May 06, 2001

Rough & tumble

Written by DAMIAN INGLEBY Photographed by LINDA THOMPSON of the Missoulian

Getting up in age some of the elder Maggots, called Flies, have changed their game but not their attitude

Twenty-five years ago, a motley crew of 18 rebels began a rugby club called the Missoula Maggots. The group is still going, and 14 of those original players are still involved from time to time.

But only six of those original hearty souls - dubbed the "Old Boys" or "Flies" - are still playing, taking some hard knocks, just as they did in 1976, but also learning to play a different way as they push 50.

Russ Cherry is one of the Flies.

"I haven't embarrassed myself yet," he says. "I can still hold my own playing with anybody."

But he also admits that "when you get over 40 years old, you have to work hard."

Work hard they do. On Sunday, Cherry and the other members of the Missoula Maggots wind up their annual Maggotfest, a tournament that draws players and fans for serious play on and off the field.

What was once a small, regional festival of eight to 10 teams and a few hundred people has grown into an event that draws nearly 40 teams and thousands of people from all over the United States.

In fact, according to Cherry, the Maggotfest has become so popular that there could be as many as 80 to 100 teams if they said yes to everyone who wanted to come. The one year they had 48 teams was almost too much to handle, so they decided to scale it back.

"It just wouldn't be fair to this town for it to be that big," Cherry says.

Cherry, in his late 40s, works for Burlington Northern Railroad during the week. But he keeps a ball with him wherever he goes, running technique drills and sprints in his spare time to keep in shape.

Another founding member of the Maggot team is Skip Hegman, who is 49 and now coaches another Missoula team, the Jesters, but still plays with the Maggots occasionally.

Hegman has a running list of injuries as old as the club itself - from a broken knee in 1976 that required a bolt to stabilize the injury, to a torn ACL in 1981, to a broken cheek bone in 1985 and a long-running shoulder injury that "the doc probably won't operate on it until I quit playing."

That isn't likely to happen anytime soon, Hegman says. "I have a few bones that haven't been broken yet."

"When you're young you take the hit," he says. "When you're older you learn better and just pass the ball. Let the other guy get beat up."

Cherry, too, has changed his strategy and play. After more than 600 to 700 games, he is reducing his playing time due to mounting injuries. After hurting his back and neck last year, he voluntarily scaled back to only five out of the 14 games the Maggots play.

Given the intense physical nature of rugby, such strategies are the only way to survive. A combination of soccer and football, with teams of 20 to 30 people, rugby is a madcap, full-contact sport that comes with bumps, bruises and broken bones.

So why do Cherry and Hegman keep playing?

Like other Old Boys, they speak of the camaraderie, brotherhood and freedom of rugby that is unlike any other sport. Maybe it's the long hours on the road, maybe the need to trust your teammates, maybe just the amateur nature of the sport. No big-money to get in the way of just having fun.

Ask 10 players, and you're likely to get 10 different answers.

But everyone agrees that a bond exists, and remains strong.

"I grew up with the Maggots," Cherry says. "With them, well, they take care of you. You need a place to stay and we'll put you up."

"It's a really social event. You play hard, shake hands when you're done and then go out and have a good time."

For such true-believers, rugby is a unique sport. The fast-paced games contain no time outs, no sending in of plays and pretty much no real-time coaching of any kind. The players themselves are responsible for any strategy, in what Hegman calls "full contact chess."

"It's just a big family," Maggots' coach Geoffrey Thombs says in a thick Australian accent. "At this level there's no politics, no money. It keeps things on par."

Thombs, who has been playing since the age of 4, says that anywhere in the world where there's rugby you're guaranteed to have a place to stay. One time in Venezuela, Thombs says, he ran into a lady whose former boyfriend was a rugby player. She linked him up with the local team and Thombs had a place to stay for the rest of his trip.

"Now I have an extra 30 friends ... in Venezuela," he said. "That's just the way it is."

The Maggots have a well-deserved reputation for being a hard-partying group. Their beer drinking and carousing is legendary in the annals of Missoula history, and those early days were steeped in alcohol.

Activities included such things as flying down a beer-soaked slip-and-slide in the nude, and business meetings where everybody brought a six pack of the cheapest beer they could find, then proceeded to have knock-down fights about how to spend club money.

Before home games, the team would often get liquored up, and then after the game, party their way across town afterward with 40 or more guys. For road games to places like Billings or Canada, there would be a keg on the old school bus that served as their transportation. The bus would break down several times along the way, turning a six-hour trip into 10 hours, and team members would show up to games thoroughly drunk.

"We all had long hair, beards, different colored socks, different shoes," Cherry recalls. "And we'd always lose.

"And they said, 'You look like a bunch of maggots,' " Cherry says. "It was Missoula in the 70s, this town liked to have fun. The parties, people had fun, they would take their clothes off and have a scrum out."

Seeing this crew of inebriated foes, Canadian teams began calling them a "maggoty looking crew" or a "maggoty drunk." So, when it came time to name their club, Maggots was a natural fit.

Cherry admits that the drinking and nakedness haven't gone completely away, but right now, he says, the Maggots are more about rugby than anything else.

"For so long we've had to battle with people who don't think we're serious. We are. But we still like to have fun," Cherry says. "As a guy who's played for 25, 26 years, I have to say that it's about the game. The partying is all good, but it's not our first priority."

Cherry was in charge of security at the Maggotfest this year. Missoula police helped out at the games, he said, and the club provided a bus to shuttle anyone who had too much to drink. All part of an effort to be sure people have fun - but don't get hurt.

This new approach is not only for the protection of the revelers, Old Boys say, it is out of respect for a town that has allowed the event to become what it is today.

"Missoula makes Maggotfest," Hegman says. "It's a very tolerant culture, very accepting and accommodating.

A more conservative community probably wouldn't let it continue on as it has. The festival would not be what it is today without that."

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