By Julie Jag, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Mickey Ording didn’t get to enjoy much of the scenery between Eugene and Canada during his first road trip with the University of Oregon rugby team. He had his nose in the rulebook the entire way, trying to learn how to play this crazy, 15-man game.
That didn’t matter in the long run though. In more than 20 years playing the sport — during which he became one of the country’s best all-time props — it took him to many places he says he would have never otherwise seen.
In August, it will take him to one more — Philadelphia — where the Capitola resident will be one of 12 inductees into the United States Rugby Hall of Fame.
“Mickey Ording was by far the most dominate prop forward in the United States when the USA Rugby Union was created in 1975,” Brian Vizard, executive director of the U.S. Rugby Foundation and a former teammate of Ording, wrote in an email. “He showed his international quality on the world rugby stage and more than held his own against many well-seasoned international players from all over the globe.
“As they say in New Zealand rugby circles, Mickey was a ‘Hard Man’ and was undaunted by anyone on the rugby field for many years.”
Ording started as a football player, and he was still playing guard for the Ducks when he stumbled upon the sport of rugby as a sophomore. He was one of a handful of football players who moonlighted for the rugby team (“the football coach just about had a hernia,” he said), but he didn’t know much about the game until he traveled north with the team for that two-game series.
“In the first game I played, … I was a football player, so I would sprint down, and they’d kick it back, and I’d sprint down, and they’d kick it back,” Ording, 73, recalled. “By halftime, I was ready to pull up the tent stakes.”
But the soirees afterward made all that effort worthwhile.
“I had so much fun playing with those guys, with the rugby songs and the parties afterward,” he said.
Ording, an All-American guard, went on to play football for the Edmonton Eskimos after graduation in 1963. When a torn ligament ended his career in 1965, however, he returned to the rugby pitch.
He played for the Olympic Club and the XO Rugby Club, which he helped start after the Olympic Club refused to admit a Japanese-American friend and teammate. After a series of tryouts, he was selected to start at the tight-head prop (similar to the guard position he played in football) against Australia in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, 1976. It was to be the first international game for a United States national team since Team USA disbanded after winning the gold medal in the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games.
“That was certainly a thrill to represent your country and play a great game,” Ording said of the Eagles’ 24-12 loss.
Ording went on to play in three of the next four Eagles matches, including against France and an England XV team at the famous Twickenham Rugby Stadium during the 1977 tour. His last test was in a win against Canada in Baltimore in 1978. His career also included the U.S. Cougars tour of South Africa and Rhodesia in 1979.
“I always joked that I was the oldest guy who ever played at Twickenham,” said Ording, who retired at age 42. “It’s kind of rare because it’s a young man’s sport. The position I played, you have to be pretty knowledgeable. …
“The last few years I played, I got by on hard-earned knowledge,” he said.
Ording later brought knowledge to kids at Santa Clara and Wilcox high schools, where he taught history and physical education and coached football before retiring to Capitola in 1991.
He said the memories he treasures most from his career are the adventures, including playing with black teammates in South Africa during apartheid and checking in his rugby gear alongside army personnel in Rhodesia.
“Being very self-confident, I thought I should have gotten in a long time ago. I’m finally satisfied,” he said of his induction. “It’s certainly an honor and long time coming. I’m extremely happy about it, obviously.”