In 2018, the Charlotte Royals were prepared to host the annual Queen City Crown tournament when the reservation of a local playing field was canceled. The Royals, Charlotte’s gay rugby team, tried everything they could imagine in hopes of recovering in time. Feeling hopeless, with only hours left to go, they serendipitously got a call that the field behind Marie G. Davis Middle School was available. “We ended up there because we had to,” said Craig Maxwell who organizes the annual tournament. The field was in bad shape with overgrown grass, trash and a large sinkhole. “It’s kind of this misfit field — where anybody that didn’t get fields anywhere else kind of ended up.”
On The Pitch
Each year, qnotes selects a person or organization that is benefitting the LGBTQ community through service or by breaking down barriers in the region. The Charlotte Royals was founded on the idea to foster a supportive environment where gay and bisexual men and their straight allies can learn and play the sport of rugby. The team is open to all men regardless of their sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, religion, age, size or whether they have ever played sports before. Today, there are over 30 players and growing auxiliary membership. There are two seasons, spring and fall, each involving an average of six-weekend matches, along with fundraisers, social events and charity work.
Like that “misfit” field, or pitch, the team had a rough start. In 2004, Jason Cash and others had been invited to watch a scrimmage between the Atlanta Bucks and the Raleigh Kodiaks. Rugby wasn’t very popular in the South yet, and Charlotte was home only to the Charlotte Rugby Club, founded in 1971, and a few college teams. While the sport was gaining popularity in the LGBTQ community, the city lacked its own gay rugby team.
Jeff Enochs joined the Charlotte Royals a year after the team launched. He had recently been discharged from the military and had no real social outlet. After stumbling upon the group at Charlotte Pride, Enochs decided to see what rugby was about. “When I showed up, I swear it wasn’t within the first two practices that I realized that the group I was with was probably the most welcoming group of people in the city at that point,” remembers Enochs. “It felt like what they were doing at that time was something that had not been done in North Carolina. There were gay organizations, but there weren’t any gay organizations that were actively getting inserted into a predominantly straight environment.”
“Homophobia was quite real,” says Enochs referring to those early years. “We have played teams where we would all travel, 20 to 25 of us, would travel a couple of hours outside the city, set up to play a game only to find out that the team decided they did not want to play us because they said ‘they would all catch AIDS’. So, they would send their women’s team to play us instead.” The team regularly heard the other teams utter “faggot” or “queer.” “They didn’t take us seriously,” says Maxwell, who joined later in the fall of 2013. “We would play against them, but you’d still hear some comments from players on the sidelines or on the field.” Maxwell had grown up around rugby starting at age nine and was aware of the homophobia that existed in the sport.
Things started to change over the years as the team grew. In 2007, the Royals brought on Amanda Vestal as a coach. She fell in love with the team from the very beginning. While she had been coaching women’s rugby for years, she points out a difference in this team. “It’s just like a family,” says Vestal. “I think we all realize that we’re the Charlotte Royals and we have each other’s backs.”
The same holds true for Rikki Bower, who joined the team in 2017. Two of his close friends had been asking him to take them to Rugby 101, an information session the team has at the beginning of each season. Out of the three, Bower seemed like the least likely person to join the team but was the only one who stayed. He describes an early tackling drill during practice that involves hitting a pad and then rolling back up. “There was something about that rolling back up that just made me feel exhilarated,” says Bower. “I felt like I was on top of the world.”
A Lion’s Strength
You might say that the pitch at Marie G. Davis Middle School, called the David June Memorial Pitch, found the Charlotte Royals that day in 2017, rather than the other way around. “We realized all the kids were playing there on these terrible conditions, pretty much because they had to,” said Maxwell. Just like the Royals team had grown from a commitment to each other and the community, they quickly decided they had to apply those same philosophies to this new home. They cleared two truckloads of garbage, cut back the weeds and grass, filled the sinkhole, built viewing platforms with bleachers and tables, and a new scoreboard is coming soon. Overall, they’ve put $10,000 into the field and equally a lot of hard work. It’s important to note the bridges they have built over the past 15 years gave way to the Charlotte Barbarians and Queens University Women’s Rugby team also donating money and labor to the project.
