clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Losing an eye or spleen isn’t enough to stop rugby players

Ian McKinley (with goggles) of the Italian national team had his left eye punctured eight years ago. Tony Marshall/Getty Images

You probably know rugby the way most of us do: You’ve accidentally watched a bit of it on TV while surfing for something else, or you’ve seen one of those white, bloated torpedo-sized balls lying on a field in a park and wondered if it was a bleached football ready to explode.

But now, folks, rugby is here, and you can study it up close.

This Saturday, there’s a tripleheader at almost-sold-out Soldier Field with the Irish national team, No. 2 in the world, facing No. 14 Italy; the legendary Maori All Blacks from New Zealand against Team USA; and the women’s world champion Black Ferns from New Zealand against Team USA.

Matches start at noon, and, unlike major- league baseball games, they go fast — two 40-minute halves with 10-minute halftimes. That’s plenty of time for these generally large (if generally sociable) athletes to plow into each other, do rucks, mauls and knock-ons and live to talk about it.

You see, rugby is the oak tree from which American football sprouted like a twisted limb. Rugby is violent, but our football is — or at least it was, before brain-trauma issues rained down like a plague — nearly suicidal. Football has hard shoulder pads and flak jackets and unbreakable helmets with face masks like wrought-iron fences. Ruggers have taped-up ears, thin cotton pads (if any at all) and bare thighs and knees.

We won’t get into a who’s tougher debate because there are no softies playing either sport, men or women.

But this event features numerous players who have the type of joyful recklessness that makes you think rugby players are right there with the toughest of the tough, the crème de la crème of NFL fanatics.

A pair of such are found on the Italian team — Luca Morisi, 27, a center from Treviso, and Ian McKinley, 28, a fly-half, originally from Dublin, Ireland.

Morisi, 6-foot, 220, was tackled in a game in 2013, with the defender’s shoulder driving into his upper left abdomen, the blow rupturing Morisi’s spleen, a blood-filtering blob weighing about six ounces that is tucked next to the stomach.

Video by Annie Costabile

Emergency surgery removed the organ, and I’m guessing most of us, when confronted with such an alteration to our gut, would say rather quickly and firmly, “Rugby, you’ve been great, but arrivederci!’’

Not Morisi.

He sits here at the Palmer House Hilton and tries to explain why it was never an option — quitting this game.

“I’m pretty small for this sport,’’ he says, adding that guys get hurt every game, though not usually seriously, and that “I personally don’t wear pads.’’

But what about the pain?

He smiles sheepishly.

“Pain doesn’t really bother me,’’ he says.

And anyway, his spleen is gone, so it can’t hurt anymore. And physical pain is nothing compared to the pain of not being able to do this thing he loves so dearly.

Is he crazy? I ask.

At this moment, team captain Michele Campagnaro walks past.

“I think he’s crazy,’’ Campagnaro says, walking on.

Morisi’s father is a surgeon, so the side effects of being spleen-less (you only get one) is not a mystery to Morisi. Without a spleen, one’s immune system is compromised, and infections are easier to come by. But you can get by OK if you’re careful. However, you’re not supposed to drink alcohol.

“Well, I drink a little wine,’’ Morisi says.

Uh-oh.

He smiles again.

“As we say, wine is how you make blood!’’

The other fellow, McKinley, had a worse mishap.

In a match in Dublin eight years ago when he was 20, McKinley was at the bottom of a ruck (a small pileup wherein no hands may be used to move the ball), and one of his teammates stepped on his face with a metal cleat, puncturing and caving in McKinley’s left eyeball.

There was surgery to save the eye, and in time McKinley got as much as 70 percent vision back in the eye. He started playing rugby again, without any protection. But then cataracts formed, and a retina detached, and the eye went dark forever.

“I was devastated,’’ McKinley says. “Me and my family treated it like a death.’’

Not that the folks were all gung-ho about rugby, anyway. Indeed, McKinley wanted to play the game at 3 but wasn’t allowed to until 12 because his father was a reverend in the Church of Ireland and wouldn’t let his son go to youth practices, which were always held on Sunday mornings.

“The pain was bad after four surgeries,’’ McKinley says. ‘‘But the mental pain was worse.’’

McKinley got a youth coaching job in Italy, and one day his brother came to visit. McKinley had something close to a breakdown.

“I hugged my brother, and I cried,’’ he says. “I was just not fulfilled.’’

So the two of them figured out with the aid of the Raleri optical company in Bologna how to develop tough, polycarbonate rugby goggles — the only such product in the world — and back went McKinley into the game he loved.

So you see? When something is taken from a real rugby player, he just keeps on scrummin’.