Tyson Park at 6:30 p.m., an early October evening with the palpable signs of fall warily inhabiting the air, and 20 University of Tennessee undergraduates, all male, are commencing some sort of bizarre autumnal rite. They're jogging, circling a curtailed grass playing field wearing shorts and orange and white jerseys, knee- and elbow-pads like conch shells, white plastic helmets cross-bred from football gear and baseball batting caps, enormous vinyl oven mitts with laces like boxing gloves. They're carrying yard-long metal poles with what look like sagging and misshapen tennis nets on the ends.
After a series of eerily well-coordinated jumping jacks, performed with synchronized pole maneuvers, they form two opposing lines and begin hurtling toward one another, pell-mell, two at a time, and slinging by means of those webbed yardsticks a small hard rubber ball at the oncoming man. If he's adept, the recipient will deftly snag the round little missile in the ragged basket at the end of his stick. If not....
Just a brief jog down Concord Road and across Kingston Pike, clusters of figures alternately converge, violently, and scatter on the softer grass floor of Fulton Bottoms Field, rogue cells combining and dispersing under the eye of a microscope, but with a soundtrack of grunting exhalations. The shapes are battling over the mutant ovular bulk of...something—a rugby "ball," recognizable mainly to those who watch wee-hours cable sports television. The players resemble none of the burly rogues usually on display in those contests, though, some short and squarely built, others lithe and graceful, and all of them shaped...differently than one might expect. They're all women, female UT students exerting in the lonely darkness at this field where Kingston Pike metamorphoses into Cumberland Avenue...
Scarcely a mile away, in the stuffier confines of the old Stokely Athletics Center, another handful of kids, this time garbed in white padded mime suits and black-mesh masks that suggest nothing so much as giant insect heads, vie for position, man on man, on the converted basketball gymnasium floor, slicing and stabbing at one another with fencing swords, the light and flexible foil and the heavier epee and the cruel, hard-cutting sabre...
Fall sports inevitably follow fall classes, the season's first cosmically important football game scheduled scant days after the term's first class. But lost in that torrent of football frenzy and basketball pre-season workouts is the yearly commencing of some 32 club sports at the University of Tennessee, split among various athletic disciplines such as golf and tennis and lacrosse and martial arts.
Jeromy Runion, UT program director of club sports, notes that the difference between varsity, designated by the athletic department, and club sports, which are registered through the dean's office, is chiefly fiscal; most clubs operate on a budget of $3,000 to $5,000 (as opposed to the untold millions that fuel the gridiron program, for instance), with about half that amount granted by the college and the rest mustered by the clubs themselves via dues, fundraising, etc. "If there's enough people interested (in a particular sport)," says Runion, "we'll give them an outlet to participate."
The clubs comprise a not-inconsiderable 3,000 students on a campus of somewhere around 25,000, and membership ranges from the minimum 20 necessary to charter a club with the dean's office to the popular canoeing and hiking club, a so-called "non-competitive" sport club with around 400 members.
Some clubs duplicate varsity sports programs—organizations such as the tennis and women's crew (rowing) and volleyball clubs, which provide outlets for enthusiasts of those relatively popular sports who were perhaps a little—or even a lot—short of earning a spot on the varsity squads.
But less heralded are those clubs that represent more "out-of-the-norm"—shall we say—endeavors. Clubs such as lacrosse, little-known though some semblance of the present squad has twice won regional championships, or the fencing club, an organization infused with more than enough raw enthusiasm to compensate for a general lack of experience among members. Or women's rugby, to take another example, or Greek dancing, or the Western and English Equestrian squads...
"These are what I consider the real 'student athletes,' the inheritors of the original spirit of intercollegiate athletics," says men's lacrosse coach Buff Grubb, a Baltimore native who played varsity at Rutgers University, and now coaches at UT, a sidelight to his consulting business. "These kids aren't getting anything, they're mostly unrecognized. And because of that, as a coach, I always know they'll be motivated."
Who Does What?
On break from a be-helmeted and stick-waving frenzy on Tyson Field, the Chinese fire drill that is a lacrosse scrimmage, club sergeant-at-arms Dan Schlacter relates that unlike a surprising number of his teammates, he's played lacrosse since his high school days in Nashville, where as a sophomore he quit football, wrestling and basketball to concentrate on the game. "I found out it combined the best elements of all the sports I played, the hitting and contact of football, the hand-eye coordination of baseball and basketball..." he enthuses.
There's no reason to doubt that Schlacter could have successfully continued those other pursuits; tall, broad-shouldered and sturdy, with a rugged shock of black hair, he looks well-suited to the rigors inherent to most popular athletic contests.
But because Schlacter, 23, grew up in Nashville, where lacrosse has gradually infiltrated most metropolitan-area high schools, he was exposed to the centuries-old sport (it's a derivative of a Native American game), which was traditionally the province of northeastern and private high schools.
