The following was taken from a newsletter written by Dave Wheelock in honor of the Rio Grande Rugby Union’s 40th aniversary in 2014. In addition, the attached images below are of a “High Desert Classic” program flyer (page 1 and page 3) and from approximately 1973 prior to the official formation of a few of today’s current New Mexico Rugby Clubs.
Following in the spirit of a similar effort on behalf of the Santa Fe Rugby Club a couple years back, here’s a primitive stab at the early days of the Rio Grande Rugby Football Union. Your correspondent, being of an advanced age and somewhat the worse for wear as a result of nearly 30 years in the back row, makes no claims to absolute accuracy of events, and as for dates and scores, well, dream on. Those details are for other dinosaurs to fill in (those who did not lose their memories through tackling and post-match revelry – in other words, lesser types). If you know one of these relics, run and show him this treatise; he may wish to correct/add to/bore you with embellishment.
Origins of Rugby in the Rio Grande Valley
By Dave Wheelock
My first memories of rugby will forever orbit the metal gridiron goal post which stood in the middle of Johnson Field on the University of New Mexico campus, circa 1972. The rugby field (no one heard the term “pitch” until years afterward) ran N-S in those days, and the extensive warmup prior to practices always consisted of the guys (college kids with a few experienced transplants, like balding attorney Greg Worley, who at about 30 years of age, seemed impossibly ancient) lazily punting the ball back and forth between the uprights. I still vividly recall almost all of my first teammates. Such has been the importance of rugby to my life.
This was, of course, prior to the founding of the Rio Grande Rugby Football Union, at the then-annual all-comers tournament in Socorro in 1974. More on that in a later edition. The Gentlemen of New Mexico RFC had already become the UNMRFC to distinguish themselves from the nascent Santa Fe club. It was against those upriver worthies that I got my first run, a scrimmage at SF’s long-serving Ashbaugh Park. In those early days, if we were not playing Santa Fe, it was off to Denver or Austin or some other exotic place, reciprocating matches the following season with as much Budweiser as giant prop Richard Mateucci would spare us from his Premier warehouse. Watch for more on the social side in an upcoming edition of this fine rag.
Well before I left UNM in 1975, some students at New Mexico Tech, led by the late Tim Franklin and the very much alive Hans Paap (then Waight) started a club in Socorro, and a wild crew of primarily UTEP students had kicked off the El Paso Scorpions. One of the most-storied clubs in Rio Grande history, New Mexico State, also dates back to the early 70s. A Kirtland Air Force Base club, the Nomads, also formed in Albuquerque, and sometime in there, the Aardvarks formed from a core of experienced UNM players. Some years later, perhaps the late 70s, amidst the rise and fall of rugby clubs around the state (Holloman AFB, Pecos Valley Oddballs, Farmington under a variety of names), UNM once again became pregnant and produced the Brujos RFC. About this time, too, Durango and the irrepressible Jim Simms came into play.
I use the word “wild” to describe the El Paso club based on personal experience. I played for UNM in what must have been one of EPRFC’s very first matches, at a practice field near the Sun Bowl, sometime around 1973. It was near Halloween, dim memory suggests, but for whatever reason, the EP players (did the nickname come later?) had painted their faces hideously, and engaged in expressively loud grunting when tackling, which struck us as somewhat coarse. (Even in those early days we neophytes somehow had clearly defined, highly revered boundaries of things “rugby” – this may have been the influence of early prophets such as Ray Marrone, Rocky Shasco (sp), Pancho ?, Pat Whelan, et al.) For their part the EP boys doubtless took us for sissies for complaining, giving birth from the get-go to the misunderstanding that stood for many years between north and south.
I hope the reader has enjoyed this modest effort on Rio Grande Rugby Football Union pre- and early history. The next edition, assuming the survival of publisher and cub reporter, will delve more closely into the curious beginnings of the Rio Grande RFU in the bowels of a NMT dormitory. All non-violent feedback is welcome, particularly details surrounding RGRFU’s founding, as well as suggestions for future scribblings.