Vol. 3, No. 2: Today’s Baseball Fans photo

For the Sake of ItClaire Fennell

As a child, I swam on a team where we would pen our lane and race assignments on our chlorine dry skin with markers as thick as some of the younger girls’ forearms. I played soccer for a team with an unofficial mascot of a tattered Pink Panther stuffed toy that the MVP of the game got to take home each week. I took a dance class, where I was laughed at for suggesting we wear monkey costumes for our final performance. For a season, I played softball, hitting neon green balls with a neon green bat. 

None of these athletic endeavors outlived my childhood. I would never be good enough to earn college admission from my “prowess,” so I could hardly see the point. Instead, I had taken a hard and embarrassing pivot into the realms of theater and debate. 

Julia was different.

My sister, Julia, has always been a wall of muscle (a gift that resulted in many tears and cries of “I’m telling mom!”). 

As I transitioned away from childhood sports, her love only intensified. She trained in CrossFit and played post on our high school’s basketball team. When she reached college, she found her true love. 

I will confess to not understanding rugby.

I don’t mean the sport itself — Julia’s obsession is sufficient to make me competent in its rules (they call them laws). I just don’t understand why someone would play rugby.             At the sport’s behest, Julia has had foot surgery, as well as innumerable bruises and gashes catalogued in photographs she sends to myself and my parents. She has told us horror stories of playing the sport on frozen grass in the dead of Wisconsin winter. 

In every bit of game footage, Julia is bright red and covered in dirt, thrashing, like a worm plucked from the soil. 

Aside from NIL contracts, it is next to impossible to make money as a women’s rugby player in the United States. It is unlikely that playing will earn you a college scholarship, and, even at the professional level, the athletes are unpaid. Unless you play internationally, it is unlikely that your pocket will grow even a penny heavier for your endurance. 

Julia plays for the University of Chicago, and aspires to play for Chicago’s professional team, the Chicago Lions. Currently, players for the Lions pay their team $250 to play.

As I write this essay, she texts me, during a workout: “This is the most unpleasant 17 minutes of my life.” I am on the couch in my pajamas, seated directly in front of a fan. 

But still, and still, Julia plays.

I am not a physically strong individual. I break a sweat carrying my groceries up the stairs to my apartment, and bribe friends with beer and pizza to carry heavy furniture when I move. I am not lazy, but I am not an athlete. If I go for a walk, it is to find a place to sit with a coffee and a tattered paperback. I move precisely, but never forcefully. 

It is hard for me to understand Julia’s love and persistence.

I think about this often. On one occasion, I am late for a brunch with my sister and the now-graduated captain of their rugby team because I am exhausted from standing at a concert the night before.

As I slide into the outdoor dining pavilion and order an iced coffee, Julia and her friend are already talking rugby. I listen for a while, but mostly watch my drink homogenize as I stir in a swirl of milk from a small, metal pitcher. 

Finally, when our eggs benedict comes, I ask. “How do you like playing rugby?”   They laugh and continue eating, my question assumed to be rhetorical. 

The morning light bites at my eyes and I wish I had brought sunglasses.

Julia’s games are filmed by her coach and streamed live on Instagram. The footage is vertical and shaky, and the football-field sized pitch feels almost miles away, like watching through a fisheye. It is next to impossible to recognize my own sister, until someone half her size is all but catapulted across the sidelines by the force of a tackle — that would be Julia, my parents and I say. 

When I remember, I tune in.

In November, UChicago played a team from the College of St. Scholastica at the National Collegiate Rugby playoffs in the quarterfinals. They lose 45-36. (I force her to recall this loss and score for its inclusion here). 

I watched this game and listened as the color drained from the coach’s voice. As the loss is realized. 

As I watch Julia and her teammates pummel their bodies against a wall that has already fallen atop them, I wish the pitch didn’t feel miles away. I wish I could shout — just stop, then!

You’ve lost. What’s the point? 

But there is none.

In women’s rugby, there is no glory, paltry money, and very little fame. No one’s life was changed by their fall against St. Scholastica.

But still, and still, Julia plays. For the sake of it, in the purest sense.

For them, it is a pathless activity. It is divorced from ambition, aside from ambition to be better at the thing itself. Still, I’ve never seen them happier. 

It was the same when we penned lane lines on our bodies. The same when we rug-burned on indoor turf for a week’s custody of a slightly-reeking stuffed toy. Only then, it was all for the sake of it. For the feeling of life and embodiment and adrenaline. 

For me, this was the feeling of childhood: seeking only the rich feeling of being alive.

I think, for Julia, this is the feeling of now.