Who is that guy? Jack Clark wondered as the lunatic soared headfirst over the wedge. He'd make a hell of a rugby player.
From the bleachers of Memorial Stadium at the University of California, Clark, the coach of Cal's hugely successful rugby team, had just spotted Gary Hein, a true freshman on the Bears' 1983 football team, at practice that fall. As kickoff team wedge-buster, Hein's only job was to hurl himself at the phalanx of oncoming blockers. Once or twice a game, "just to keep 'em honest," says Hein, he would dive over the wedge. One of those short flights caught the attention of Clark, whose hunch about Hein's rugby future proved correct.
The following January, Hein was stretching outside the stadium, preparing to go for a run, when he was accosted by Don James, a 6'2", 260-pound noseguard on the Bears' football team. "Hi, Gary," said James, "you're coming with me."
James escorted Hein to rugby practice. Clark made him a wing—a clueless wing at first. But Hein quickly caught on to the game; from 1984 to '88, he played on three of Clark's national-championship teams. (Under Clark, the Bears have won five national titles in eight years.) At 21 he was selected to represent the Eagles, as the U.S. team is known, in a 1987 match against Tunisia. He has played 22 matches for the U.S. team, including two World Cups.
Hein is currently captain of the Eagles Sevens. (Sevens is a faster-paced version of rugby in which there are seven players on a side instead of the usual 15, and halves last seven minutes rather than 40.) The team played in the Hong Kong International Sevens last month. Currently it is in Scotland to play in the inaugural Rugby World Cup Sevens in Edinburgh.
Hein may not be the best rugby player in the U.S., but he is the player with the most impressive athletic pedigree. In 1965 his father, Mel Hein Jr., set a world indoor record in the pole vault. His father, Mel Sr., played 15 seasons—172 consecutive games, both ways, at center and linebacker—for the New York Giants, was an eight-time All-Pro and a charter member of the Hall of Fame.
Yet Judy Hein refuses to concede that her eldest son's athleticism derives exclusively from Hein genes. She points out that her father, the late Hal Davis, was a high school miler as well as a fine gymnast and tennis player. Acceding to the demands of his children, Davis would frequently perform his signature standing backflip. "He did one at my sister's wedding," says Judy. "In his hard shoes."
There was no rugby program at Taft High in the San Fernando Valley, where Gary was a star in three sports: football, basketball and track and Held. He went to Cal on a football scholarship and started two years at cornerback. As a senior he was named co-captain and made honorable mention All-Pac-10. Nice credentials, but hardly the stuff of first-round NFL draft choices.
On the rugby pitch, however, Hein was a supernova. In his junior and senior seasons, in addition to being named All-America, he won the Woodley Award, rugby's Heisman. The spring of 1987 presented Hein with a choice: He could shop himself around the NFL as a free agent—Hein figured he had an outside chance to make a pro team—or accept the Eagles' invitation to play in the first-ever rugby World Cup.
He quit football and hasn't looked back. Hein, now 28, thirsts for what he calls life experiences, and rugby has delivered them. The game has taken him to 22 countries, from Uruguay to the United Arab Emirates. "I could have gone to work right after I graduated," says Hein. "As it is, I've seen a lot of the world, made a lot of close friends in a lot of different countries, and I've gotten a terrific education. So it's cost me a few years of financial growth. I'll live."
Part of his education came in Rome in the summer of '88, when Hein and James, the former Cal noseguard, found out exactly how far they could stretch $8. Having toured England and the Soviet Union, the Eagles concluded their trip in France and flew home. Hein and James planned to try out for a professional team in Italy. But an unexpected change in their itinerary forced them to miss the start of the Italian rugby season.
"At the last minute," says Hein, "we realized we should go to Oktoberfest."
Their visit to Germany completed, the two traveled to Italy. But since the rugby season there was under way and Italian teams by then had all the foreigners they were permitted, Hein and James were unable to hook up with a team. After a week and a half of searching, they ended up in a Roman cafè, lamenting their plight over lunch. The bill arrived. Each had expected the other to pick it up. There at the table Hein and James discovered they had, between them, the equivalent of $8.
Hein placed an emergency phone call to Ireland. While acting as an assistant coach for the Eagles in '87, George Hook, coach of Dublin's Old Belvedere Rugby Football Club, had invited Hein to play for his team in Ireland. Now, struggling to keep the panic from his voice, Hein inquired casually if Hook was still interested. Hook came through for both wayward Yanks by arranging for prepaid tickets to be left for them at the Rome airport.
They were not out of the woods yet. "We had to decide what to do with the eight bucks," says Hein. "Use it for cab fare to the airport or pay the tab."
James picks up the story: "Gary stands up and says, 'Well, Don, you're bigger than I am, you handle it' and walks out the door." James followed quickly. The two have vowed to repay the restaurant on their next visit to Rome.
For three months the pair toured Ireland and the United Kingdom with the Old Belvedere club. One weekend in London they found themselves playing for an invitational side, along with seven members of the Oxford University team. Both James and Hein had been thinking of graduate school. After chatting up the Oxonians, both decided to apply to Oxford. Each got in. There Hein and James earned two-year B.A.'s in legal studies and were the first Americans to start for Oxford's "A" rugby side since Army's Pete Dawkins did it in 1961.
Hein saved his best for big games. The annual game against Cambridge, played at Twickenham Stadium outside of London and known as the Varsity Match, is to English rugby what Florida State-Miami is to American football. In 1989 Hein scored both of Oxford's tries in a 22-13 loss. The following season, with his side trailing 3-0, Hein gambled. Anticipating a lateral to his opposite, the dazzling Cambridge winger Tony Underwood, Hein broke early on the ball, intercepted it and tore 66 yards for the go-ahead try. Oxford won 21-12. Had Hein's gamble failed, Underwood would certainly have scored. Asked by a British reporter how he would have handled that, Hein replied, "I would have crossed the line, got into the water and swum back to the United States."
As it was, Hein returned to the States in time to begin training for the second World Cup, in 1991. The U.S. did not come close to winning any of its three matches, losing to Italy, England and New Zealand by a combined score of 112-21.
How is it, American rugby fans wonder, that a country of 250 million people cannot field a team even good enough to beat Italy's? It doesn't help that the U.S.A. Rugby Football Union, the sport's governing body in this country, includes, as one former Eagle says, "a lot of amateurs who act like amateurs. Sometimes we go about it like it's weekend Softball."
U.S. rugby gets no television coverage, thus no television revenue, which makes the sport unattractive to potential sponsors. Touring is expensive, and, as Rugby magazine publisher Ed Hagerty points out, "we're bust."
Yet Hagerty is encouraged. The Rugby staff recently compiled its '93 directory. "The United States now has 1,377 clubs," he says. "That's 28 more than last year. Even in a recessionary year, we grew."
Much of that growth has come in sevens, which emphasizes ball handling, speed and stamina. Steve Finkel, who is coach of the Eagles Sevens side, thinks the game could have more appeal for uninitiated Americans than rugby proper. "Sevens might be the way to sell rugby in this country," he says. "People wouldn't have to sit through an 80-minute game and figure out what the hell's going on."
As a tune-up for this year's World Cup, the Eagles played in three tournaments in March—in Australia, Fiji and Hong Kong. Hein, who works as a law clerk at a San Francisco law firm, has been given considerable time off. Though his status as an Eagle can be a drag on his legal career, Hein isn't concerned. "I know people who went to work right out of college," he says. "They were going to make a fortune now! Three years later they hate their jobs and quit to travel for six months.
"I'm doing my traveling now. I've got the rest of my life to work."