The cool February desert air seemed to penetrate my scarf and jacket combo. I looked more like a haggard New York City bum on Christmas Eve than a spectator at a rugby tournament, and I felt like one too.
It had been a long succession of days and nights in Las Vegas. A string of 24 hour periods in that town can leave even the most resilient in an exhausted, immobilized state. But even now, as I sat slumped on the bleachers feeling the sometimes-warm-sometimes-cool brush of the Nevadan sun, a content smile crept across my face.
The action on the field these past few days had been incredible. The one major let down had been the United States’ game against Canada. A conversion attempt from directly in front of the posts sailed wide and sealed the loss for the Americans. It was easy to feel small in that moment, surrounded by foreigners in a crowded stadium. It was an especially easy feeling sitting next to my comrade Dos, who was draped in a vertically inverted American flag.
True, it would be unfair to take the Americans pitiful record during their time as hosts of the HSBC 7’s World Series at face value. A match the first night against the bone crushing Samoans ended in narrow defeat by a mistaken U.S. grubber out of bounds just before full time.
And the previous day a close loss to surgical Fiji in a similar manner (it was a punt out of bounds this time) proved the U.S. could hang with the higher echelons. They could even win, were it not for lethal mental errors.
Lack of discipline; it was the same disease that plagued my club at Rutgers. All of the pieces were always there and we certainly had the talent to compete, but we just couldn’t execute. It seemed that plight of Rutgers was echoed on the national stage. God help American rugby.
“No, no. All in good time,” I thought. “Perhaps we could make a statement in Rio. A strong Olympic showing might ignite some more interest in the United States.”
Indeed, the Americans had turned some heads with their play. Unfortunately each game ended up with the Eagles as the butt of many accented jokes. It was as it should have been. Chants of “Rutgers Rugby!” even came out of our demoralized little group after a while. It was the manifestation of the pure agony one feels when faced with unrecognized potential.
But now the Fijians were getting ready to take on Samoa in the 3rd Place match. As soon as the teams’ names popped up on the digital scoreboard, America became a distant memory. Samoan flags dominated the stadium. Massive crews of massive Samoans stomped and hollered in full throat as they waited for their ruggers to take the pitch.
When they did the place erupted even further.
“Christ,” I muttered under the Earth shattering roar, “we’re in fucking Samoa!”
For three days I had privately loathed the Samoan lot. I saw Samoans as brutish and over aggressive, ignorant and self absorbed. “Large and in charge,” a phrase Lauren had used when I was expressing my aversions, kept coming to mind. It was through only mere brushes with these people in the stadium and on the shuttle from the hotel that I developed this distaste, but it had been enough for me to make a fiery statement to my companions at dinner the night before.
“If I ever somehow stumble into the White House and find myself as president, we invade Samoa,” I said, slamming my fist on the table. “Forget all of that non-interventionism garbage! We invade Samoa!”
I have a way of getting caught up in the moment, but at the time I meant it.
And now I was plopped right next to a mass of Samoan women holding a huge banner of their team, bronzed and shirtless on the beaches of Samoa. My first reaction was to grimace, and it was compounded by the raucous they were stirring in the stadium.
The noise level didn’t lower until Samoa lined up to kickoff, and even then it was just below deafening. The kick was high and perfectly ten meters, sailing directly above the head of one of the Fijians. He ran forward and jumped for it, but the ball was whisked away by one of the Samoans before he could lay his hands on it. Without breaking his stride, the Samoan was touching the ball down in the try zone.
“Unbelievable,” I said. The words were never heard by any living creature. The stadium walls shook from the inside out and it looked like more Samoan flags had joined us since the start of the game. The announcer’s garbled words could barely be heard over the din. I felt hopelessly trapped with the people I despised most, almost as if some uninvited houseguest who refuses to leave had just turned up in my living room one day.
It wasn’t long until Fiji answered back with a brilliant try of their own. In that moment I noticed for the first time that the number of Fijians in the stadium easily rivaled that of the Samoans. They were quiet and more reserved, but when their team achieved they were anything but hidden. Fijian flags began to neutralize the intense red backdrop of the Samoan flag with a soothing sky blue. We had one too. Lauren and Patrick were each holding a corner of it up whenever the Fijians scored.
