Play hard, walk funny

Posted on 04 Jan 2007 at 6:00pm
By Arnold Wayne Jones Staff Writer

Diablos’ new coach brings 16 years of rugby experience to young team



ATHLETIC GOAL: Coach Nollkamper is dedicated to getting the Diablos ready to win the 2008 Bingham Cup, which will be played in Ireland.

Just six years ago, most gay men probably lumped rugby alongside cricket, jai alai and bocce a slightly mysterious sport popular in Europe and the Third World, but hardly meaningful to a culture saturated in football, baseball and basketball. (Americans are still trying to get into soccer and hockey as spectator sports how much can the world ask?)

On Sept. 11, 2001, that all changed when the entire planet heard these words: “Mark Bingham, gay rugby player.” Bingham was one of the heroes of United Flight 93, and his hobby opened a floodgate. In 2002, there were only eight gay rugby teams worldwide. Today, there are more than twice that number in the U.S. alone (most members of the comically acronymed IGRAB the International Gay Rugby Association and Board).

But for Jen Nollkamper, queer ruggers are old hat especially for women. “Female rugby player” is virtually synonymous with “lesbian” she jokes.

Nollkamper started playing in 1991 while attending the University of Montana. For the past 16 years, she has moved on to various club teams, including the Seattle Breakers, a semi-pro women’s team. But when she moved to Dallas, she stepped into a new role for her: head coach for the all-male Dallas Diablos.

“It’s definitely different,” she says of coaching. “Testosterone is a test I’m used to dealing with estrogen. But I think it would be even more different if they were straight men. I just don’t think a straight guy could respect a woman as a head coach, but I have gotten nothing but respect from these guys.”

The Diablos have only been around for four or five years a small fraction of the time that Nollkamper has been playing and most of the players are new to rugby. So far, though, she has been impressed by how serious the Diablos have taken the game. Even before she started, members instituted a fitness program built around weightlifting and she says as many as 30 players show up to every practice.

“You pay dues, pay for your travel, do fundraisers, take off from work, find time to do fitness, play on Saturdays and hopefully take off Sundays to recover,” she says of the demands of the sport, going so far to call it “a lifestyle, an obsession.”

The commitment isn’t a surprise to Nollkamper. Despite rugby’s reputation as timed mayhem, its players live by an unwritten code of respect for each other a huge sense of family, she calls it.

“It’s almost like a sorority or a fraternity, even if you’re different kinds of people,” she says.

That has been especially encouraging in that gay rugby players might be expected to confront homophobia (it’s common for straight and gay teams to play against one another). But Nollkamper says, for the most part, it hasn’t worked out that way.

“When the Quake” gay men’s team in Seattle “started, the men on the straight team said things. But I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t worse that whenever you get a bunch of guys together and they were kissing each other by the end of the night anyway.”

She was looking for it when she moved to Texas, “especially going out to Midland with all the big farm boys. But the Diablos have had a good reaction as members of the Texas Rugby Union,” the organizational body for team all member teams in the state.

The Diablos have, on average, been woefully outscored in TRU games. But Nollkamper isn’t worried: She’s dedicated to getting the Diablos ready to win the Bingham Cup in Ireland next summer. And she things rugby will only continue to grow in popularity.

“In one move, you are supposed to grab another player’s crotch,” she says. “If you think about the stuff we do, it’s very gay.”

The line starts here, guys.

The Diablos hold an inter-squad scrimmage on Oct. 6 and on Oct. 20 play the Reds, a predominantly straight team. Dallasdiablos.org.

A RUGBY PRIMER

Rugby is the progenitor of American football, but the games have many differences. Some of the bigger ones:

– Rugby is played in two 40-minutes halves without any timeouts.
– Each team is composed of 15 players who play both offense and defense. Substitution of players is allowed, but once a player leaves the game, he may not return.
– Teams score 5 points for a “try” (like a football touchdown ) and 2 points for a kicked conversion (similar to the field goal or extra point in football).
– Rugby players wear protective gear, but nothing like the padding and helmets in football.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 5, 2007

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