Why We Play Special Edition: Louie Brown of men’s rugby

Senior rugby player Louie Brown (Philadelphia, PA) fights through a tackle in a game last year against Union College. In a special edition of the Misc’s “Why We Play” feature, Brown reflects on playing rugby after the passing of a loved one. Courtesy of Louie Brown.

I used to have this daydream all the time over this past summer, the summer before my last Fall season with Vassar Rugby. I think it was one of those things that any competitive person can’t help but think about. Sitting outside in an Adirondack chair at the summer camp where I was working, I’d drift forward a few months from the sweet, soft grass under my toes to the crunch of a cold rugby pitch collapsing under my cleats. I’d picture myself and my team playing in our conference championships, burning for a repeat win from last year.

The game would be close. Really close. So close that I’d end up making some miracle, game-winning play. It didn’t matter what that play was, just that it would be glorious. And after scoring the game-winning try or tackle or whatever, I’d picture myself dropping to my knees and weeping—because I won it all for my dad.

In high school, when I was a wrestler, my dad was the parent who came to see me wrestle. My mom always said that it would have scared her too much to watch (I love my mom so much), but my dad would come and see me be a competitor and an athlete every now and again. He never got to see me play rugby, outside of a few highlights and a recording of one game I showed him from freshman year to help teach him the game. I think that he really would have loved to see me play. I would have loved to play for him, but it just didn’t work out. It didn’t even occur to me during freshman year to ask my parents to come up from Philly to watch me play, and in sophomore fall they never had the free time. In sophomore spring my dad was too deep into chemo to make the four-hour trip from Philly to Vassar. In junior fall we’d already abandoned chemo and had gone all-in on a clinical trial. He was struggling just to get out of the house. In junior year, before the spring season started, he died—exactly a year ago, on Feb 21, 2018.

I like to think that my dad was the same kind of athlete that I am. The Larry Brown that I knew was the most patient and kind man that I’ve ever known, but I like to imagine that when he played basketball at Caltech, he’d unleash himself in the same way that I do when I play rugby. I picture him finishing his pregame warmups with the same gentle smile that I spent 21 years seeing on his face. The moment the game begins, he drops the smile and taps into an intense power planted somewhere deep in his core. He forgets about everything outside the court and just plays. This is the sort of athlete that I am, so I like to think that this is the sort of athlete that he was, but I don’t think I’m right.

Feb. 21, 2018 was the warmest February day ever recorded in Philly—the high was 77 degrees. The warm asphalt of our driveway soothed my bare feet as my family and I stood together while the funeral drivers arrived, zipped him up, and took my dad away from his home of 21 years for the last time. I waited until the hearse had made its clunky K-turn out of our driveway and disappeared down the street. And when it had gone past I turned my inner-eye to see its path and lost myself in the fearsome wave of emotion that I saw.

That night, I wrote the eulogy that I’d been holding in my head for years. Words that I’d worked so hard to ignore after each moment in the onslaught of bad news and failed medicine and declining conditions flowed out of my head and down my spine. The words came rushing out of my hands and onto the computer keys. The words fled out of my eyes in my tears and my snot and my slobber. The words descended into the earth out of my footsteps—footsteps that were the footsteps of someone who mourned for the end of the world which was his father, but that were also the footsteps of someone who would never again have to see his father alive but decayed.

When I write, I think of my dad.

When I play rugby, I forget about my dad. I don’t really remember any of the games of rugby that I’ve played, not for the most part. I’m pretty sure that’s got nothing to do with the game itself: I’ve never even been officially concussed! Every game of rugby is eighty minutes of my life that are too intense to be recorded into memory, so instead I have the privilege of knowing how those eighty minutes make me feel.

When I play rugby, every part of my body is in perfect communication, with the world thundering on around me. My interactions with the planet are more honest: Every tackle makes me appreciate how soft the ground can feel or curse how much it hurts to land the wrong way. My energy is sucked up and shared with the energy of my teammates. We are all giving everything that we have for each other, and in the polymerization of our spirits while our bodies scrum and ruck and tackle and stumble around, we turn emotion into energy, all working to push the ball forward one meter at a time.

When I play rugby, I forget about my dad.

I have been dreading this week for a year, and I think that I will dread it again every year for the rest of my life. But I wanted to write something for my dad to mark the occasion. I’d been thinking about writing a submission for the Misc’s “Why We Play” series on student-athletes, and so I got to thinking about why I play rugby, and so I got to where we are now, on this page. For as much as I daydreamed about the Hollywood moment, winning the championship “for” my dad, that is not the kind of competitor that I am. I don’t play rugby because it makes me forget about my dad, and I don’t play rugby because I want to forget about him.

The best thing that I got from my Virginia Woolf seminar last semester was a little quote I copied down from her autobiography, “A Sketch of the Past.” “We—all human beings,” she wrote, “are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

When I play rugby, I am the thing itself. The vibrancy of the work of art that is the world erupts around me in thuds and grunts and gushes through me in my blood. It builds and builds and builds, thriving off of the pain and the exhaustion and the fear and the pleasure. The life of the game envelops me, and it is more beautiful because this world is also the dulled world that my dad does not live in. When the final whistle is blown and the world outside of the field rematerializes, it always feels more alive.

I don’t play rugby because it makes me forget about my dad. I don’t want to forget about my dad. I just play rugby because it makes me feel good.

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