The Rugby Whore is dead. Jim Simms, who coined that descriptive term
and embodied rugby football in an earlier and more innocent time,
died of heart failure on September 22, 2001 in New Mexico. He was
60 years old.
Jim Simms was a very visible figure in Western U.S. rugby, not only for his muscular, gray-haired appearance and straight-ahead playing style, but also for his countless good-natured and often mischievous antics outside the touchlines: Simms Stories. There was the day long ago in Denver when after a match Jim, John, and Larry ran across some ladies who had discovered the male stripper they had contracted for their bachelorette party could not make the gig. And so was born “Gentleman Jim Simms”, who came to the damsels’ rescue with a personal appearance, and later had appropriate “Exotic male dancer” business cards made up to tease and amuse the rest of us.
And yet Jim Simms was more than a clown. In fact, the man was a walking contradiction: a psychologist by trade whom some thought was crazy; an ex-Marine and semi-pro gridiron player who was never seen to lose his temper, but was known to cry; a hard drinker who spent his last several years sober; a mercilessly physical front-rower in the habit of helping opponents off the ground with a hearty “good play”.
Jim was a founding member of Denver’s Queen City Rugby Club and the father of the Durango, Colorado, RFC. He joined us in Santa Fe, New Mexico around 1980 and lived there until his death. Jim played hooker for Santa Fe Santos throughout the 80s and into the 90s and was well-known throughout Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona as first a hard-nosed hooker and later, when his neck began to give out, prop forward. “He was easy to follow around the pitch: always the straightest path to the goal line!” writes Pascal, now back in his native France. According to James Carroll, Jim was “the picture of economical movement. He would make a tackle on one touchline and then rather than foolishly run across the pitch he would artfully hang back until the play came back to his side and then make another hammering tackle on anyone stupid enough to think he was going to run by the gray-haired gent.”
But what distinguished Jim most between the lines was his staggering appetite for the game.
“I remember him as playing hard and not trying to spare his energy,” continues Pascal. “He always played the B game, no matter how hard the A game. And Jim did it all with a smile on his face . . . literally.” adds Larry. We actually had to watch him at tournaments, lest he wander off between matches to pick up a game with a needy club. In fact it was this latter aspect of Jim’s rugby behavior that instituted the now-universal term, “rugby whore”.
Charlie, one of our old boys who is now an herbalist and a generally wise man, holds that rugby “gave Jim a place to let out life’s challenges in a healthy way that kept him from falling prey to some of society’s ills himself.”
Not that Jim Simms was a saint. Once, at a teammate’s wedding reception, he walked up behind the beaming bride, leaned over, and bit her firmly on her backside.
Yet, Jim could also be a diplomat. James remembers him bringing flowers for his new wife when invited for Easter dinner, and being the perfect gentleman. Gentleman Jim, we came to call him. Out west you don’t see many men, let alone guys at rugby functions, kitted out in brown corduroy trousers with penny loafers, a powder-blue Arrow shirt, navy blazer, and an ascot. Yet there he was, wearing his sly grin.
Jim was a frequent contributor to the letters department of our local newspaper. It was in this medium that Jim Simms cemented his fame. In a 1982 edition of the Santa Fe Reporter, a full-page story entitled “My Life as a Rugby Whore” appeared, being the reflections of Mr. Simms on his already-long rugby career. The article gave full head not only to Jim’s outrageous lifestyle - “when he had that bone removed from his shoulder, his teammates” (actually, he himself) “had it carved into an obscene ornament, which he wore around his neck” – but also his wild imagination – “I’ve seen it so many times – a guy gets carted out of a game with a broken leg, but . . . he’s so high from playing . . . all he wants to do is get up off the stretcher and get back on the field and keep playing.” This was pure Simms, and sprung as much from a desire to see what his teammates would think (a varied response, depending on degree of responsibility each man felt for the Club) as a longing for the public spotlight.
Indeed, Jim felt compelled to send a copy of the article to Rugby editor Ed Hagerty, who promptly highlighted it in his own article in this publication, condemning the damage done to American rugby’s image by its own through such public foolishness. Mr. Hagerty’s piece hit home, of course, which not only elicited Jim’s patented “I’ve been naughty, haven’t I?” behavior until the heat blew over, but also brought on at least several subsequent letters to Rugby, defending Jim as the poster boy of laissez faire rugby administration and good old-fashioned fun. To Ed’s credit, these letters appeared in the next issue.
Jim delighted in the consternation his grandstanding in the press caused his teammates, but his writings also revealed his strong commitment to standing up for the downtrodden. And Jim was more than words: he spent countless volunteer hours counseling prison inmates, rape victims, drug addicts, at-risk kids; anyone down on his luck. “He saved my life,” related one youth who has survived his own perilous times. “He truly cared and saw through my bullshit and never gave up on me.”
If I may take my turn, I humbly suspect that it was the dichotomous nature of Jim Simms that fascinated us. Yes, he was a scoundrel, running off with guys’ socks and constantly winning the club’s Atrocity Belt at the annual banquet. Some people outside the club feigned disgust at Jim’s sometimes inappropriate behavior, yet were always game for another Simms story. It was as if we lived our sublimated lives vicariously through him, and he had the courage to dare.
Jim loved rugby, maybe too much, as the condition of his neck after so many matches eventually led to periodic seizures. But I think he loved us more. And I think we all knew it. Says Joaquin, “although we were many years apart, he always talked sincerely and in a way that was respectful of me and what I do. I will never forget him for that.”
Jim’s public letters always included quotes of poetry; lines about the mysteries of life and death.
Indeed, news of the death of Jim Simms touched many, and the memorial service the Friday after his death swelled with their numbers. The following week we held a ceremony at the new Santa Fe RFC pitches. Spreading his father’s ashes in both try zones that day was Peter Simms, a fine and thoughtful young lieutenant who played for West Point in the collegiate Final Four in 199?__(help me here, please, Mr. Hagerty!).
After the ceremony, Pete, like his dad, played hooker for the Santos in a runaway victory. And, like his dad, Pete was seen to make several bone-crunching tackles. Toward the end of the match, a Santo veteran, who was a kid when Jim took up the Game They Play in Heaven, took a pass with a clear path to the try zone. Even at full throttle Derek could see the traces of gray dust nestled in the long grass, waiting. As he reached the line, Derek went horizontal in a long dive, clutching the ball closely to his chest. As he landed, there was a large puff of Gentleman Jim Simms, and not a dry eye in the bleachers.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.