FORT WAYNE, Ind. — At age 25, Mark Elrod loved rugby so much he walked away rather than embarrass the sport.
At age 42, Mark Elrod loved rugby so much he changed and saved his life to play it again.
When Elrod was an 18-year-old senior at Woodlan High School, he was a backup offensive lineman at 166 pounds. He always had the aggressiveness and attitude to play much bigger than his size, though, especially the attitude, which is why he was a backup.
To fill that competitive void, he joined the Fort Wayne Rugby Club at age 20. He loved the passion, ferociousness and camaraderie of the game. He could be free on the field, pushing, pounding and screaming with his buddies who all understood without ever having to talk about it. No one needed padding.
Rugby, Elrod tells The News-Sentinel (http://bit.ly/1nEmqPn ), is more about the people who play than the sport itself. They all love the bond they form, which is often more fun than the games because there's no clock winding down on friendship.
Then Elrod's body started to grow into his persona. He'd eat anything and wouldn't stop. Each night he'd drink two liters of pop and consumed junk food or whatever was around like a fire seeking oxygen.
He finally reached 405 pounds and walked away from rugby and his friends.
"I just couldn't do it," he said. "I was too big and too out of shape. I just got obsessed with food and over-ate and didn't exercise. It's depressing to me to think about what kind of person I could have been if I hadn't gotten in to that mode."
He couldn't run or compete. Feeling out of place, he stayed away from rugby for 15 years. Part of his life that he loved was just gone, shoved to the back of his mind to be forgotten.
Life continued. He got married, started his own landscaping business and drove a bus for East Allen County Schools. He also coached PAL football for 21 years.
Eventually, he decided to have bariatric surgery and went into Lutheran Hospital's Health Weight Management program. He became a model patient, eventually getting as low as 194 pounds. When that weight didn't feel right, he settled in around 225 pounds and he's kept within 10 pounds ever since.
He thought he was busy enough that the competitive itch and his love for rugby were covered over enough to stay buried. But deep loves are never buried for good, no matter how thick the scar tissue.
About five years ago, a year after his surgery, Elrod and his wife, Jennifer, were watching TV and saw a news report about the Fort Wayne Rugby Club's 40th anniversary. Jennifer had never seen Mark play but knew he was just nuts enough to try it when he vowed to get into good enough shape to play again. He started training.
"Everybody has a craziness that they need to get out every now and then," she said.
Her husband always took his out on the field, but in this instance, the first time Elrod ran onto the field, some of his old buddies didn't recognize him. They couldn't focus their eyes to match up the smaller man with their memories.
"He played with my dad and I knew him as a bigger guy," Chuck Geyer said. "When he came back after he lost all that weight, he came up and gave me a hug, and I said, 'Mark? Is that you?' He looked awesome!"
The players could have crushed him if they had rejected him or said he was too old or acted like they simply didn't know him anymore. Instead, they all embraced him again with no hesitation.
Elrod was a new man, but he still teared up that day for what he had lost and what he had regained. The emotion just overtook him.
"I'm an old guy and I'm really not that good of a rugby player," he said. "I just do it because I enjoy it. It's so neat because they accept me into the program and let me come back and play with them. It's so neat that they accepted me when I hadn't played in 15 years."
That's just rugby, though, the little sport that needs everybody to be successful. Everyone sacrifices and suffers to play. There are always bruises and a need for more players, so even the guys who are hurt keep going. It's a subculture of the overlooked athletes who play simply for the joy. There's always respect for anyone who pulls on a jersey and a pair of boots.
"The cool thing about rugby is that it's a life-long sport," FWRC president Sam DiFilippo said. "We're one of those sports that you can take a five-six year break from it and come back and play if you want to give it another run. We're only as good as the guys who came before us."
Now Elrod is 47, holding steady at 225 pounds and playing in six or seven matches a year. He's blowing up players 20 years younger - when he can catch them. He's again losing some of his crazy during the competitions. He knows he's going to be hurting afterward, but it's worth it.
"I would have never told him, 'No, you're not going out there,' but I did tell him to stay away from the ball so he didn't get a broken leg," Jennifer said with a laugh. "He's got a broken rib now, but he can still work, so it's all good. If you are going to be a grown man and go play little boys' games, then take the pain and act like it doesn't bother you."
Elrod suffered a broken rib and a black eye two months ago during a match, but it's a pair of broken toes suffered on the job that are slowing him down now.
"I think he can play for another five or six years," Geyer said. "It's crazy because you see a bunch of the older guys who come out and get one game and then they disappear for another two or three years. It's different with Mark. It's like he's young again because he lost all the weight and he's a new man. He can go for a whole 80 minutes."
And then he'll talk about the match for another 80 minutes with his buddies. He credits God and Jennifer for his rebirth, figuring either could have taken his life away when he was 405 pounds, but they stuck with him. And so have his buddies.
"I explain it to people this way. I missed out for 15 years of my life," he said. "I'm trying to make up that time. That really gives me my mojo. I missed the socials and I missed the guys even though I didn't always get along with them. I just missed the camaraderie of good men. Now this has given me something to live for, something to work for. I still want to play into my 50s."
That's how much he loves rugby.
Information from: The News-Sentinel, http://www.news-sentinel.com/ns
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