The game was back and forth, with both sides showing pure brilliance and athleticism. The agile and shifty Fijians continuously struck back, only to be answered again by powerful Samoa.
One particular Samoan attack saw two Fijians slammed down to the turf by the arm of the same ball carrier. It was an exhibition of remarkable strength, punctuated by cackles and hurrahs from the Samoan sections of the stands.
I found myself cheering for both teams. The Samoan team was certainly a force, and Fiji had impressed the entire tournament.
At half time Samoa had the lead, but Fiji was far from beaten. The crowd had broken up a bit and settled into scattered conversation. The women next to me were joking with one another, and I listened to what they were saying for the first time.
“Ooooh look at him,” one half shrieked. “He’s sexy.” She pointed to a player on the banner and her friend snapped a picture. There were five or six of them around the banner and three sitting in front that weren’t in the shot.
I rolled my eyes.
“You like him? Let’s see, let’s see, which one is going to be my baby daddy?” The second woman paused and scanned the banner. I rolled my eyes. “Hmmmmm, this one,” she hollered.
“You too old,” someone shouted. I smirked.
The first woman yelled to yet another friend who was standing next to her. “Which one is going to be your baby daddy?!”
I felt another eye roll coming on until I heard her shout, without hesitation, “all of them!”
My cool stare was broken and my smirk disappeared into a full fledged grin. I fought back a laugh that escaped as a huff of air and felt a few more chuckles forming in the depths of my stomach. It was a stupid little joke, but all of a sudden my distaste for all things Samoan started melting away.
One of the women tapped Pat on the shoulder and asked him to take a picture for them. Dos was in the shot and hurriedly jumped out of frame when he realized. As he did so one of the women gave him a jolly look and said “get out of the picture…unless you want to be in it!” He stepped back in for a moment as a joke and we all laughed.
It is strange how sometimes a benign moment can make you realize your own faults. For three days I counted Samoans as an irritant, as less evolved, before I even spoke to one. Normally these kinds of prejudices do not afflict me, but I had subscribed to an abrupt, blanket generalization that I myself had created.
I kicked myself for having allowed it to happen. I try to be open minded, and yet I was thinking like a fascist.
Whether my image had been unfounded or not, the shared laugh with the Samoan women seemed to illuminate redeeming qualities in every Samoan everywhere I looked. While I had once branded the throngs of Samoans as obnoxious, I now took pause and realized that their chorus had been all positives. They were much more respectable than Yankees or Eagles fans in the States; there was not a negative word to be hurled. Hell, the Americans and Canadians were practically at each others’ throats hours earlier.
“Passion. It’s true passion for. They’re not against anything. They just want their boys to win,” I thought. I identified.
One enormous Samoan man caught my eye from across the row. He was wearing a baseball jersey with Selah written on the name plate. I recognized the word at once. Hunter S. Thompson often used it after wildly driving a point home. It is a Samoan word which essentially imposes on the listener the obligation to “stop and think on that.” The dominating character of many Samoans assured me that this man had made many people “stop and think on that.” The vicious stiff arms being thrown on the pitch were speechless Selahs being handed out for free. It is an attitude which demands respect for the apparent truth.
It is my belief that this notion need not be said, but made obvious.
In that moment, it was clear to me that I needed to calmly rethink my attitude toward the Samoan people. The culture is fiery and proud, and perhaps a bit in your face, but that is no reason to write off an entire country.
It is humbling to look at yourself and see the disgusting pimple of racism sprouting from your own forehead. It is at that moment, when faced with the truth, that you must make an active decision whether to live by stereotypes or reconcile them with reality. Will you feed that senseless hatred and manufactured ignorance? Or will you acknowledge humanity and react with love, understanding, and acceptance?
It seemed to be no coincidence when Samoa won in extra time, 36-31. It was the best match of the tournament and the stadium was in an uproar.
This time, still in my original slumped over position, I took part in it.