Duck Inducted into Hall of Fame

Mickey Ording, BS '63 (far right) played rugby and football for the UO, and in 2015 was elected to the USA Rugby Hall of Fame (photo: Ording family)

The University of Oregon football teams of the early 1960s boasted three future Hall of Famers: Mel Renfro, two-time Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys; Dave Wilcox, seven-time Pro Bowler with the San Francisco 49ers; and Mickey Ording, BS ’63, who never played a single down of football in the NFL.

Renfro led the NFL in interceptions multiple times during his 14 years with Tom Landry’s Cowboys, and is still the franchise’s all-time leader in picks. Nicknamed “The Intimidator,” Wilcox is still the 49ers career interception co-leader among linebackers, 41 years after retiring.

And Ording? Rather than making his mark on the gridiron, after graduating from the UO with a bachelor of science degree in history he went on to become one of the greatest players in USA rugby history, and was inducted into their Hall of Fame earlier this year.

How, then, did two-time all-conference guard end up in the USA Rugby Hall of Fame?

The answer to that question is simpler than the rugby rulebook (thankfully), and involves the Canadian Football League, apartheid, and a little bit of rule-breaking (though not all at the same time).

In the 1960s, a number of Ducks moonlighted on the UO’s club rugby team. Rugby, where players play on “offense” and “defense” simultaneously, without pads, timeouts, or clock stoppages, was an appealing “exotic” sport, even if the rules took a while to master.

“We got a couple of football guys out, but we didn’t know much about the game,” Ording said. “We really didn’t know much for the first six games or so—we ran around like chickens with our heads cut off.

“Our running back, Jim Josephson, broke through tackles and ran across the goal line and dropped the ball. He thought he’d scored.”

Unfortunately for Josephson, BS ’63, in rugby the ball has to be placed on the ground for the try (rugby’s equivalent of a touchdown) to count.

Football head coach Len Casanova, who retired as Oregon’s winningest coach three years after Ording graduated, was less than thrilled with his players risking injury to play a club sport on the side, though that didn’t stop them from lacing up and taking to the rugby field.

“Our starting quarterback, Bob Berry, wanted to play, but they feared he’d get hurt,” Ording said. “[Bob] didn’t care, so he played for a year and a half.”

Ording played rugby for the UO from 1960–62. After graduating, he played for the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos for several years, then retired from football and returned home to California to teach at UC Santa Clara.

As rugby’s popularity began to increase in the United States, a friend convinced Ording to return to the sport, and he joined the Olympic Club in San Francisco. After the club refused to allow a Japanese-American player to join, he co-founded the XO Rugby Club as an alternative, and played for them instead until 1982.

Rugby, while not a mainstream sport in the United States, nonetheless has both a proud history and a bright future here. In 1920 and 1924, the USA won the Olympic gold medal in rugby, but following the sport’s removal from the Games (a seven-a-side version will return in Rio in 2016), it waned in popularity in the US. In  the 1970s, a rugby renaissance led to the formation of the United States of America Rugby Football Union, and on January 31, 1976, the newly formed USA Eagles played their first game.

Since then, the Eagles have played in seven of the eight Rugby World Cups—including the one taking place right now in England, broadcast in the USA on NBC and Universal Sports—and the sport has increased in popularity to where it is now the fastest-growing in the country. In 2012, the Eagles drew a then-national-record crowd of 17,214 when they played Italy in Houston; that mark has since been surpassed four times, most notably when 61,500 turned out to see the team play the defending world champion New Zealand All Blacks at Chicago’s Soldier Field last year.

All of which is to say rugby has come a long way in the United States since that game in January 1976, when the Eagles took on Australia in the USA’s first match since the 1924 Paris Olympics. Starting for the Eagles at prop—a position similar to a defensive lineman—was Ording, and while the USA was unsuccessful, losing 24-12, it launched a successful international career for the Duck. Ording represented the USA against France in 1976 and an England XV team in 1977, playing the latter test at Twickenham Stadium—dubbed “the home of rugby”—and even represented the USA on a tour of South Africa and Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia) in 1978.

Held during the Apartheid era, while South Africa was largely being boycotted by the international sports community, the tour was considered an unofficial one. The USA team was nicknamed the “Cougars” instead of the “Eagles,” and the trip turned out to be memorable for Ording for reasons both directly and indirectly tied to what took place on the field. First, Ording’s African-American teammates were allowed to stay in the team hotels while on tour, a courtesy not always extended to them back in the United States.

“When I was playing at the UO in 1962, I guess, we had five or six black kids on the playing team, and they wouldn’t let us stay in hotels in Austin, Texas,” Ording recalled in a Capitola Soquel Times interview earlier this year. “We had to go outside of town, some remote little town and stay there because they’d let us stay together there. Here’s a country that practiced apartheid that would let us stay in the hotels, but in our country we couldn’t.”

Second, on the field itself, the Cougars defeated South African club Northern Transvaal. Now known as the Blue Bulls, Northern Transvaal is a fifteen-time champion of the Currie Cup, South Africa’s premier domestic rugby competition. In 1978, when the Cougars showed up, Northern Transvaal was fresh off its eighth Currie Cup title, and would go on to win three of the next four—beating them was an upset akin to the South African national baseball team traveling to the US and toppling the defending World Series champions at their home park.

Ording played his last test for the USA against Canada in Baltimore in 1978, a match the Eagles won 12-7, then returned to teaching and coaching football in California full time.

“By that time I was 38, 39, and was too old to play internationally,” he said.

In March, the US Rugby Foundation announced the 12 members of the USA Rugby Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015, a list that in addition to Ording included former national team coaches, a World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee, a top referee, and a member of the 1920 and 1924 gold medal-winning sides.

“An old teammate of mine is involved with the US Rugby Foundation, and he gave me a call and told me I’d been selected,” Ording said. “I was elated.”

Inductees were nominated by members of the US rugby community, and were voted on by a committee made up of US Rugby Foundation Trustees and Directors. Ording, who has been named the best tighthead prop in USA Eagles history by multiple former coaches, attended the induction banquet and ceremony in Chicago the night before the Eagles took on two-time world champions Australia at Soldier Field.

With the Eagles now ranked No. 16 in the world, there’s no telling how far Ording’s career would have progressed had he played for the Ducks in the same era as Max Unger, BS ’08, Jonathan Stewart, and Zack Test—the latter a former UO receiver who currently stars for the USA sevens rugby team, and will likely represent them in next year’s Olympic games. Or, for that matter, if rugby’s modern era had begun a little bit sooner than when Ording was in his 30s.

“It was great,” Ording said of his Hall of Fame career. “It’s just unfortunate they didn’t have a US team until I was older!”