- Associated Press - Friday, July 18, 2014

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - At age 25, Mark Elrod loved rugby so much he walked away rather than embarrass the sport.

At age 42, Mark Elrod loved rugby so much he changed and saved his life to play it again.

When Elrod was an 18-year-old senior at Woodlan High School, he was a backup offensive lineman at 166 pounds. He always had the aggressiveness and attitude to play much bigger than his size, though, especially the attitude, which is why he was a backup.

To fill that competitive void, he joined the Fort Wayne Rugby Club at age 20. He loved the passion, ferociousness and camaraderie of the game. He could be free on the field, pushing, pounding and screaming with his buddies who all understood without ever having to talk about it. No one needed padding.

Rugby, Elrod tells The News-Sentinel (http://bit.ly/1nEmqPn ), is more about the people who play than the sport itself. They all love the bond they form, which is often more fun than the games because there’s no clock winding down on friendship.

Then Elrod’s body started to grow into his persona. He’d eat anything and wouldn’t stop. Each night he’d drink two liters of pop and consumed junk food or whatever was around like a fire seeking oxygen.

He finally reached 405 pounds and walked away from rugby and his friends.

“I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “I was too big and too out of shape. I just got obsessed with food and over-ate and didn’t exercise. It’s depressing to me to think about what kind of person I could have been if I hadn’t gotten in to that mode.”

He couldn’t run or compete. Feeling out of place, he stayed away from rugby for 15 years. Part of his life that he loved was just gone, shoved to the back of his mind to be forgotten.

Life continued. He got married, started his own landscaping business and drove a bus for East Allen County Schools. He also coached PAL football for 21 years.

Eventually, he decided to have bariatric surgery and went into Lutheran Hospital’s Health Weight Management program. He became a model patient, eventually getting as low as 194 pounds. When that weight didn’t feel right, he settled in around 225 pounds and he’s kept within 10 pounds ever since.

He thought he was busy enough that the competitive itch and his love for rugby were covered over enough to stay buried. But deep loves are never buried for good, no matter how thick the scar tissue.

About five years ago, a year after his surgery, Elrod and his wife, Jennifer, were watching TV and saw a news report about the Fort Wayne Rugby Club’s 40th anniversary. Jennifer had never seen Mark play but knew he was just nuts enough to try it when he vowed to get into good enough shape to play again. He started training.

“Everybody has a craziness that they need to get out every now and then,” she said.

Her husband always took his out on the field, but in this instance, the first time Elrod ran onto the field, some of his old buddies didn’t recognize him. They couldn’t focus their eyes to match up the smaller man with their memories.

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