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The Short, Somewhat Glorious Life of the Houston Heathen Hearts

By Suzanne Cobarruvias

In 1976, I was a junior at Texas A&M University. I had injured my ankle playing intramural flag football and was hobbling by the intramural fields on crutches when I came across the women’s rugby team practice. I stopped to watch and a player booting up on the sideline, encouraged me to come out and play. The player, Sandy Chandler looked at my crutches and said “ you’d make a great hooker.”

A week later and still on crutches, I watched my first match against the Austin women. I healed, joined the team and shortly after became the hooker. I did not start immediately, as a rookie no one knew what to do with me. Kathy Chappell, the team Captain, put me at center. But I knew where I belonged and quickly ran for the pack. We thought pretty highly of ourselves, after all we ran 3 laps around the pitch before practice. But we were pretty good - we were absolutely relentless in the pursuit of the ball, and being Texas girls living in Cowtown USA, we loved to tackle. At that time there weren’t many college teams in Texas so we played matches against women’s club teams from Dallas, Austin, Houston and Galveston. Kathy Chappell, who was also the team founder, was a native Floridian and convinced us to compete in the Sunshine Tournament in Tallahassee, Florida. We did not place but the experience of playing other college teams fed our intensity and desire to improve.

Texas A&M Women's Rugby 1976

I graduated from A&M in 1977 and with two other teammates, Mona Kelety and Kathy Chappell, moved to Houston for work. For some reason, the three of us did not want to join the existing Houston women’s team, the Boars, and so instead started a 7’s team and practiced at McKinney Park on the southeast side of Houston. A year later we had picked up enough players to field a 15's side and attempted to register with the Texas Rugby Union. In those days women’s teams were required to partner with an established men’s team in order to be recognized by the Union. At that time, we were practicing at Memorial Park after the local Houston Heathens men’s rugby club. The Heathens agreed to support our bid which required us to use their name. So, in 1978, we became the Houston Heathen Hearts.

The late 1970’s early 1980’s were good years for women’s rugby as there were a number of women’s college teams in the west and southeast and we did our best to recruit graduates from those teams. Houston was a boom town - there were good jobs and housing was cheap. We were a very social team and when we traveled to tournaments we worked to attract college players from schools like Texas A&M, Louisiana State, Florida State and Virginia Tech. We never had huge numbers of players but we had a strong 20 or so and were very competitive. In 1980, Lee Chichester one of the founders of William & Mary women’s team joined up and her husband Jack helped coach the forwards. However, we never had a dedicated ‘coach’ and were for the most part self-coached. A lot of the players had experience and high expectations so our practices were tough. We were fit and had a lot of speed, and much of our fitness and speed was a necessity as we had to stay ahead of the massive mosquito swarms that would descend on our practice field. Texas weather and Texas fields lend themselves well to mosquitos and backline play. We developed a quick, tenacious pack and a fast, explosive, backline led by scrumhalf Mary Holmes and future national team player Christine (Rookie) Hardju at flyhallf or center. Besides Mary, Lee and Rookie, we had some really notable players who went on to play at high levels including Jackie Watts, Sandy Chandler, Susan Bateman, Monica Romagnoli, Lisa Stoeltie and Sharon Fields.

Houston Heathen Hearts 1978

The team had really great chemistry, we socialized together after practices, shared apartments, helped each other through good and bad times. We really hit our peak in the early 1980’s winning a number of big tournaments and qualifying for the 1981 National Championships. Rugby Magazine did a feature on the team, focusing on the speed and movement of the backline. Shortly after 1981, we had an exodus of some strong, core players. Some left to pursue careers in other parts of the country - four players left for Boston and played for Beantown, two left for San Diego and played with the Surfers, one left for San Francisco. We had always been a team with small numbers and it was difficult to recover from the loss of those players. By 1983, the Hearts fell from the ranks of great teams and struggled to stay competitive in Texas. The team faded away shortly after 1983. I had stopped playing in 1982 due to a shoulder injury. I missed the pitch and so picked up a whistle and started refereeing. While I was refereeing at the Saranac Lake tournament I was recruited to be the Western Selector. I served as Western Selector, then Manager of the U.S. Women’s National Team. I was Western Selector when the USA won the first World Cup, and Manager of the team that finished 1st runner-up to New Zealand in Amsterdam.

I still live in Texas and I recently retired from working as an engineer for NASA. As soon as this COVID nightmare ends, I’m taking a drive to visit some of my old teammates, the wonderful women who helped shape my life. Mary Holmes has passed away but lives in my heart; a blessing given to me at the Sunshine tournament in 1979.

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