The women who started it all, at least from an administrative standpoint, were “those Chicago women.” -- Jamie Jordan
“Those Chicago women,” led by Marcy Borge, Mary Larkin, Julie Silverstein and Jennie Redner, not only established the National Club Championship but created a standard for the quality of the tournament. This is a brief story of how they upped the ante and pulled off the 1984 National Championships - the one with lush grass fields and the million dollar insurance policy.
From 1978-1980, the Chicago Women’s Rugby Club hosted the National Classic Tournament. The Classic was the precursor to the National Club Championships. In 1981, the Chicago Women decided to drop the word Classic and host the first Women’s National Club Championship.
In those early championships, the participating teams had to be ranked in the top two in one of the four territories: East, Midwest, West and Pacific. But while some women's teams were recognized by territorial rugby unions, other territories did not recognize the women’s teams. The Midwest RFU was one example of a territorial union that did not recognize any women’s teams. In response, women in the Midwest formed the Midwest Women’s Committee, representing themselves and conducting the business of organizing tournaments and ranking teams. While being on their own had drawbacks, the women of the Midwest enjoyed an enviable amount of autonomy with that freedom allowing them to imagine a bigger, brighter future for women’s rugby. They also didn’t feel beholden to USARFU, instead only to the national Women’s Committee (which was not affiliated with USARFU), and they did not ask USARFU for permission to host a National tournament - they just did it.
By May of 1983, the Chicago Women had hosted and run the previous three National Championships. They were held in county park facilities and county preserves in Oakbrook and Schaumburg, both northern suburbs of Chicago. The fields in the parks were fine, best described as “well-worn football or soccer fields.” The first three National Championships were held in conjunction with the men’s Inter-Territorial Tournament, but while they were held in the same park they were completely separate events. The men and women set up separate tents (medical, headquarters and food) for their tournaments. As Mary Larkin recalls, “we had a part of the fields exclusively to ourselves. We only saw the ITTs as we were coming and going from our pitches.”
Following the 1983 National Championships, where the women’s tournament was held at the Forest Preserve and the men’s tournament was held at the Polo Grounds in Oakbrook, with the women’s fields a far cry from the well-tended grass of the Polo Grounds, Mary Larkin recalls calling the Polo Grounds to inquire about renting their facility instead.
As told in Mary Larkin's voice,”I chatted up the women in charge of renting the grounds. She told me that the men had been using the fields for the last two years and that they still had not provided any proof of insurance nor had they put down a deposit for the upcoming 1984 ITT’s. As a courtesy she was holding the dates for them even after the deposit deadline. So, I asked her when the deadline was? How much was the deposit and what were the insurance requirements?
She sent me an application with all the information and worked with me to make sure we had everything in order. That ‘order’ included providing her with a million dollar insurance policy. I went to practice and told my teammates that we’d need to raise the funds for the deposit, rental fee and the insurance. They reacted like I knew they would, with enthusiasm, and “let’s do this.” The cost of the policy and the increased rental fee for the Polo Grounds were big ticket items, definitely more than what we had laid out the previous years. But we got to work. We had a number of fundraisers including car washes, raffles, working to support road races - you name it, we were hustling and understandably were exhausted juggling fundraising with full time jobs and practicing. One night after practice, we were having a beer at a local pub, Oxford’s on Lincoln Avenue, and I left an envelope with $700 in cash from our raffle at the bar. In a panic I called the next day and they had found it and kept it for me. I don’t think they even looked inside. I guess we were valued customers.
The week before the deadline for the Polo Grounds, I got the million-dollar policy from my personal insurance broker. I completed the application and had a check ready for deposit. I called the woman at the Polo Grounds the day of the deadline to arrange a drop off of paperwork and money. I took a long lunch hour and drove out to Oakbrook, I took a deep breath and handed her the application, check and insurance policy.
Within a few days I got a call from the president of the Chicago Lions RFC which was the powerhouse in Chicago and Midwest men’s rugby at the time. He was furious. He was screaming into the phone, claiming we had no right to take the Polo Grounds as they had had them for all those years. I told him that Oakbrook still had not received their deposit nor their insurance from the previous year and that we had signed a contract. The men’s ITTs went to the Forest Preserves that year and our relationship with the Chicago Lions soured.
Not that we ever had a close relationship with the Lions. They made it clear from the very beginning that they did not approve of women playing rugby (at that time men frequently let women know what they approved and disapproved of). The Lions RFC had quite a bit of influence in Midwest rugby at that time and convinced the Midwest Referees’ Society not to support the Women’s Nationals that year. Thankfully we were rescued by the East and West Referees’ Societies. In fact a number of referees really stepped up to help us. Our sense was there was some friction between the referees and some members of the Midwest RFU - the referees were tired of being dictated too and were happy to rebel.
The 1984 Women’s National Championships set a high bar for the tournament going forward as the grounds were superb. The Polo Grounds were so large that in addition to the National Championship we were able to host an Invitational Classic and invited 8 teams including Pittsburgh; Southern Illinois University; Illinois State University; St. Louis; Richmond Iris and Michigan State University. The Richmond Iris dominated the pool and won the Classic title.
The National Championship entries included Beantown; UC Berkeley; Chicago; Florida State; Iowa City; Minnesota; New Orleans and Texas A&M. Florida State defeated Beantown 11-6 to win the championship. Candi Orsini was named the tournament MVP. The Iowa City Farmgirls held off Berkeley 14-6 to claim the third place trophy.
All the teams were impressed by the quality of the tournament. Referees were all B-level or above, touch judges were in kit and all teams were charged with being in “full, matching kit.” By this time, we had run a number of tournaments and had built a network of resources and friends who were able to manage the amenities like the food tent, t-shirts, and medical, which allowed us to focus on playing in the tournament. These Championships were the first to host an awards banquet and to select an All-Tournament Team – which became an early identifier for the 1987 Women’s National Team. We also held the Women’s Committee Annual meeting at the Oakbrook Hotel the day after the tournament. It was a very empowering weekend - the women had organized and run everything and more importantly we felt we had set a standard for the quality of the tournament.
After the tournament and meetings ended a number of us went to a bar on Monday night and met a bunch of guys who had played in the ITTs at the Forest Preserve. They had heard that the women’s tournaments were held at the Polo Grounds and I braced myself for the “who do you think you are!?” accusations. However, I was talking to a guy who said his legs were all scratched up because their fields had been like dried hay. He said he understood what had happened and essentially said that since we got our act together first – “good for us.”
Yea, after all these years that’s pretty much how I feel about it – good for us.”