Similar to soccer and resembling football, rugby is a growing sport in the U.S. since it was featured in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Several active duty Fort Campbell Soldiers, veterans, area first responders and civilians have discovered the game and play on a local team, Headhunters Rugby. The popularity of rugby shows on the Headhunters roster, which has grown from nine to 30 names in just a year.
“It’s gotten a lot more in the public eye. There are rugby clubs around almost every military town, so people come here that have played rugby before,” said 1st Lt. Nicolas Reitzin, 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division Artillery Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.
Many of the current players found the Headhunters Rugby team through friends or an internet search.
Reitzin said he found the team when a friend told him he needed to try rugby. He has been on the team since March 2016.
“I really just play for the guys. These are probably some of my closest friends,” Reitzin said.
Hunter McAllister, Army veteran, said he googled “Fort Campbell Rugby Club” and found the team in 2015.
“It’s the pace of soccer in a way, but with the physicality of football,” McAllister said.
Freddie Montgomery, Army veteran and current Hopkinsville Fire Chief, is the only player on the team since it started 15 years ago as the Hopkinsville [Kentucky] Headhunters. Three years ago the team moved closer to Clarksville and Fort Campbell.
“We had a lot of support in Hopkinsville, but the distance was a problem. I am actually the only player on the team from Hopkinsville,” Montgomery said.
Reitzin said most everyone that plays rugby has played football or a similar sport before. “I grew up playing football. When I got into playing rugby, I said if I knew about rugby I never would have played football,” said Master Sgt. Jason Dotson, who just moved to Fort Campbell and has only been on the team for a month.
Dotson said he got into rugby because it was a sport he could play with his children.
Specialist Holi Havili, whose unit is attached to 101st Airborne Division Sustainment Brigade, grew up playing rugby on the Island of Tonga. He moved to Hawaii when he was 18 to enroll in college and then enlisted in the Army.
Havili has been playing on the Headhunters Rugby team since the summer of 2017. He said transitioning from playing football to rugby would not be difficult for a new player.
The game lasts for two, 40-minute halves with no breaks and no player substitutions. Once a player starts the game, he ends it, Montgomery said.
“It gives you that competition that some people need to keep them occupied. It keeps your motivation up for fitness,” Montgomery said.
In rugby, the player with the ball has to be in front with his or her teammates behind him or her. If another player from the opposing team tries to get the ball by tackling, the player with the ball has to take the hit. No one can block for them.
Unlike football, rugby players can only pass the ball backwards.
Sergeant Thomas Cooker, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and coach of the Headhunters, said the game is nonstop.
“It is constant running. It’s not like football where you start and stop. I think there is a lot of mental toughness and reliance along with that,” Reitzin said.
Scoring in rugby also differs from football or soccer. A try is scored when the ball is grounded over the opponents’ goal line in the in-goal area. When players make a try, the ball has to actually touch the ground for the points to count.
Dotson said rugby players are less likely to have severe injuries from rugby compared to football, even though rugby players do not wear helmets or pads to protect them.
“The injuries are less than what you would think compared to football. We have to actually pay attention to what we are doing or we will injure ourselves,” Dotson said.
People who understand football can understand a little about rugby, which makes it a good sport to watch, Reitzin said.
“It gets the Family out into a good environment,” Montgomery said.
The Headhunters play their home games at Liberty Park, Clarksville. Team members said they want to win their division and go on to compete in the USA club rugby regional playoffs at the national level. The team wants to improve as individuals and understand the game better.
“These guys are doing a really good job at reorganizing and getting us back focused on that. We are not just a play-around team; we are pretty serious,” Montgomery said.
Reitzin would like to teach more people to play the sport and let the community know anyone can play. He said 80 percent of the Headhunters team members are active-duty Soldiers with the other 20 percent being civilians, veterans and local law enforcement.
The team practices every Tuesday and Thursday from 6:30-8:30 p.m., with the women’s rugby team, the Clarksville Valkyries. The field is across from Fort Campbell Fish and Wildlife on the corner of 101st Airborne Division and Lafayette roads.
“Anybody that wants to come out and learn some more or they’ve played forever can join,” said Erin Fordham, spouse of a veteran Soldier and captain of the Clarksville Valkyries.
Fordham said they are rebuilding the women’s team, with only six members right now. The Valkyries had a large number of players from the military, but most of them have been deployed or changed duty stations.
“We go through a cycle where we get to keep reinventing the team and everybody can be a part of something that is brand new. It is very exciting,” Fordham said.
There are no dues. Anyone that wants to participate or just see what rugby is about can go to the Headhunters-Valkyries practices. Fordham said participants do not need to have experience with rugby to play for the women’s team.
“We practice alongside and integrated with the men’s team, sometimes we split, but most of the time we are working together given our numbers,” Fordham said.
To learn more about the men’s Headhunters Rugby team, visit https://www.headhuntersrugby.com/practice. To learn more about the women’s Clarksville Valkyries team, visit https://www.facebook.com/ClarksvilleWomensRugby/.
The next Headhunters Rugby game is 1 p.m. Oct. 20 at Western Kentucky University Soccer Complex, 1797 Creason St., Bowling Green. They will play Chattanooga at 1 p.m. Nov. 10 at Liberty Park, 1188 Cumberland Dr., Clarksville.