Dr. Bryce Morton has been getting more needle-and-thread experience lately than most of his fellow USC Medical Center interns. His suture savvy has been honed by stitching up rugby players in empty classrooms and crowded bars after matches.
Morton, 31, doesn't charge for the handiwork, nor should he. As a player on the Oxy Olde Boys Rugby Club, he's directly responsible for some of the bloody noses and busted lips he repairs.
Morton and his teammates are aiming to sew up something bigger: the Southern California Rugby Football Union second-division championship.
The Olde Boys, a 40-member team, are composed primarily of Occidental College alumni. Players range in age from 18 to 64, and the roster includes attorneys, stock brokers and educators. Sophistication abates abruptly at match time, however.
Matches are played each Saturday against other SCRFU clubs and visiting international teams. Practices are held one night a week.
Last Saturday, the Olde Boys beat the Fullerton Stags to advance to the SCRFU championship game, which will be played at the Rose Bowl on March 26 and will be broadcast on the Prime Ticket cable channel. Occidental's first team, champion of the seven-team Northern Section, will play the Southern Section winner, The Old Aztecs, a group of San Diego State alumni. Occidental's second team will participate in a 22-team tournament March 25-26 on the lawns outside the Rose Bowl.
Rich Behm, who plays a wing forward for Occidental, enlisted the services of Morton after he caught a stray Fullerton cleat in the face. After the game, the doctor took Behm to a classroom on the Occidental campus and closed an inch-long gash above his right eye.
"I was feeling pretty woozy," said Behm, who doubles as a loan officer. "At this point, you're playing for some glory so the bumps can take a back seat."
The Olde Boys, however, do not.
Last season, the team finished 2-8-1 in division play. This season, Occidental is 17-8 and 8-1 in the conference.
Since the Tiger alumni team was sanctioned in 1982, it has won the third division title once and the second division championship twice. But it has never competed in the Rose Bowl.
This season, the Tigers have benefitted from some young players, such as George Conahey and Dave Henderson, both recent graduates, and a new coach, Greg Holmes.
Conahey, the fullback on the football team, plays scrum half--a position akin to a quarterback--and is the team's leading scorer. Henderson, a former tight end for the Tigers who now coaches the receivers, plays "lock" on the second line of a scrum.
The transition from football to rugby is not necessarily natural. Rugby players are not allowed to block for ballcarriers, a team is constantly changing from offense to defense and a match is played with a running clock and no timeouts. A team is only allowed two substitutions in the course of an 80-minute match. Rugby players wear minimal protection, and though hard tackles abound, serious injuries are rare.
"People think (football is safer) but you use your pads as weapons," Morton said.
Because rugby is such an exhausting sport, and because there is only one referee to govern play, fistfights are common.
"You have to be intense because at any moment you can be hurt," Olde Boy Kelvin McClaskey said. "It's kind of a kill-or-be-killed attitude. You play aggressively and you might upset another guy and all of a sudden you're throwing a punch."
And though action on the pitch is often rough, the traditional post-match festivities, which include drink and song, tend to smooth relations.
"In football, you hated the people you were going against and you didn't even know them," club member Mike Schmidt said. "You were just focusing your anger on the team and the person you were lined up against. In rugby, you go out afterwards and have a few beers with the guys and you find out that they aren't a whole lot different than you are."
For now, the Olde Boys are hoping to see the Old Aztecs, not Morton's stitches, come apart at the seams.