Friday, November 21, 2014

Roots: 50 Years of Rugby in Cleveland

The Cleveland Grays, circa 1073.
What do a group of bored medical school students; the colors blue, gray and green; a polo field and Roxboro Middle School have in common? They all played integral parts in the formation of the Cuyahoga Blues. Not sure who they are? If you have followed rugby in Cleveland - or even in the state of Ohio - in the past 50 years you have, in one form or another. Since the team's inception it has taken on different names, formations, permutations and lineups. The original team preceded the Cleveland Blue and Grays and the Cats, among other names. Many know the two proud teams that have carried on the rugby legacy in the city for the longest period of time: the Cleveland Rovers and the Cleveland Rugby Club.

Rugby has been in Cleveland for fifty years; and that fifty years yielded an almost innumerable amount of club members and a winning tradition that no other adult sports team in the city can match. All that started with two bored college students had a little chat and wanted to fill up their Saturdays.
A throwback to the somewhat lawless days of rugby's past.

"Here's how we got it going," siad John Bergfeld, the man credited with bringing rugby to the city. "I played football in college, and when I went to medical school I didn't have anything to do on Saturday afternoons after playing football for ten years. One of my classmates in medical school had gone to Dartmouth and Dartmouth had a rugby team."

In 1961 Bergfeld and his classmate got a team going at their school and played other clubs in the Philadelphia area; but, as all college rugby players know, you have to eventually graduate; and when the two of them left they took their love of rugby with them.

"So we finished medical school and my classmate went to Ohio State and I went to the Cleveland Clinic and we wanted to keep playing rugby so I called him up," Bergfeld said.

Rugby had already been established at OSU but there wasn't a club to speak of in the Cleveland area. Lucky for Bergfeld, there was a large number of internationals around the hospital and he found a number of them willing and eager to play rugby in the fall of 1964. They practiced at what is now Roxboro Middle School, and from the start they were catching the eye of people around them. During one practice a doctor from New Zealand walked over to the group and offered his services as a coach. From there it was a matter of time until their competitive campaign started.

"We started in the spring of '64," Bergfeld said. "We had our first game, and we played at the Cleveland Metropolitan Park. We played Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan. That was our first season. In the fall of '65 we really got a good team together and played those same teams."

As the team played on word spread even more. Journalists from the Plain Dealer heard about the up-and-coming team, which was continually growing in numbers, and wanted to feature them in an article. Shortly after talking with Bergfeld, the reporter went out to the Polo Field on Chagrin River Road and South Woodland in the South Chagrin Reservation of the Metroparks.
Forwards take on the ball during a match.

A few years after the team got rolling in Cleveland life began to pull Bergfeld away from the team he had created. First, he became the doctor for Case football team, so he transitioned into the role of an official. When he became the doctor for the Browns his time with rugby became even more limited. While he couldn't participate like used to, Bergfeld was far from being done with the club. In 1976 Bergfeld ensured that his memory would stay with the club when he donated what would become known as the Cleveland Cup.

Most people that pick up the rugby ball will push their playing careers far beyond when they should. More often than not their better halves let them know when their logical end is approaching, and more often than not they don't listen. Bergfeld was no different. During the twilight of his active years with the club, Bergfeld and his wife attended a social where he was called "Dr. Bergfeld" all night.

"When they start to call you 'doctor' it's time to get out of there," he said, recalling his wife's words. "Luckily my wife understands rugby."

After that Bergfeld went to Boston for a medical summit that examined the links between rugby and its associated injuries. He was invited by a friend of his on the condition that he play in a match against the Old Boys in the area. Against his wife's advice, he played and broke a rib int he process.

"That was the end of my rugby playing days," he said.

Once he stopped playing rugby and officiating, the sport of rugby continued to grow and influence all who played, allowing the team to grow from a group of foreign-born doctors to a group that, at times, included lawyers, bikers and all other sort of colorful character that wanted to take the pitch. For Bergfeld, that was one of the best parts of playing rugby - getting to meet and get to know a wide array of pople he might not have met otherwise.

Dr. John Bergfeld(l) poses with the Cleveland Cup and
a member of one of Cleveland's women's rugby teams.
"The original team was called the Cuyahoga Blues," Bergfeld said. "I'm really very happy that it has continued on. It looks as though it has really matured and settled."

Over the years the team has taken many names, often splitting between the two sides of town - East and West. No matter what the name was - Forest Hills, Blues, Cats, Rovers, Eastern Suburbs or the Cleveland Rugby Club - the team was deeply rooted in the city's history.

"The Cleveland Grays were created during the Civil War," he said, recalling the meaning behind one of the original Cleveland rugby teams. "It was an army from Cleveland."

Thus, the Cleveland Grays were named. According to Bergfeld, there is a photo of the team in front of the Grays Armory.

Rugby has been in the city of Cleveland for 50 years. It has grown from a weekend filler, an excuse for a converted college football player to see an old classmate, to an institution that has evolved into something well beyond what Bergfeld initially intended or even could have imagined.

"My intention was just to play it," he said. "I just wanted to get a game going. My idea was to play the game, to have fun and play the game."

In the years following that initial season rugby has grown and changed in the city of Cleveland. Throughout the time the sport has been in existence on the shores of Lake Erie it has remained a place for people to come together, become a family and run riot on the rugby pitch. Dr. John Bergfeld brought rugby to the city and on Saturday,  November 22, he will talk more about it at the Rugby Ball; and hopefully rugby will remain steadfast for at least another 50 years.
The Cleveland Rugby Club meets before a match in the Fall of 2014, still playing in the Cleveland Metroparks.

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