Before starting the Huntsville Rugby Club in 1978, Jerry Willis didn’t know anything about rugby. But the retired sergeant first class, who taught a missile course at Redstone, was a good organizer and he knew about other sports.
His sons Craig and Bill were playing for the club team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Willis started the Huntsville team which included his sons and Neal Scott, who was playing for Auburn University’s club team.
Huntsville’s first game was against UAH in September 1978 and they beat their local rival by three points. Scott played fullback and Bill Willis played hooker. “It’s the little guy who’s in the middle of the scrum,” Bill explained.
Willis coached the team from 1978 until the mid-1990s. He had three sons playing for him when his youngest, Mickey, joined the team. Willis died April 15, 2002.
Scott, 63, a contractor for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, played at Auburn from 1975-80 and graduated with a bachelor’s in criminal justice. He was a Huntsville police officer from 1980-84. Scott played rugby into his early 40s and still belongs to the Huntsville Rugby Club.
He and Bill Willis, 63, are the club’s remaining founding members. Bill played rugby about 28 years and was 56 in his last game.
“I weighed 139 pounds when I started playing,” Bill said. “I fell in love with the game at the first practice.”
The Huntsville Rugby Club has been competitive throughout its history. In 2000 the team placed third in the nation in Division III when it went to Chicago to play.
“There’s a lot of military or ex-military on the team,” Bill said. He estimates that 10 of the players have Redstone connections.
Last week brought the opportunity to learn about the sport when we responded to an email from the club. They wanted to spread the message that they’re recruiting players for their men’s team and their newly-formed women’s team.
I expanded on the write-up we received from Lisa Cox of Huntsville, who is helping the club with publicity. I did phone interviews with club president Gregg Dellert and women’s coach Simone Bontly.
Both are enthusiastic about rugby and its benefits for men and women of all ages and abilities. They’re optimistic that play will resume after the current hiatus through mid-April because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rugby sounds like a terrific outlet for people looking for a physical competitive pursuit in their 20s through 50s. I’ll just be happy when the sports world and everything else return to normal after our ongoing crisis.