s such a universal sport,” he said.
That esprit de corps extends in the community. Greg Jetton, who joined the Piggies in 1993, appreciates the club’s philanthropy. Over the years, that giving has included the squad’s diaper drives and highway cleanups. But its biggest contribution likely has been grooming and maintaining fields on the grounds of Catholic Charities in West Peoria. The site hosts not only the Piggies but the Peoria Bootleggers women’s rugby team – an achievement that has taken a lot of sweat equity.
“The place looks a bit nicer,” Jetton said.
Further, the club has a separate not-for-profit foundation dedicated to advancing the sport of rugby, including the coaching of youth and high school teams. In fact, supporting the foundation is a big reason the club organized a 50th anniversary gala this year. In that way, Piggies young and old can look to the future — and celebrate the past. Pauli expects tall tales to abound.
“The older you get,” he said with a laugh, “the better you were.”
For more info on the Peoria Piggies, go to www.peoriarugby.com.