For many schoolboys, a varsity letter means status and prestige.
The earning of a letter isn't necessary at Langley High School, however, where about 30 students have shunned the spring varsity sports for a rough-and-tumble game called rugby.
"Around here, people don't ask if you play rugby," one player boasted.
"If we played football, we wouldn't get any recognition, but in rugby, we're former East Coast champions," chimed in another.
Indeed, the rugby club boasts a much better record than the school's football counterparts, who were 3-7 last season. The rugby club has lost only one game in the last two years. It was to St. Francis of New York for last year's East Coast Schoolboy title.
Langley's club is a diverse bunch - ex-footballers who were looking for a contact sport with less pressure, kids who tried other spring sports and failed and others who just happened upon the game.
Robert Fisher, 5-foot-4, 100 and some-odd pounds, is a good example. Until he was 12, he could play football and basketball with the best of them, but then all his friends got taller and wider, and Fish, as they call him, stayed the same.
"In high school, he didn't have the build for the popular varsity sports," recalls his father. "He tried wrestling, but he hust didn't like it enough, but, in this game, he's really found his hiche."
His niche is as a hooker, a rugby forward position that Fisher's build fits perfectly. The hooker plays in the first row of the scrum, and two props support his weight as he uses his feet to kick the ball back of to his teammates.
Many other players also seemed to find themselves very much at home with rugby. "It's just the best game there is," one said simply. Many of Langley's players are seniors this year, and most plan to continue to play this "ruffian's game played by gentlemen" in college.
If all goes well, Langley's club could give the seniors on the team a nice going-away present to take to college - the distinction of regaining the East Coast championship. They looked prepared for the challenge in their match against McLean last Wednesday, which Langley won. 26-6. It was the first time an opponent had scored this season.
The East Coast Schoolboy Tournament is scheduled here May 14. and schools from Philadelphia and New York, as well as Washington, will compete in the single-elimination event.
"Langley is head and shoulder above everyone else in this area." said St. John's rugby coach Jim Brogan. So there's a good chance they'll be defending the metro area's honor against an out-of-town squad.
Despite the club's success, Langley High School does not recognize the sport or support it. "Apparently they're doing well and we're happy for them in that respect," said athletic director Dick Graves.
"But the rugby club is not supported by the school for several reasons - it's not a recognized sport and we only have a limited amount of facilities, too."
Of the nine high school rugby clubs playing, only one, De Matha, has financial backing from the school. The relative inexpensiveness of the sport, however, allows the students to participate. All they need is a pair of cleats and a jersey. Rugby's rules do not require padding, despite the hard-hitting nature of the sport.
While the school tend to ignore the student ruggers, the Potomac Rugby Union (PRU), whose aim is to promote, sponsor and encourage rugby clubs in the area, has organized a high school league and the Schoolboy Tournament.
The idea, explained former PRU secretary David Harrington, is gradually to spread the sport down to the younger boys from the college and club sides that are booming in America today.
"We've seen the fruits of high school rugby already," said Harrington. "Players have moved on to form new clubs in their colleges. A whole crop of new younger players are coming out, and they'll make all the difference in the world, as far as the growth of American rugby is concerned," he continued. "Where soccer has gone in the last 10 years, rugby can obviously follow," he concluded.
PRU president Bill Howard sees the game as an excellent opportunity for high school boys. "Every boy gets to play a whole game," said Howard, "since substitutions are not allowed."
"Rugby is a game a sportman can play through and after college, it's not an elitist sport," he continued. "I'm still playing and I'm old as the hills," said the 43-year-old surgeon.
Besides Langley, other clubs in Virginia include West Springfield. Fort Hunt, McLean and Mount Vernon. Coach Jody Taylor found the students' parents "dubious" about the sport at first because of a lack of awareness. Their support was esssential because each player must have a release form signed by a parent or guardian. "But after we got started, the parents received it very well, and I've had several of them thank me for helping their sons along with rugby," he noted.
In Montgomery County, John Haberman, now coaching at Whitman, started both Whitman and Churchill on the road to rugby. Haberman had a costly game agianst Langley, when three of his players were injured and sent to the hospital. The broken nose victim was put out of commission for the season, but the bent collarbone and cut injuries are now back on the field.
But the ruggers still claim that the sport is "rough but not dangerous" and that that particular game was just hard-hitting.
And they'll probably continue to ruck and scrum and line-out, despite fear of school officials that the slogan "Given Blood, Play Rugby" is more than just a joke.