History of the Fort Lauderdale Ruggerfest
Four decades ago, the prestigious tournament now known as the Fort Lauderdale Ruggerfest got its humble beginning in a local bar when the man generally accredited as team founder, Norman Thompson, and its first coach, Keith Lawrence (affectionately known as Captain Bligh), decided to have a tournament.
It was 1977, the Fort Lauderdale Lite’s debut year, before the folks at Miller brewing thankfully made enough noise about the trademark infringement on their watery beer to convince club officials to change the name to the Knights. The premiere Fort Lauderdale Invitational Rugby Tournament took place at the city’s Holiday Park and attracted either six or eight teams, depending on who you ask and how much they’d had to drink at the time. One team came from as far away as Iowa.
Deemed a success, the club tried again the following year. But a crisis erupted when fearless leader Thompson got distracted by more pressing matters and no one did much of anything until about three weeks before the tournament. Mike “Littleman” Resta was interim president and, despite a majority of the team being OK with blowing it off for a year, decided to “make it happen.”
“You can’t have an annual tournament and skip the second year,” he explains.
Littleman and the boys managed to pull it off, fashioning the Miami Old Smugglers’ championship trophy by plasticizing a photo of the team onto a plaque at the field. The tournament survived and, to this day, Littleman remains its biggest promoter.
The tournament soon became affiliated with Easter Seals, reportedly after one of the players met a girl who worked for the charity and wanted to impress her. So the club donated all of its tourney profits to the cause, amounting to about $1,000 a year, which in the early 1980s could buy three times as many kegs as it can today. The name morphed into the Fort Lauderdale Easter Seals Invitational, and for their association with the organization, the Knights reaped a lot of new sponsors and good publicity, including an appearance on a local Easter Seals telethon. No word whether the smitten player ever got anything out of the girl.
Around the same time, the Knights were taking on all comers during Spring Break. College sides flocked to Fort Lauderdale, which was still the Spring Break capital of the world. The result is that the boys played one or two games instead of practice every Tuesday and Thursday night and again on Saturday. During this era, longtime club president Ken Simmons became known as the Ironman, as much for his ability to host the traveling sides till the wee hours in local watering holes as for playing 20 or 30 games in a month. Of course, he wasn’t the only one doing double or triple duty, and fearing for their health in general and liver function in particular, the boys decided to organize a running tournament for the college kids spread out over several weeks, and they called it the Ruggerfest.
“We had as many as 10 games in one day, with Norm (Thompson) reffing them all,” recalls Simmons.
In the late-1980s, the collegiate Ruggerfest went the way of the four-point try when city officials decided to kill Spring Break. But the name was revived for the team’s annual tournament and is still used today.
The host club mostly floundered in its Ruggerfest for years, finally breaking through with a powerhouse squad in the late 1980s. Led by captain Mike Hayden, the Knights won a string of state titles and tournament championships.
Under the directorship of British transplant and winger extraordinaire Tim Ford, the tournament began attracting some of the top teams in the country. It outgrew Holiday Park and moved to Tradewinds Park in nearby Pompano Beach. The dates, which had mostly hovered around Easter but had shifted to other timeframes including St. Patty’s Day, settled on a rather innocuous weekend in late February when the weather was relatively cool and not much else was going on. The quality of competition gave rise to a Premiere Division, attracting the likes of the Chicago Lions, Boston Irish Wolfhounds, Old Blue, Gentlemen of Aspen, Life University, New York Athletic Club and others, including several elite foreign sides.
With Knight stalwarts such as Matt Rowe, Matt Perez, Eric “Woody” Aumann and Mark Etue running the show, the Ruggerfest enjoyed its broadest expansion through the 1990s and into the new millennium, adding divisions for old boys, women and youth. Unfortunately, Tradewinds Park decided to make softball fields out of the Ruggerfest pitches, and one sad year the club found itself with a tournament and no venue. Just weeks before the 2011 Ruggerfest, the director sent out the calamitous missive that it was being cancelled. Former players Julian Ramirez and Bill Shelley stepped in at the last minute to save the day by securing permits from the county to have the event at Central Broward Regional Park. But much damage had been done by the uncertainty, and the number of participating clubs plummeted the following year.
Since then, the Ruggerfest has regained its mojo and, in 2014, moved on to Fort Lauderdale’s Mills Pond Park, site of the club’s home field. It has also come full circle, as the late Captain Bligh’s son, Toby Lawrence, is now serving as tournament director. This year’s edition will be the 40th since Norm Thompson, Captain Bligh and their fellow founding members took a leap of faith in 1977 — and it promises to be one of the best yet. As an added bonus, Knight legends from around the country are planning to return to celebrate the milestone event.
– By Gary Greenberg
Results of 2015?
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA – The 39th Annual Fort Lauderdale Ruggerfest was held February, 21 -22nd at Mills Pond Park under epic South Florida conditions. Thirty-two teams in Men’s, Women’s, and Old Boy divisions vied for championships.
The Old Boys Division saw the return of the Virginia Cardinals who took titles in both +55 and +45 divisions, while the ORBS (Atlanta Renegades) won the 35+ bracket. The Women’s division was won by Fort Miami RFC, our local club. The Father & Sons side out of Ottawa, Canada defeated the Nassau Renegades from the Bahamas to take the club championship, while Asociacion Alumni of Buenos Aires, Argentina was crowned the winner of the Men’s Premier division with a hard fought victory over the USA Classic Eagles.
A true rugby festival, Ruggerfest also featured touch, youth and high school events. The Cayman Islands narrowly defeated Fort Lauderdale to the take the title in Touch. The youth and high school portions, run under the direction of the Florida Youth Rugby Union, featured both local and out of state high school talent in both 7’s & 15 a side throughout the weekend with 300 kids between the ages of 8 and 12 years of age running rampant on Sunday.
The highlight of the event was Saturday night’s Premiere Exhibition match featuring Life University Running Eagles vs Asociacion Alumni’s top side. Over a thousand people watched Life come out on top 29 – 12.
Special thanks to Canterbury, U.S., our Official Gear & Apparel sponsor, City of Ft Lauderdale and all of our generous sponsors. The 40th Annual FTL Ruggerfest is set for February 19th – 21st, 2016 and is not to be missed!
Old Boys +55: Virginia Cardinals v FTL Silver Knights 27 – 10
+45: Virginia Cardinals v Niagara Old Boys (NOBS) 20 – 5
+35: ORBS (Atlanta) v Gypsy 10 – 7
Women’s: Fort Miami Women over Gypsy, round robin format
Men’s Club: Fathers & Sons (Ottawa) v Nassau Renegades (Bahamas) 27 – 14
Men’s Premier: Asociacion Alumni v Classic Eagles 27 – 18