By Ellen Cunningham
When I asked my former teammates what their most vivid memory was of playing in the 1979 Mardi Gras tournament, the answer overwhelmingly was, “MUD, MUD and MORE MUD!.” After raining relentlessly the night before the tournament, the mud was up to our knees in some parts of the field and the puddles were frighteningly deep. Sure, at first, it was fun sliding in the mud but that quickly turned to frustration as players lost shoes, slid out of bounds, face planted into the mud, lost the ball, and lost sight of all lines on the field. Worse, we were scratched by straw-like stalks that passed for grass, bitten by hordes of ants struggling to survive in the muck, and faced the fear of drowning in a ruck. This was not exactly the Mardi Gras experience we had envisioned when we first floated the idea of the trip. We had planned this trip for months; we held fundraisers and scrimped and saved to buy our tickets. Roundtrip airfare to New Orleans was $160 in 1979, but keep in mind the minimum wage in 1979 was $2.90 and most of us were making minimum wage or close to it.
The 1979 UCLA team was good. We were a talented attacking team, averaging 38 points a game and holding opponents to an average of two points a game. We started the 1978-79 season ranked 19th in the nation (out of club and college teams). California had four teams in the top 10 that year, with Cal State Northridge ranked #1, Ombush #3, Belmont Shores at #6 and the Newport Kiwi’s #8. That year we played 7 of the top 9 teams in the country. So we felt pretty confident going into the Mardi Gras Tournament that we could hold our own.
After flying into New Orleans, we piled into rental cars and drove to Baton Rouge to play the LSU Women's Team. As we were from UCLA, a prestigious university, LSU had arranged for us to play on a special gated and lit practice football field. This was to be the last grass field we would see on our trip. None of us can recall the score of the LSU match, only that we won handily. We partied afterwards, complete with a jambalaya dinner, held at an LSU player's house with dishes prepared by the team. The pot of jambalaya was huge! Most of us had never had jambalaya, but we all remembered it as quite a treat.
The next morning we arrived at the fields to check in and prepare for a full day of matches. The Mardi Gras Tournament at that time was one of the premier tournaments in the country. We were one of 16 women's teams and there were 64 men's teams. We did well, defeating Kansas State 4-0, Houston 16-0, and Texas A&M 4-0. We weren’t the only California team at the tournament and in an interesting twist, we faced off against Ombush in the final (we lost in an overtime kickoff).
After the tournament we quickly hosed off the pounds of caked on mud and raced back to New Orleans for the carnivale. Before we arrived in New Orleans the Mardi Gras Carnival itself was cancelled due to a police strike, but the ‘Unofficial Carnival’ continued. The crowds were enormous and we participated in all the revelry; colorful floats and their Krewes throwing beads in the street, boas in every color, costumed people on every balcony, fried food carts, and beignets. At Pat O'Brien's we performed a spirited Haka, with one of us inadvertently overturning a tray of Hurricanes. The following days we took in the city visiting historic restaurants and buildings and the above ground cemeteries - interestingly the photos we took at the cemetery only showed half our bodies. Maybe it was due to printing errors or bad photography or maybe something to do with the spirits!
Forty-one years after playing in the Mardi Gras Rugby Tournament, we held a virtual Mardi Gras reunion via Zoom. Some of us are still great friends and even sisters-in-law. Many of us had not connected since our playing days yet the bond we formed that 1978-79 season was still strong. True, there were many life changes: marriages, births, deaths, some had moved out of state, and one former teammate was sporting a lower leg prostheses. But the camaraderie was intact. We reminisced about our rugby playing days and shared plenty of photos and laughs. One player reminisced that the players on our Mardi Gras team were "strong, fun, talented, dedicated, and great role models." Another put it this way; "How lucky I was to play on a talented team with such fun and crazy women...and usually WIN!" When I remember that season, I think of a quote from Jean-Pierre Rives, “The whole point of rugby is that it is, first and foremost, a state of mind, a spirit."
Ellen Cunningham began her playing career in 1973 as one of the original UCLA players. She played hooker for UCLA for 5 years. She was a founder of the University of Pittsburgh Women’s Club, a founder of the Santa Monica Women's Club, and long time California and national rugby administrator. In 2019, Santa Monica Rugby Club inducted her into its Hall of Fame. She lives on the Central Coast of California with her husband, a former hooker and rugby coach, and her son.