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Who is that guy? Jack Clark wondered as the lunatic soared headfirst over the wedge. He'd make a hell of a rugby player.
From the bleachers of Memorial Stadium at the University of California, Clark, the coach of Cal's hugely successful rugby team, had just spotted Gary Hein, a true freshman on the Bears' 1983 football team, at practice that fall. As kickoff team wedge-buster, Hein's only job was to hurl himself at the phalanx of oncoming blockers. Once or twice a game, "just to keep 'em honest," says Hein, he would dive over the wedge. One of those short flights caught the attention of Clark, whose hunch about Hein's rugby future proved correct.
The following January, Hein was stretching outside the stadium, preparing to go for a run, when he was accosted by Don James, a 6'2", 260-pound noseguard on the Bears' football team. "Hi, Gary," said James, "you're coming with me."
James escorted Hein to rugby practice. Clark made him a wing—a clueless wing at first. But Hein quickly caught on to the game; from 1984 to '88, he played on three of Clark's national-championship teams. (Under Clark, the Bears have won five national titles in eight years.) At 21 he was selected to represent the Eagles, as the U.S. team is known, in a 1987 match against Tunisia. He has played 22 matches for the U.S. team, including two World Cups.
Hein is currently captain of the Eagles Sevens. (Sevens is a faster-paced version of rugby in which there are seven players on a side instead of the usual 15, and halves last seven minutes rather than 40.) The team played in the Hong Kong International Sevens last month. Currently it is in Scotland to play in the inaugural Rugby World Cup Sevens in Edinburgh.
Hein may not be the best rugby player in the U.S., but he is the player with the most impressive athletic pedigree. In 1965 his father, Mel Hein Jr., set a world indoor record in the pole vault. His father, Mel Sr., played 15 seasons—172 consecutive games, both ways, at center and linebacker—for the New York Giants, was an eight-time All-Pro and a charter member of the Hall of Fame.
Yet Judy Hein refuses to concede that her eldest son's athleticism derives exclusively from Hein genes. She points out that her father, the late Hal Davis, was a high school miler as well as a fine gymnast and tennis player. Acceding to the demands of his children, Davis would frequently perform his signature standing backflip. "He did one at my sister's wedding," says Judy. "In his hard shoes."
There was no rugby program at Taft High in the San Fernando Valley, where Gary was a star in three sports: football, basketball and track and Held. He went to Cal on a football scholarship and started two years at cornerback. As a senior he was named co-captain and made honorable mention All- Pac-10. Nice credentials, but hardly the stuff of first-round NFL draft choices.
On the rugby pitch, however, Hein was a supernova. In his junior and senior seasons, in addition to being named All-America, he won the Woodley Award, rugby's Heisman. The spring of 1987 presented Hein with a choice: He could shop himself around the NFL as a free agent—Hein figured he had an outside chance to make a pro team—or accept the Eagles' invitation to play in the first-ever rugby World Cup.
He quit football and hasn't looked back. Hein, now 28, thirsts for what he calls life experiences, and rugby has delivered them. The game has taken him to 22 countries, from Uruguay to the United Arab Emirates. "I could have gone to work right after I graduated," says Hein. "As it is, I've seen a lot of the world, made a lot of close friends in a lot of different countries, and I've gotten a terrific education. So it's cost me a few years of financial growth. I'll live."