The Boston Ironsides practice during the preseason in preparation for the Bingham Cup held in Amsterdam this June. The Ironsides are an inclusive team who welcome members regardless of sexual orientation, race or skill set. Feb. 17, 2018. Video by Sarah Rappaport / BU News Service.
By Harry Jones
BU News Service
As the Boston Ironsides Rugby Football Club players warm up for a preseason training session, the atmosphere is jovial. The gymnasium where they train during the winter months rings with laughter and shouting. Rugby balls are hurled up and down the gym, players wrestle the ball out of their teammate’s hands and one player puts the ball on the floor and starts to dribble as if it’s a soccer ball.
Some look as if they have just left high school and could snap in half after five minutes of competitive rugby. Others possess the lofty build and violent look typically associated with rugby players.
As a group, they are atypical, but that is typical of the ethos of the team itself.
The Boston Ironsides RFC is New England’s only member of the International Gay Rugby Association and Board (IGRAB). The club was formed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in honor of Mark Bingham, an openly gay player who died attempting to thwart the hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 93. They define themselves as “open and inclusive,” and consist predominantly of openly homosexual young men.
Since its creation, the club has transformed from a team built to celebrate homosexuality while providing a sanctuary for young, gay men to a competitive, tournament-winning team.
Several of the players credit their coach, Wiremu Kiwi’au Diaz, or “Kiwi” for short, for their success over the past three years.
The laughter halts when Kiwi enters the gym. Of all them, he looks most like the stereotypical professional rugby player. He towers over the squad, his shoulders appear broad enough to fit three regular-sized men between them, and he roars instructions in a thick Australian accent. When Kiwi misplaces a pass during a demonstration, only a few of the older players laugh.
“When I first came to the club, it was identified as New England’s only openly gay, inclusive rugby club,” he said. “Now I like to look at it as an inclusive rugby club that has gay athletes. That piece is no longer an issue to other teams.”
Before joining the team, Kiwi’s professional career took him all over the world, from Samoa to Japan to Hawaii. He has played for the Ironsides for 11 years and started coaching three years ago. He writes on the club website that he felt ostracized by his sexuality during his career.
“I was in the minority,” he writes. “I was out but still felt like I was in the closet. Coaching the Ironsides as a club that prides itself as being inclusive is liberating.”
Although they are coached by a former professional, most players come to the Ironsides with no playing experience. Club Vice President, Alex Shea Will, was thrust onto the field in his first match having only bought a mouthpiece two days earlier.
“All I was thinking was please don’t let the ball come to me,” he said. “Then I caught a kick-off and ran into a tackle and I was OK. Surviving it does wonders for your confidence and on this team it’s especially important.”
His teammate Justin Haddock concurs. “It’s sort of like getting punched in the face,” he said. “When you imagine it, it seems like the worst thing in the world, but when it actually happens, you survive.”
Yet once the session begins, the team looks anything but inexperienced. They fly into tackle bags then crouch down to practice one-on-one scrummaging, where the players drive their opponent back with their shoulders.
Part of their preseason practice routine is a fitness session where Coach Kiwi reads through a deck of cards, where the number of each card corresponds to a number of sit ups, pushups, star-jumps or burpees. Any laughter has long subsided now as the players train with grit and determination. Many of them came to their first Ironsides session for the inclusivity, but have stayed at the club for the competitive rugby.
Alex Shea Will spends his day-to-day life as a pastor preaching acceptance. But it wasn’t until he turned to rugby that he was truly able to accept himself.
“I know for a fact that people have come to the club to seek acceptance when they haven’t been accepted in their outside life,” he said. “It was true for me.”
In addition to being vice president, he is head of marketing for the Ironsides. When Shea Will is not donning his clerical collar, he is promoting inclusivity in a historically red-blooded sport.
“People have come to the team when they are not out to their friends and family, and then have left living as an openly gay person or however they identify,” he said. “That is the ultimate gift the team can be — a catalyst to their journey.”
The Ironsides players find strength not only on the field but through the comfort and support of the teammates they get beaten up with on a weekly basis. Despite an upturn in results in recent years, the Ironsides remain highly social. After each Saturday afternoon game, they meet with the other team for what they call the “third half,” where they drink with that day’s opponents.
“We’re lucky that a lot of the teams are very respectful of our club as a gay and inclusive club in a majority straight division,” said Club President Chris Mick. “We go out with them after the game, then de-stress with our teammates on a Sunday.”
On the day after each game, some players go out again, others convene for game nights and some play in a local dodgeball league together. Many on the team are now roommates.
“If I’m being frank, all my friends are from the team at this point,” said Shea Will. “That’s true for a lot of guys. Our teammates are the ones we call on a weekend night or the first ones we call when we need help moving.”
Haddock agreed. “There’s something about waking up on a Sunday and having someone to commiserate with when you’re both broken and bruised,” he said.
As training ends, the players form a huddle, raise their hands together in the center and shout in unity. Even after a grueling two-hour session, they speak about their core mission of inclusivity and competitive rugby with an unbridled passion.
“I really want people to know that whether you’re gay, or straight, or don’t even know, we are a team that welcomes anyone,” said Shea Will.
“Truly, you’d be surprised how much you can grow, change and learn from something as simple as a sport where you carry a ball and run into people. Your life can change. I know that’s inspired other people on our team to do things in their careers and their relationships that they’d never have thought possible.”
Such togetherness, growth and commitment to one another have enabled the Ironsides to improve as a team. They will fly to Amsterdam to compete in the Bingham Cup from June 2 to June 11.
“Things have changed where the club is gaining respect not just because we’re winning matches, but because we’re showing the club is much deeper and much more diverse than most rugby teams,” said Coach Kiwi.
“Now clubs look at us like, ‘Just because they’ve got some gay players doesn’t mean they don’t hit just as hard.'”