It’s a drizzly Saturday in Portland, Oregon. I’m standing on a muddy field, rugby ball in hand, wearing the red and black hooped number 10 jersey of the fly half of the Reed College Rugby Club. And even at the distance of years, I can still tell you exactly what I am thinking: “Is this the day that I get killed doing this?” This is not an idle concern. In the preceding seasons I’ve dislocated fingers and broken ribs. I’ve had cuts, bruises, black eyes, and stitches. I’ve been kicked, cleated, clothes-lined, and driven head first into the ground. I’ve separated both shoulders and been knocked unconscious. I’ve been on the bottom of a pile so heavy that it nearly pulled my arm out of joint. But I do know one thing. I’ve got 14 teammates out there who have my back, no questions asked. And so, in a weird way, I feel safe too.
Reading Andrew Smith’s Winger brought back some really intense feelings for me. I don’t read a lot of YA fiction. It’s not that I don’t like it as a genre, but my plate is kind of full and I have a stack of things weighing down my desk and laying claim to the very minimal free time that I have these days. That said, I had some good reasons to make time to read Winger. In the first place, it was recommended to me by one of my colleagues with whom I share a lot of common interests. In the second, rugby plays a central role in the book, and as former player, I still have a degree of fascination with the game that is not quite healthy (although maybe not quite as unhealthy as actually playing).
The central character is Ryan Dean West, a fifteen year old junior at Pine Crest Academy. He plays left wing on the rugby, thus the name of the book and our hero’s nickname. When the story opens we find him newly ensconced in Opportunity Hall, the school’s punishment dorm, sharing a room with his teammate XXX, one of the team’s locks whose temperament is (typically for people who play in the second row) aggressive to the point of psychosis.
Rugby is only one of a number of important themes in Winger. Another is the powerful longing for girls that for adolescent boys (or at least for this one) is generally coupled with an almost complete failure to understand them. Ryan Dean is no more susceptible to this, but certainly no less, and he has the temerity (or this misfortune you might say) to have fallen for a girl who is, by all rights, simply out of his league.
For all of this, a great deal of Ryan Dean’s identity is wrapped up in rugby, to the point that he is as often referred to by his position (winger) as by his actual name. That had a lot of resonance for me. I grew up playing soccer, but switched to rugby in college because that was the only team sport my school played. Being on the rugby team marked one out as unusual. Most people in the U.S. in those days had never seen the game played, and were shocked by its speed and violence when they did. For me, playing rugby was one long gut check. Do I really have what it takes to be out here? Ryan Dean is a lot more sanguine about it than I was, a feature of the character that I found quite appealing.
Of course, there is a lot more to Winger than rugby. It’s a story of how trying to cope with the process of figuring out who you are. It’s also about the dangers of being different and what friendship means under pressure. Over and above its sporting dimension, Winger is about trying to navigate adolescence and it really took me back to the self I was then. Ryan Dean is sort of like the person I was, but also like a person I wish I was. He has the full measure of adolescent boy self-doubt, always convinced that he’s stupid or ugly, and always convinced that he’s played every situation wrong.
Ultimately, Ryan Dean learns that it’s the hits that you take off the field that hurt the most. What happens to you between the white lines makes a certain kind of sense, even when it’s grim. What happens in your life outside is open-ended and frightening. Real life is like that, and if sports can prepare you for life it’s still the case that you’ve got to find your own way through living it.