When I played for Yale
Sir Thomas Rich’s rugby team. David George Ball front row, second from left.
The Virginia Gazette, James City, February 15, 2012
By David George Ball

Small for my age, I didn’t like being called “Tichy Ball” (small person) by my classmates at Sir Thomas Rich’s School in Gloucester, England. Dad rubbed it in by saying I was the brain and my brother was the brawn. When my history teacher started calling me Tichy Ball, I knew I must do something about it. I tried to eat more, but school lunches of waterlogged cabbage and gristle disguised with gravy didn’t help. I noticed the rugby players drank a lot of milk during the morning break, so I joined them. At rugby practice I hustled as scrum half.

A year later I had shot up to 5 foot 11 inches. The head coach told me to practice with the “first 30”, which provided the players for the top rugby teams. When the scrum half for the second 15 left school, I took his place. To my great joy, I scooped up a loose ball and scored a try. The coach moved me up to the first 15. I listened with satisfaction as the headmaster announced my name in the school team for the next game. Nobody called me Tichy Ball anymore. My experience proved invaluable when I came to America and won a Scholarship to Yale. A friendly graduate student, who was captain of the Yale rugby team, discovered my skill as a scrum half. He said, “Why don’t you come out to practice?” “Are there any freshman?” I asked. “No, but come anyway.”

Many thick-necked, muscular football players thought of rugby as a form of spring training. Although I had felt like a Tichy Ball at Tommy Rich’s, I had the advantage of knowing a lot about the game. I may have been skinny at 160 pounds, but I reveled at getting the ball out fast and tackling hard. One day after practice the captain said, “We need an extra player against Havard.” My heart pounded with excitement. I was only a freshman and he wanted me to play for Yale against Harvard! The trouble was, the game was in Cambridge, and I had a longstanding date for the prom at my girlfriend’s boarding school in Northampton, Mass. When I explained my problem to the rugby captain, he said I could leave after the game and promised, “I’ll find you a ride.” I borrowed a tux from a friend and packed it with my rugby gear in an old suitcase. My teammate who was providing the ride had trouble cramming the suitcase into the trunk of his MG. Early in the game a Harvard wing forward slapped into me and knocked me out. I was helped to the sidelines. Since there was no substitution, the captain put me back in the game as soon as my head cleared.

After the game, I left for the boarding school, still groggy from the concussion. The prom had already started. My date pointed out a small bathroom that was hardly big enough for both me and the suitcase, let alone for changing clothes. It was a major struggle to change into the wrinkled tux. The dance floor was the next challenge. My evangelical background meant I had never danced before, and my head was spinning. I held my date close, not least to keep my balance. We saw the headmistress approach holding a ruler. My date whispered that the school rules required us to remain at least one foot apart while dancing. I noticed something on the floor and, trying to distract attention, said to the headmistress, “Somebody has lost something.” “Yes,” she replied in a haughty voice. “It’s your cummerbund.” I’d never been so happy. From that weekend on I played scrum half for Yale.

David George Ball of James City received his bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1960 and his law degree from Columbia University in 1964. He served as an assistant secretary of Labor 1983-93. The essay is based on stories in his memoir, “A Marked Heart.”