Minneapolis Mayhem: Ruthless gay rugby

In the scrum: The Minneapolis Mayhem go head-to-head with the St. Thomas Blue Ox

In the scrum: The Minneapolis Mayhem go head-to-head with the St. Thomas Blue Ox

On a blisteringly hot Saturday afternoon in Eagan, a fierce-looking gang of gay men gear up to beat the hell out of some Catholic school boys.

"Are you ready to kick some ass?" the leader shouts.

"Yeah!" they shout back.

With that, the Minneapolis Mayhem, the state's only gay rugby club, sprint onto the field to do battle with the St. Thomas Blue Ox.

It's a fierce contest from the outset. The Mayhem are bigger and stronger. In the tight, grunting scrums, they're able to out-muscle their opponents, forcing them back off the ball.

But the St. Thomas kids are younger and faster, and several of their players own deadly kicking accuracy.

The Mayhem vie for the ball in a line-out

The Mayhem vie for the ball in a line-out

The Mayhem score a pair of tries—rugby's equivalent of a touchdown—but the Blue Ox's booming punts downfield keep the Mayhem on defense for much of the game.

The Mayhem get a final boost when one of the team's veteran stars, scrum half Brian Cheese, takes the field. Cheese has been out much of the season with an injury, but is making a tentative return to test his legs.

Within a couple of minutes, Cheese has racked up a pair of impressive tackles and sent the ball back into St. Thomas's backfield. But it's not enough. The older Mayhem team is clearly exhausted in the early summer heat, and can't manage to get another try.

This isn't the first loss for the Mayhem this year, nor will it be their last. But Cheese and the team see reason for optimism.

"There were a lot of things that went well today," Cheese says. "We looked good for a lot of it. Our new players looked good. We're going to keep getting better."

Cheese had never played rugby when, in the winter of 2005, he saw a sign in a bar bathroom seeking volunteers for a gay rugby team.

"I signed up," he says. "We had our first meeting in the basement of the Eagle Bar, just sitting around in a circle on bar stools."

Most of the men who'd responded to the ad were in their 30s or even 40s, and few had ever picked up a rugby ball before. Some hadn't played any kind of organized sport since they were kids.

"It just seemed like something different," Cheese says. "No one else was doing it. It seemed really physical and demanding, and that attracted me."

That winter, the recruits started practicing under the Hennepin Avenue bridge. They began with running and conditioning drills—nothing that really resembled rugby. By summer, they were organized enough to start playing other club teams.

It wasn't pretty. Most of the other teams were lifelong athletes with years of rugby under their belts.

"We were awful," Cheese says. "We probably didn't score at all our first few years. Everyone was working really hard, but we kept losing. It was really demoralizing. A lot of people quit."

The team's fortunes began to change one day when Garnet Towne of the Minnesota Valkyries, one of the top female rugby teams in the country, came by to watch the Mayhem practice. She offered some tips and volunteered to coach the team.

"She sort of adopted us," Cheese says. "Things started turning around. Retention was really high. We started to look like rugby players."

Playing both against club teams in the Minnesota Rugby Union and other gay teams across the country through the International Gay Rugby Association and Board, the Mayhem began to rack up victories. At their first gay rugby tournament in New York in 2006, they came in fifth out of ten teams.

The Mayhem had their big breakthrough three years ago in Seattle, at the biannual Bingham Cup, a sort of World Championship for gay rugby teams. The Mayhem took second place, a stunning accomplishment for such a young team. Last year, partly in recognition of their strong showing, the league held the Bingham Cup in Minneapolis.

At the end of the season, many of the older players felt it was a good time to step away from a game that's punishing even for young bodies. At the same time, Towne announced she wouldn't be coaching the team anymore.

For the first time in the club's short history, it looked like the whole enterprise might fall apart. Heavy recruiting pulled in enough new players to field a team, but many of the rookies were brand new to rugby.

"A lot of the new guys are really good," Cheese says. "But this year we've definitely been going back to Rugby 101 again."

After the game against St. Thomas, the Mayhem file past the opposing team to congratulate them, then pack up their gear and make for their cars. Next stop: Merlin's Rest on East Lake Street. An unspoken rule of rugby is that every game is followed by a "third half" of beer and raucousness at a local bar. As home-field hosts, the Mayhem are picking up the tab. But the St. Thomas team hasn't shown yet.

"Are they coming?" Kent Karls asks.

No one seems to know. It looks like the Mayhem are about to get stood up by a bunch of college kids. But an hour late, a handful of the Blue Ox players who are old enough to drink show up.

The Mayhem greet them with cheers. The game is rehashed—who the hell are those kickers?—then, with an undisguised urgency, the conversation turns to recruitment.

"Are you staying around here after college?" team treasurer and forward Jake Sutherland asks the St. Thomas players. "Have you thought about playing with a club team?"

Suddenly the hum of conversation is shattered by a bellow from the Mayem's assistant coach, Nathan "Grinder" Thompson.

"Who can take a bicycle?" Thompson shouts.

The ruggers on both teams know what to do. They drop their conversations, and yell back: "Who can take a bicycle?"

"Rip off the seat!" Grinder shouts.

The bar echoes back: "Rip off the seat!"

Grinder finishes out the verse: "Stick your granny on it and push her down a cobbled street!"

When one of the St. Thomas players stands to lead a song that involves dancing in circles with a beer on his head while simulating cunnilingus, the Mayhem gleefully join in but substitute blow job gestures at the appropriate time.

"This is kind of the beauty of rugby," says Assistant Coach Bill "Mother" Meyer. "It doesn't matter who you are, what your orientation is, what you look like. If you're ready to sweat and bleed on the pitch, and drink and sing afterwards, you're welcome in this community. Everywhere you go, all over the world, you'll find rugby players who respect you."