“A lion’s strength is in its pride” appears on the back of the Charlotte Royals’ singlets. “It’s become bigger than a rugby team. I look at guys like Craig (Maxwell) who, we’ll practice together. We’ll lay some hits. We’ll do all the fun stuff, but like at the end of the day after tackling each other just give him a big ole hug,” says Robert “Kiwi” Primm. Self-described as the “big, charismatic, lovable guy on the team,” Primm has played rugby since he was young and previously played for the Charlotte Barbarians. He joined the Royals because it offered something different than the other leagues in town. “Hearing everybody’s stories on the team; hearing everybody’s past of what they’ve went through, what they’re going through now, kind of brought us closer,” says Primm whose wife and kids come to the games on a regular basis. Primm has gone on to coach a gay team for two years in Charleston, S.C. because of his experience with the Royals.
In addition to the work on the David June Memorial Pitch, the organization has helped organizations like Time Out Youth, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, Charlotte Pride, Toys for Tots, Out of the Darkness Walk, the AIDS Walk, local pet food drives and other teams throughout the International Gay Rugby (IGR) league. They’ve covered funeral costs, hospital bills and community needs.
Earlier this year, the Royals hosted the Rainbow Unicorn 7’s Youth Rugby Tournament in partnership with the Charlotte Junior Rugby Association. Maxwell talks candidly about the personal benefit the sport has on someone who is LGBTQ. “It pushes you and challenges you in ways that you don’t really get to be challenged. Rugby is a big part of what helped me fight depression in high school.” The team and the tournament are helping to build acceptance and understanding for young players. Primm talks about the connection that exists for youth rugby that holds true in the team itself. “When you’ve been working with a player for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, and you see that light go on, that spark, it’s an amazing thing. You’re not just looking at someone just getting something. You’re looking at someone who was denied sports their whole life.”
In the early years, the Royals lost every single game, but they persisted knowing they were there to do something bigger. “We played 80 minutes every single time,” says Enochs. “We walked off that field with our heads held high knowing that we were doing something that nobody else in the state had done.” Today, the Royals regularly win matches and the change in the community has been profound. They’ve had two undefeated seasons in the past five years, have numerous awards in the United States, and won the Hoagland Shield in 2018 at the Bingham Cup in Amsterdam. That respect goes far and wide. The team seeks to break down the perceptions of masculinity within the gay and straight communities by demonstrating the legitimacy of a gay rugby team. Teams around the region, some in those same areas that would not play the team back in 2004, call asking to play them today or be part of the team’s events. “If we were not in existence, I don’t think that the level of understanding that we’ve achieved in 2019 (in the sport) would be where we are right now,” says Enochs. This year at Pride, over 100 ruggers from area teams walked with the Royals in the Charlotte Pride Parade.
A Global Community
The impact goes well beyond just the Charlotte community, however. Being part of IGR, the team has close friends around the globe. IGR is now working with USA Rugby, the national governing body for the sport of rugby in the United States, to create more inclusive LGBTQ policies across its leagues, including more trans inclusion. “We are part of a very large community that is continuously growing,” says Vestal. “If we didn’t have IGR behind us, I don’t know that we would have the confidence to do a lot of the things that we’re doing now.”
In November, it was announced that the Royals would be the host club for the 2021 International Gay Rugby North American Championship (IGR NAC). The IGR NAC will bring inclusive rugby teams from across Canada, Mexico, and the United States to Charlotte and Matthews for a long weekend of intense rugby competition during the Memorial Day weekend in 2021. The team will be coordinating new and established partnerships to create a successful event for the city and will need to raise close to $350,000. In a press release Kerry Beck, president of the Charlotte Royals, said, “We are honored to bring this tournament to Charlotte and continue our mission to promote the sport we love.” It is expected to bring in 40 teams from around the globe with an estimated 1,000 players, undoubtedly a boost for the local economy. “It’s a big deal,” says Vestal. “It’s a really big undertaking. It’s the Charlotte Royals, but we’re going to need our community to help us.” Judging from the organization’s history it’s easy to foresee the tournament’s success.
“Being 15 years on this team and coming from the background that I came from, feeling like you’re alone and when you join this group, you have the largest family that you could ever possibly have,” says Enochs. That family has won awards and had fun, but most importantly, it continues to make a difference in LGBTQ lives and bridge divides in the broader Charlotte community.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Charlotte Royals visit charlotteroyalsrugby.com or follow the team at facebook.com/CharlotteRoyalsRFC.