"The stereotype is 'rich kids from the North,' but it's starting to grow real fast in the South, especially the last two or three years," says Schlacter. "The interest level was real high when I was in high school, because it was something no one had ever seen before. People always wanted to pick up a stick, and see if they could throw and catch the ball."
More indicative of Schlacter's teammates, however, are players like Mac McCollum, an 18-year-old frosh who first joined a local club the summer following his senior year at a Middle Tennessee high school. "I have the least experience on the team," he laughs.
Also a former "traditional sports" athlete, McCollum saw lacrosse as a weird, fun way to get the same adrenaline rush and physical gratification he received hitting fellow footballers or grappling on the wrestling mat at Mt. Juliet High; rather than a stronghold of sports tradition, as lacrosse teams at many northeastern and Ivy League schools are, the UT club seems in many ways a catch-all for former high school jocks with a yen at once for the prolonged exertion, the precise execution of skills, and the mano a mano violence their former endeavors variously provided.
Perhaps it's unsurprising that so many club sports, especially the less heralded ones, would be outlets for active newcomers as much as repositories for experienced players. Few high schools in any part of the country have female rugby squads, for instance, and current UT club members such as Lenore Kinder, a former Knox-Halls high school soccer and softball player, and president Christina Miller, a former Kingsport basketball letterwoman, were drawn in by the rough but intricate European game when graduation signaled the end of their participation in those other sports.
What's more, rugby offered that one visceral component of athletic competition taken for granted by male sportsmen, but long denied their female counterparts: the freedom to grapple, strike, or otherwise physically waylay an opponent without fear of official reprisal. "It was a different rush than I'd ever felt before, the first time I could really be physical," admits Miller.
In the case of some club sports, as in the aforementioned hiking club, competition is perhaps secondary to the endeavor itself. That's particularly true with the school's equestrians, where the opportunity to learn about all things equine attracts probably more neophytes and casual horse enthusiasts with no "technical" training than it does formal sportsmen.
"I'd been going on 'trail rides' for 10 or 12 years off and on," says Kent Kilpatrick, a square-jawed Sevierville native majoring in Agricultural Economics at UT. "I never really had to know what I'm doing. I'm doing this to learn more about the proper way to do it."
Kilpatrick and his fellow members of the Western Equestrians trek out to deep Blounty County a couple of times every week to learn the "proper way" at the farm of Maryvillian Roger Elder, the coach of the Western squad. Notes Elder, "If you've never been on a horse in your life, you can still be on the UT equestrian team."
On an infectiously pleasant Wednesday afternoon at the Elder farm, most of the 15 or so club riders gathered on the yellow dusty fringe of the main riding circle are either neophytes or casual riders, brought up on or near farms but lacking in formal instruction. Vivacious Murfreesboro sophomore Blain Newsome is one of the few members sprung from an equestrian background, her father and uncle having both participated in formal equi-sport. She says she turned down several volleyball scholarships, despite the fact that equestrians still aren't recognized as varsity candidates in any part of the country.
"I gave up lots of opportunities because I knew I wanted to come to UT and ride horses," says Blain, with characteristically impish self-confidence. "It's my passion."
Why Do They Do That?
Lenore Kinder is explaining the game of rugby to a layman. "After a tackle, you have to set up the ruck," she explains. "Sometimes when you're rucking, you've got a forward yelling 'punch,' and then you have to send the ball out on overload....
A ruck is sort of like a scrum, she says, only different, and there's only one player who can stick her hand into the scrum—the scrum-half, who's similar to a football quarterback, only not.
At any given moment there are 30 players on the field in a rugby match, and each squad of 15 includes forwards, flankers, the second row, the pack—some of whom are the same individuals, but some of whom are completely separate. Forwards are the ruckers and scrummers, she says, although this doesn't relieve them of any punching responsibilities, which are apparently shared by all. Sort of. But any player on the field can score, she says, the ruckers and the scrummers and the forwards and the punchers and the scrum-halves and second-row flankers and any of the other positions that perhaps haven't even been mentioned yet; all of them can cross the opponent's end-line with the rock and score a tri, so long as all the rucking and scrumming and punching has been executed according to a few simple rules...
"Rugby is the most technical sport on the face of the earth," says Kinder, after several minutes of futile rucking and pointing. "When we're recruiting new girls, we tell them it's a cross between football and soccer, but that's really selling it short."
The fact that sports clubs often provide wholly new opportunities to vent long-running competitive stirrings means that newcoming players accustomed to the ubiquitously understood regulations of baseball and basketball—even tennis or soccer or golf—must familiarize themselves with alien lexicons and parameters heretofore unseen outside the occasional channel-surf through the perilous straits of ESPN2.
And that's part of the fun, or so say club leaders such as James Cantu, a recent UT biology graduate now with the school's Center for Biomarker Analysis. The gangling 23-year-old Texan joined the fencing club four years ago, and now acts as its faculty sponsor.
"There are lots of technical points, lots of strategy, and lots of psychology," Cantu says. "It's about controlling your opponent to do what you want them to do. We don't have any 'typical' club member, except that we don't have too many stupid people. We have trouble keeping officers because so many of them are engineers."
