Building a new brotherhood
Talk with Steve Blair about Rugby, and he’ll describe a 33-year love affair.He’ll tell you about a passion he developed while growing up on the well-worn streets of Glasgow, Scotland. A sport that has provided him the chance to compete around the world, from New Zealand to Europe and Canada. He’ll tell you how a game has the unrivaled ability to foster camaraderie and strengthen relationships. A game that has afforded him countless unique opportunities, some he admits he had never even considered just years before. When he was approached with such an offer last October – to fill the head coaching vacancy for the Gentleman of Aspen rugby team – Blair, despite the prospect of moving some 4,500 miles away from home and family, said he hesitated only briefly.”Just to check the flight schedule,” he said Wednesday. “This is such an honor. Aspen is well-known all over the world.”The very thought of coaching in the States sounded foreign to Blair, he said. After all, he experienced success as both a player and coach at multiple levels on his native soil. It was during a rare trip to the States, however, that made Blair rethink what course his future might take. He traveled to Vail last summer to meet up with a group of longtime friends and fellow Scots. He was soon coaxed into coaching the Vail Rugby Football Club’s local 15 during much of its Mountain League schedule.It was here that Blair first communicated with then Gents coach Mark Williams. Williams, who was planning to vacate his post, gauged Blair’s interest in coming to Aspen. The two continued to communicate long after Blair returned to the United Kingdom.”It was important for us to get a professional guy from outside to evaluate the program, and take Aspen Rugby in a new direction,” Williams said. “Sometimes when you’re so close to something, it’s not the most ideal situation.”I was impressed with the fact that he played a lot of rugby, and that he’d taken two teams up to a high division. I was also impressed with the fact that he was coaching Vail, and managed to get the best out of his team.”Blair visited Aspen in October and November to meet with the rugby board; by January, it was “all systems go,” he said. The challenge of promoting and developing his beloved game across the Atlantic was too intriguing to pass up.
Such a change of scenery was one Blair could not have foreseen as a young boy who dreamed of one day donning his country’s blue jersey. In Glasgow, a tough industrial city, Blair said he gravitated toward sport at an early age. Given his surroundings, it seemed fitting that he was drawn to rugby’s physicality and competitive spirit as an 11-year-old. He remembers weekends when it was common for 100 or so kids to crowd the pitch, clamoring for a chance to compete like their heroes. He remembers days when he would play high school matches in the morning, then a club game after classes had ended. “It was easier back then,” Blair said. “The bones don’t heal as quickly as they used to.”Blair spent most of his career as a member of the renowned West of Scotland R.F.C. – founded in 1865, it is the country’s oldest club. He was a member from 1980-1995. He captained West for four seasons and was selected captain for Glasgow’s provincial team, which was made up of the region’s most accomplished players. He played for Glasgow’s under-21s as well as Scotland B – a shadow team for the country’s international squad. He also displayed a knack for developing young talent as a coach at the lower ranks. He coached Glasgow’s all-star under-21 team for two years, leading it to a provincial tournament title. He also won a premier tournament, hoisting the Scottish BT Cell Net Cup as head of East Kilbride.Rugby helped Blair create some of his life’s most lasting memories, both on and off the pitch – some unfit for print, he joked. It was after a game – and more than a few beers – in the northeast England town of Darlington that Blair and his disoriented mates hailed a taxi in hopes of finding their hotel; they jumped in and literally traveled 10 feet to the front entrance, Blair said with a laugh.In 1991, one week after Scottish rugby legend Gavin Hastings missed a kick during a tie game with “Auld Rival” England during a 6-6 game in the World Cup, Blair decided to prolong Hastings’ anguish with some good-natured ribbing. When the two friends and captains met for a meeting moments before their clubs were to square off, Blair dropped a handkerchief on the ground; he proceeded to ask Hastings if the handkerchief on the ground was the same one he used against England.”There’s a lot of fun and a lot of banter in this sport,” Blair said. “You have to be able to give it, and take it as well. Rugby’s a great brotherhood.” The joke didn’t stop Hastings, a full-back and Scotland’s leading points scorer, from giving Blair a glowing recommendation.”He spoke very highly of him,” Williams said. “That’s high praise. All the international contacts we contacted spoke highly of him.”
Blair is already hard at work creating a brotherhood in Aspen. He has set an ambitious plan in motion: Do his part to develop rugby at all levels on this side of the Atlantic.In an effort to promote the game, Blair has traveled to colleges around the country – the Universities of Iowa and Nebraska, among others – in an effort to recruit young talent to the mountains. So far, 15 athletes have assured Blair they are heading to Aspen; 13 are American and two, unsurprisingly, are Scots.”We have forged some links. This is a young team, and I’m real excited about working with Americans and seeing them develop,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll take things they learn back to where they came and rave about it.”
In this, the Gents’ 40th year, Blair is hoping to leave his own fingerprints on an illustrious program with discipline, commitment and passion. His exuberance and drive were on display recently when he led four players through drills under overcast late-afternoon skies at Rio Grande Park. While his players stood, hands on their knees, gasping for the thin air, Blair hastily repositioned orange cones, and prepped his stopwatch for another round of sprints.
He stopped momentarily to make sure one player’s dinner was staying put, before continuing the frenetic pace, urging and supporting his team every step of the way.Blair’s job will be far from easy, Williams said. “He’s going to have an incredibly hard job,” Williams said. “We went from being one of the best teams in the country to being an average team. A lot of people left or retired. It’s one of things that happens with every successful organization. He basically has to start from scratch. “We’re very excited about having him along.” In little more than four months, Blair has already impressed others with his commitment. After he received word of his hire in January, he was soon on a plane headed to the States for the fourth time. Long before the grass started to appear in patches at Wagner Park, Blair was hard at work contacting state teams and formulating schedules.He left sons David (15), Cameron (13) and Matthew (11) back home in Dunblane, an hour outside Glasgow, but Blair insists he had little regret about his decision. He is looking forward to July, when all three boys will join him in the valley on their first trip to the United States.
“David told me, ‘We know Aspen. It’s where Dumb and Dumber was filmed,'” Blair said, chuckling in his strong accent. “They’re at an age where they understand what I’m doing. We talk over the Internet on Web cams. We had a good Christmas break, but I thought it was important to get here as soon as possible and get involved.”Blair said his players can sense a new season is fast approaching and are eager to don the Aspen jersey once again. The Gents open their schedule May 13 in Denver against the rival Barbarians. Blair wouldn’t rule out the possibility he, too, might log a few minutes on the field.He’s all too familiar with the burden of high expectations, but Blair embraces the challenge. He’s ready to mold a team the town can be proud of and will rally behind – a team with prestige that will continue to strengthen Aspen tradition.”This is a sports place, an ideal environment to be involved in,” Blair said. “It’ll be a challenge to move forward in Aspen and build on what’s been done before, but also a great opportunity.”It’s a great time to be here and to be a part of this team.”The love affair continues.Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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