Cape Fear Rugby Shirts: Art in an Unexpected Place

The Cape Fear Rugby Club hosts their 32nd annual tournament this weekend. And while the action is all on the field at Ogden Park, one of the club's biggest traditions will be on display off to the side. WHQR's Megan Williams has more...

Wilmington, NC – For a sport that?s about all about tackling and pulling and rolling in the mud, the Cape Fear Rugby Club is certainly proud of its T-shirts. For thirty-two years, the club?s put out an annual shirt to go with its summertime tournament. And for almost that long, player Monty Steed?s been the keeper of the club?s history, in fabric form. He?s collected all but one of the shirts, keeping them neatly folded into homemade display cases. It?s a link, he says, to the club?s past.

?A lot of people talk about these shirts, and think they know what the theme is. But the more you look at them; you keep finding more and more stuff. That?s what?s really interesting about them... They?re kind of endless.?

Former club member Mike Goins designed most of the shirts. Goins used to teach art at UNCW with Claude Howell, but for years he?s lived in Durham, and just sent his designs back to the club. The shirts riff off political themes, local images, and famous artworks.

One year has a Cubist motif, with Rugby Player Descending a Staircase. On another one, Nancy Reagan presides over the slogan, ?Just Say Rugby!? A take-off of Da Vinci?s The Perfect Man earned some complaints for its full frontal nudity (several buyers covered ?The Perfect Rugby Player? with shorts). They?re clever, but so far, nothing too unique. Lots of organizations make annual t-shirts to sell. But at last year?s tournament, club, the crowds of people around the display cases made co-founder Ray Funderburk start thinking of these shirts as something more.

?Everyone was coming up to the tent,? Funderburk recalls, ?and saying, ?I want to buy this old T-shirt,? and ?this was great? and picking out their favorites and I realized this was in effect an art exhibit, and I said, ?you know, art crops up in all kinds of places.??

Like other works of art, Cape Fear Rugby shirts have shown up in the New Yorker?s Talk of the Town section. There?s a legendary ?lost work? (1979?s shirt). And Funderburk even once found himself in the middle of an impromptu, and brief, bidding war: ?Two years ago, I was wearing one of my favorites, people call it pink, but because I?m a man, I prefer to call it salmon-colored T-shirt which has flytraps all over the back and a rugby player. And a lady there said, ?I want that T-shirt,? and I said, ?I?m sorry, we don?t have them for sale any more, this is an old one.? And she said, ?No, I want that one, I?ll give you fifty bucks for that shirt right now.? And I said, ?I?m sorry, it?s one of my favorites, I?m wearing it.?

Okay, so these guys are pretty passionate about their t-shirts. Of course, these are people who devote decades of their lives, and much of the cartilage in their knees, to a sport that?s barely known in the US. But according to Steed, once rugby gets in your blood, it?s there.

?It?s a worldwide fraternity,? Steed says. ?Once you play with guys, they got your back, no matter what you do. It's that kind of going to war feeling, if you know what I mean.?

30-year rugby veteran Todd Music agrees: ?once you?re a rugby player, you?re bonded for life. Either bonded or branded.?

Sitting on the side of a recent practice, Musick lifts his ankle to demonstrate that for him, buying a T-shirt is the least of his artistic commitment to the team. Inked on his shin is the club?s shield: a 15-petaled Venus flytrap. Even that?s symbolic: fifteen?s the number of players on a regular rugby side, and the endemic flytrap gives the team a local connection. They even named their pitch Flytrap Downs.

Tattoos seem like a more appropriate art form for a sport that, at least during practice, seems to run on a string of good-natured cursing and taunts. But for Funderburk, that?s a big part of why T-shirts are so interesting. He explains: ?on what was essentially wearable, disposable to a large extent, materials, we, or not we, but Michael, created art. And I like that anomaly, I like that little twist, because it?s not what you expect?

Ironically, this year the club?s t-shirt won?t sport a Michael Goins? design. Goins told the club he?s too upset about the current political situation to focus on the shirt. Instead, Funderburk says, ?this year we have a pretty standard rugby tournament T-shirt with rugby players and a kind of nice little, funny little rugby joke on it, but that?s about it. And that?s sad.?

Megan Williams, WHQR News

You can find more about this weekend's Cape Fear 7s Tournament at the club's website

Support for local arts and cultural programming comes from WHQR members, and Landfall Foundation, an organization of residents who support projects enhancing health, education and the arts in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender Counties.