As if to illustrate the point, Cantu and club member Derek Baron prove themselves to be veritable founts of historical information pertaining to fencing, describing the history of bladed combat, fencing's etymological derivations, its roots in the dueling arts of 16th-century Europe.
Part of the sport's complexity, and its appeal, says Cantu, lies in the mastering of three relatively dissimilar techniques—of the epee, the foil, and the saber. Although fencing competitors can choose to concentrate on any single technique, most of the UT club members spread their efforts across all three of the disciplines.
The rules of the foil are the most complex, says Cantu, requiring that fencers attack and score points on a very limited target area by means of contact with the blunted metal point at the end of a lightweight 35-inch blade.
The larger and stiffer epee involves use of similar methods, but makes additional physical demands by allowing points to be scored through contact with any part of the body. The saber, by contrast, alters the parry-and-thrust paradigm of its cousins wholesale by virtue of its (again, blunted) cutting edge, allowing points by means of slices as well as thrusts.
"There's a lot of etiquette, too," says Cantu, who like many other club members, joined as a sophomore simply because he "watched too many swashbuckling movies, and wanted to play with swords."
"It's very mental, which makes it suitable for older people and people who don't so much play the traditional sports," he continues. "It emphasizes balance and timing, not size and force."
Nowhere is the appeal of new sporting ways and means more evident than among the equestrians, where so many of the club members were casual riders drawn by the opportunity to learn, as Kilpatrick noted, the "proper" rules and traditions of an endeavor usually practiced informally.
A senior in music and animal science, Chattanooga native Jennifer Odom had been riding horses for 10 years, competing in so-called barrel races and rodeo events. Yet she'd never had formal lessons in equitation—the specific methods "trained" riders employ in guiding and maneuvering equine entities.
"Technically, equestrian refers to any sport dealing with horses—rodeo or whatever," she explains. "What we learn is equitation. It's like the science for the basic handling of a horse."
Though many of the methodologies are the same, equitation is split into two schools—Western and English—and the UT club has a branch for each. The classic image of the Equestrian—the black-capped rider with a crop, tight pants and a prim red jacket—derives from the English method; its adherents practice at a horse track off Watt Road in far-West Knoxville.
The Western method, the procedure of choice for the riders at Elder's on said Wednesday afternoon, follows more in the hoofprints of the American cowboy than the English foxhunter. "Think of a ranch hand," says Odom. "But everything—the reining, the pattern of maneuvers—everything is slower."
What adherents to either school will learn is how to ride and guide with skill and kindness any horse, whether it be the Elder farm's sturdy American quarter horses, all spring-loaded muscles and deliberate gaits, or lean and elegant Watt Road farm's thoroughbreds, the agile steeds of English-style riders; how to feed and care and properly tend the powerful creatures that are the animate heart of the sport's appeal.
Why Would Anyone...?
Surely competition is still dear to those students who leave behind marquee sports to take part in the likes of crew or fencing or field hockey at the dawn of their college careers. Equestrian Newsome makes the point that despite her departure from a promising volleyball career, she's "very, very competitive. I work on equitation seven days a week."
But the notion of competition as some sort of motivating ideal seems inadequate in explaining why these kids would don robotic fencing gear, or sling hard rubber balls at one another from the webbed ends of three-foot-long sticks.
Actual competitive opportunities are comparatively infrequent for many clubs. UT fencers manage the resources to trek to perhaps two or three meets every semester; likewise for the equestrians. And while the men's lacrosse team maintains a relatively active seasonal schedule, the women of rugby are able to participate in only about three to four scheduled games and a tournament per semester.
At some of these events, the number of players may rival the number of spectators. And the level of prestige and recognition attendant to their endeavors, even under the best of circumstances, is often discouragingly low.
"When I tell people I'm into fencing, I've had people say, 'You work for who?'" Cantu deadpans. "'I always wanted to do construction.'"
There are encounters with the occasional infantile stereotype ("I've heard a lot of people mutter that it 'must be a lesbian thing,'" says rugby president Miller), and the struggles that attend maintaining equipment and traveling squads with only a tiny funding base. Miller adds that the rugby squad's equipment, much of which is warehoused haphazardly in a tool shed on Fulton Bottoms field, is sometimes lost or kept by departing members, and its storage facilities are perennially less than adequate. "If we could just have a closet somewhere on campus..."
Perhaps what sets college club sports apart from high school and varsity sports—many of which are concerned primarily with achievement and prestige, and secondarily with all the other things that athletics are supposed to be about—is that they constitute a holistic embodiment of the sporting ideal; competition and fitness and inclusiveness and mental as well as physical challenges. And camaraderie. And basic fun.
"We've got a lot of girls (on the rugby squad) who haven't played many sports at all," says Miller. "They come to campus, and they're looking for a group to join. And we feel like this is a group where everyone can fit in and feel accepted."