Rugby captain’s career nears end

by David La

The alarms go off. It’s 5 a.m., and in various dorms, apartments and houses around campus, the members of the men’s rugby club team get up and leave for practice that begins in half an hour.
One by one, the groggy and sore teammates arrive at the practice area behind the grandstands at Bierman Field. As expected, team captain Chris Babiash is there waiting for them.
After all, it was his suggestion that practice should be held when no other priorities could take precedent.
Like the sun that eventually rose to greet them those brisk mornings at practice last fall, Babiash casts a long shadow over the rugby team.
“It would take me hours to tell you how much that guy has done for this team,” teammate Ben Schneider said. “That guy alone has probably changed the course of Minnesota rugby for the next ten years.”
If Babiash is indeed a catalyst of that magnitude, his first impression on the team gave no sign that he would someday provide such leadership.
“When I first got there (in 1995) I was this 160-pound, still-living-in-my-high-school-football-days kind of guy,” Babiash said. “Some of my friends now tell me that when I first came out they thought I was a tool.”
Babiash struggled not only with adapting to the rigors of rugby, but with a team that granted starting spots based on seniority, not merit. His first game would change that, however.
The team had a thin roster, and an injury forced Babiash into the action against Macalester College in the fall of 1995. He started a little late, but he started with a flourish.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I just started drilling people,” Babiash said.
His penchant for contact on the field, combined with his incessant pleas for team philosophy changes off it, led to Babiash being named team president and captain in 1997.
It was then time to put up or shut up, as the old saying goes, and Babiash was determined to make his ideas become realities. But leaders are not always born; more often they must grow into the role. And so it went for Babiash, who took on the tasks single-handedly.
“In a normal situation, you’d have a team president, vice president, treasurer, alumni director and officer at-large,” Babiash said. “For the last year and a half, I’ve been all five.”
Karri Zaitz, program manager for Sport Club Programs, works with Babiash a great deal and considers him an effective liaison for the rugby club.
“The club has turned itself around ten-fold since Chris has been around,” Zaitz said. “He’s definitely dedicated to the sport and the success of the team.”
While he also spearheaded the team’s drastic improvement in such areas as recruiting and fund raising, the one-time undersized linebacker worked his way into becoming one of the state’s top college players.
“He has strange abilities for a guy his size,” head coach Mike Becker said. “I’ve seen him break runs that go 80 meters, usually after running a few guys over.”
Babiash has been the Minnesota team captain for three years. He has been a member of three consecutive Minnesota Select Side teams, a group of the state’s elite players which he has captained twice. He was named to the Midwest Collegiate all-star team twice, and narrowly missed being named a college rugby All-American. Finally, he was recognized as the University recreational sports athlete of the year in 1998.
His illustrious college career will end Saturday at a game dubbed ‘Babiash and (teammate Ryan) Welken’s Last Stand.’ Babiash is reluctantly aware that, like in the game of rugby itself, he must now pass the ball for the last time to another teammate in the hopes that they will continue to carry on toward the try zone.
Babiash said he will leave the game with the hope he has helped earn the respect the sport — and most importantly, his team — deserves.
“When I have kids someday, I’ll be able to say that I played college rugby,” Babiash said, “And that’s what it is. I don’t care if people call it a club or not, we’re the Minnesota men’s rugby team.”