- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 16, 2014

COOS BAY, Ore. (AP) - Rugby, welcome back to the Bay Area.

After nearly 40 years without an organized team, the Bay Area Ruggers are trying to introduce rugby back to the South Coast.

Back in the ‘70s, a club team that went by the name “Bay Area Low Life Sliders” played for the better part of the decade before disbanding.

Now the Ruggers and team founder Lee Palmer are keying in on introducing the sport to 21st century athletes. The first hurdle for Palmer is teaching people what rugby really is.

“You hear rugby and you think about these big scary guys. It’s really not (like that),” Palmer explained as his team warmed up during a practice at Sunset Middle School. “It’s a bunch of local guys really into getting fit, having a good time and playing a game.”

Most people Palmer gets are neophytes when they hit the pitch, but some do come with a rudimentary understanding. They know passes have to go backward, the game involves scrums and the ball’s shape is slightly more rounded than a football. But the main draw is the aggression and physicality that comes with rugby.

Rugby takes it out of you. It’s a healthy way to get rid of aggression for sure,” first-timer Don Harvey said. “It’s intense for a lot of people but it also satisfies the trouble-making part of you.”

The season kicks off this June, but the Ruggers will have friendlies that begin this weekend. They’ll head down to Medford to play Southern Oregon University, Oregon Institute of Technology and Rogue River to try to get game experience before the season starts.

Once the games start mattering in June, the Ruggers will face teams from all over the Pacific Northwest throughout the summer.

Palmer is focused on growing the team and sport in the area.

“It’s a small area and rugby is intimidating,” Palmer said. “The idea of rugby is tough. For the new guys who come out here, it takes a real effort to learn the game because it’s so different from anything they’ve ever done. I went from college football to this and it’s so different.”

Palmer has been part of the sport for the past 14 years. He played cornerback for the University of Montana football team during college, but after school he wanted to keep playing some kind of contact sport. His younger brother talked him into playing for a local team - the Missoula All-Maggots - and he ended up playing on it for five years.

His work forced him to bounce around from team to team until he landed in the Bay Area just a few years ago.

Palmer wanted to keep playing, but the closest team was in Eugene. With that kind of commute not really a practical option, Palmer opted to do the next best thing - start his own team.

So in 2011, Palmer decided to start a team at Southwestern Oregon Community College.

He sat in a booth at a club rush, hoping people would show interest in the sport. Twenty-eight students signed up to play that day, enough for a full squad.

“After football, having a tough, athletic sport to do is very slim,” Palmer explained of why people initially show interest. “Once you get older, there’s not a lot of active sports that (are) - I don’t want to say dangerous - but like physical sports you can do.”

After six months, it was clear having the team run through SWOCC wasn’t working for Palmer. Only having SWOCC students pared down the pool of prospective players. Also, the amount of newcomers forced him to be teaching most of the time, leaving him little time to play for himself.

Palmer opened the program to the community so he could get more people to play and allow some of his ex-SWOCC players to continue after they leave school.

The smaller group he has now allows him much more time to play himself while still getting newbies to show up.

“I get new people out here all the time,” Palmer said.

The Ruggers have done well without much fanfare. As a club team, Palmer has to hustle to get the word out. The only way he advertises is the occasional poster he’ll hang on his own and his bread and butter - word of mouth.

Harvey is one of the rookie Ruggers. He started about four months ago after Palmer saw Harvey doing a work study at SWOCC. Palmer implored him to check it out and Harvey obliged.

“He brought me out and showed me how intense it was,” Harvey said before getting a little self-deprecating, “And I realized how out of shape I was and it motivated me to come back. “

Palmer figures if he can get a guy out there one time, he knows they might turn into a lifer.

“I went to my first practice and I was hooked,” Rugger Eli Garner said. “As long as there’s a team, I’ll definitely keep going.”

Garner was a full-time athlete at Reedsport in cross country, wrestling and golf. When he graduated, he went to SWOCC to wrestle and eventually met Palmer. He said he knew “zero” about rugby coming into it, but now he wishes he had it in high school.

“I just stood behind Lee, he’s just a great guy and I have so much fun out here. I’ve never had a bad practice. We don’t come out here and yell at each other. You come out here to have fun,” Garner said.

Moving forward, Palmer would like to eventually reach into the high schools, but is afraid he would be stretching himself too thin. He’s also passionate about getting people interested in rugby leading up to it returning in the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro.

But Palmer’s main goal is that when he’s ready to step down, he wants to be able to pass the Ruggers on to another rugby aficionado.

He knows it won’t be easy.

“I’m 37. I love this sport and it’s hard to walk away,” Palmer said. “I want to get the younger kids involved and grow it here.

“That’s my dream anyways.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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