By Jared McInelly (guest columnist), tight head prop, ’99.
“If we don’t play on Sunday, no one will.” – T-shirts worn by BYU Rugby team, 1999.
It was 1999 and the world was concerned with a global apocalypse caused by the Y2K problem. We, on the other hand, were concerned with one thing, beating Arizona.
It was the first time BYU rugby had gone to the Collegiate National Championship playoffs in almost 25 years. For a long time we’d petitioned the league to change tournament play so that no games were held on Sunday. For a long time they’d rejected our request. This year, however, something different was happening.
It began two years before when we started really winning games. 105-8, 65-0. BYU rugby was used to winning but these scores were big, and the team showed a level of consistency and advanced play that Coach Dave Smyth hadn’t seen before. We had chemistry and we loved to play the game. 1999 was the last year that a large group of us would be able to play rugby for BYU. So a couple of us approached Coach Smyth and asked him if we could take a run at the national championship. The thinking was that if we made a good run and got to a Sunday game, perhaps the league would change it to accommodate the cougars. We at least wanted to go for it instead of forfeiting our spot to the hated University of Utah (who, despite having a largely LDS team, didn’t mind playing games on Sunday). Coach Smyth was easily convinced. He had coached most of us for 4 years and saw the potential we had and wanted to test us against the best teams in the nation. We entered the tournament.
Since we had beaten everyone in our league, we were immediately seeded to play outside of Utah. We easily beat Central Washington, 58-6 and St. Mary’s, 42-10. I’ll never forget Dave Wheeler’s solo kickoff return for a try against St. Mary’s. Or Sean Brown’s devastating tackle against the huge, hard hitting Central team. Or Lincoln Nadauld and Eric Oh cutting and slicing through opponents like they were standing still. These wins put us into the sweet 16 tournament held at the Air Force Academy in Boulder, Colorado to play the University of Arizona, a team we’d barely beaten in Tucson earlier in the year.
We took the bus to Boulder.
When we arrived at the Air Force field we were greeted by 2 inches of new snow that was beginning to melt. By the time kickoff came around the field had turned into 6 inches of sloppy mud. It became one of the hardest games we’d ever played, everything in slow motion, with sticky sloppy mud grabbing at our cleats with every step. The scoring was minimal. By the end of regulation it was tied at 7. That put us into overtime. I remember thinking, “Man, I don’t know if I can play another minute.” But we pulled it together and kept battling despite our aching bodies and lactic acid filled legs. End of overtime, no one had scored. Second overtime ended, still no score. In the third overtime the ref told us that it was now sudden death. We’d go until someone scored. We’d now played over 100 minutes of serious rugby in the mud and we’d have to keep going.
It’s times like these where men are really tested. It’s why we play sports; to put us in situations where we are required to go beyond ourselves. Beyond what we think is possible. We had come a long ways, sweating and bleeding, running sprints around the old Smith Field House indoor track, pushing the rusty old scrum sled all over half of Provo until our legs and backs ached only to have Smyth yell, “Again.” We’d beaten Utah and everyone else who had come up against us. It seemed impossible but we dug deep and found the courage to keep fighting.
Two minutes into the third overtime Arizona put the ball into a scrum. Their wily scrum half pulled it out and rocketed the ball to the inside center. The pass followed a nice arc but he’d miscalculated the path of his intended target and the ball sailed behind the receiver, dropping to the ground with a thud. Jeff Bradshaw, our scrum half was on the ball instantly. But instead of taking the time to stoop and pick it up, he kicked the ball down field. It skidded across the mud stopping about 10 m short of our try line. The race was on. Jeff and two Arizona players converged on the ball. At the last second Jeff dove for the ball and the two Arizona players landed on top of him. The momentum of the three carried them, like kids on a slip-in-slide, through the mud and muck and into our try zone. The ref threw his hand in the air and blew the whistle. A try! The game was over; BYU beat Arizona in triple overtime, in the mud, to advance to the final 4.
The field and sidelines erupted. The screaming, hollering and spontaneous jumping and high-fiving were finished off by the whole team running down the field and sliding on our bellies through the mud. The league refused to change the game from a Sunday, so we were forced to forfeit. But we had gone as far as we could. We’d beaten everyone that came against us. And to us, it was a national championship.
It took several more years of protests and an eventual lawsuit to convince the Collegiate Rugby league to change the tournament to a Friday-Saturday schedule. They finally agreed to make the change if BYU made it to the playoffs. We’ve gone every year since then and, as many of you know, finally won our first true National Championship exactly 10 years from that magical season. In talking to those who watched and coached the team that won the national championship in 2009, it sounded like there were many similarities between the style of play, work ethic and team chemistry of that team and those of us who played in 1999. Having played for the 1999 team, it was good to see things come full circle. I felt like we finally earned what my teammates and I had fought for on that muddy field in Colorado so many years ago. I know that all of us that have ever played rugby for BYU felt pure joy in the victory.
I heard later that the University of Arizona was so upset by losing to us in the playoffs and our subsequent forfeiture that they refused to ever play BYU in rugby again.
Jared McInelly currently resides in Seattle, Washington with his wife Camille and 4 beautiful kids. While his rugby days are over, he still enjoys watching the highlight video from the glory days (currently on YouTube, including the last play of the Arizona game where Jeff scores the winning try in overtime). Jared is currently working on a book chronicling his journey from football dropout to starting tight head prop for the Cougar rugby team as they took their first run at the national tournament in 25 years. He also works for National Instruments as a Technical Sales Engineer.
Editor's note: If you played for the ’99 team, Jared would like to get in touch with you as part of his research for the book. Please contact him at email@example.com.
Click the following links to view highlights of the legendary '99 BYU Rugby team: BYU Rugby Highlights '99 Part 1
BYU Rugby Highlights '99 Part 2
By Jared McInelly (guest columnist), tight head prop, ’99.