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Ellwood City, Pennsylvania
Eric Poole is a reporter and columnist for the Ellwood City (Pa.) Ledger, a small newspaper nestled near the Ohio state line in the heart of Steelers Country. He has a wife, a son and a daughter (so there will be some daddy stuff on this blog). A former steelworker and retired rugby player, Poole has a wide range of interests, which was reflected in the 2008 Pennsylvania Newspaper Association awards, when Poole won first-prize honors for best columns and best special project. His upcoming book, "Company of Heroes," due out March 17, 2015, from Osprey Publishing, tells the story of Vietnam War hero Leslie Sabo and his comrades. Sabo was awarded the Medal of Honor May 16, 2012, in a White House ceremony.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The empty places

This column originally ran Sept. 28, 2006, in the Ellwood City Ledger.

There is something missing from the picture of New York Athletic Club's 2005 rugby team, but you might not immediately notice it.

Kind of like the void in New York City's skyline.

In Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, it's possible to make a handsome living playing rugby and get face time before the first commercial on overseas equivalents of "Sportscenter."

But in the United States, the sport is almost entirely amateur, so members of the rugby brotherhood in this country look out for one another. They lift furniture for teammates on moving day and bend elbows together at the local tavern.

They help their buddies find jobs, which is why Sean Lugano, Mark Ludvigsen and Brent Woodall were in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, working at the investment firm of Keefe, Bruyette and Woods.

"They were all looking out for each other." said Mike Tolkin, coach of NYAC's rugby team, also called Winged Foot.

I saw Lugano play in the last important match of his life, the U.S. 2001 Division I club championship. Based on its second-place national finish that year, NYAC won promotion to USA Rugby Super League, the sport's highest level in this country.

Lugano was a rugged and scrappy player, but for a scrum half, that's more a job description than a character assessment. Scrum halves are the rugby equivalent of a quarterback, only tougher, and few were better at it than Lugano, an All-American in college.

"He was definitely the heart and soul of this team," Tolkin said.

On that day five years ago when terrorists flew United Airlines Flight 175 almost right through the Keefe, Bruyette and Woods office windows, it tore the heart and soul out of Winged Foot.

It also erased a big piece of the club's past and its potential.

Ludvigsen, a former NYAC standout, went on to become the club chairman. Tolkin said he was one of the team's most effective recruiters because of his personality.

"He was the nicest guy there was," the coach said. "I can't remember him ever speaking badly of anyone."

Tolkin said Woodall was probably the best athlete ever to play for Winged Foot, where he was taking on his third athletic pursuit, and he competed at a high level in all three. He was a tight end for the University of California and reached the high minors in the Chicago Cubs system.

But rugby wasn't the only thing in his life. Woodall’s wife, Tracey, was pregnant with their first child.

In 2001, NYAC's first Super League season, it lost a spate of close matches in situations when just having some heart and soul might have been enough to turn defeat into victory.

Improbably though, Winged Foot managed to soar from the ashes of Ground Zero. The 2005 team – the one in that picture – won the USA Rugby Super League championship.

Tolkin said the team couldn't have claimed this country's biggest rugby prize without Lugano, Ludvigsen and Woodall, although that's exactly what happened.

Lugano's brother Mike played on the championship team. For years, the two lined up not far from each other in NYAC's backline. Tolkin said losing a brother was difficult for Mike Lugano.

But playing rugby means you're never an only child.

During matches, rugby players don't go anywhere alone. They are taught to run alongside the ballcarrier, ready to take a pass or protect him after the tackle. It's called support, and when a rugby player is in trouble, he knows to run toward his support. The same principle applies off the pitch.

"From a guy breaking up with his girlfriend to a house burning down to 9-11, you need support and rugby players have always been a part of that," Tolkin said.

Winged Foot memorializes its lost brothers Saturday with its annual Remembrance Cup tournament, but the greatest memories are in the things that weren't buried when the towers fell. For Woodall, it's a daughter he'll never see. For Ludvigsen, it's the friends he'll never again see. For Lugano, it's a trophy he will never hold.

And without them, there's a championship picture that will never be complete.