By Jennifer Hartwig, Hunter Army AirfieldDecember 15, 2011
HUNTER ARMY AIRFIELD, Ga. - Rugby isn't your typical American family sport -- that is, unless you're part of the Rutkowski Family.
Sergeant Matt Rutkowski, a section sergeant with Company D, 4th Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, has played rugby since his adolescence in Delaware.
He even married a rugby player -- he met wife Annessa on the rugby pitch in Hawaii.
"It was love at first tackle," Sgt. Rutkowski said with a laugh. "She tried running me over, which doesn't happen."
Together, they have three boys -- Matthew, 7, Oscar, 4, and Benjamin, 9 months -- all undoubtedly future rugby players.
They're a handful but I wouldn't trade it for anything," he said. "They all want to be little rugby players… they're built for it, thankfully."
At the age of 33, the Blackhawk mechanic is considered 'old' in the sports world; after 17 years of playing competitively, he decided this season is his last. He went out with a bang, making the All Army Rugby team and competing in the Armed Forces Rugby Championships -- but that doesn't make his stepping away from the game any easier.
"I'm an old man, oh yes I am, I hear it all the time, too," Sgt. Rutkowski said. "But rugby's not a game you give up real easy…once it bites you, it's in your blood."
Though he's hanging up his cleats, the fly half and center is looking forward to taking on new challenges in the game, and at the same time spending more time with his sons.
"Life-wise, rugby-wise, I think it's a real good time for me to start stepping away from the game," Sgt. Rutkowski said. "I have a couple of little boys who are getting to the age where they want to play sports so I'm going to get involved more in coaching."
Sergeant Rutkowski said he is working to become certified in coaching rugby and hopes to make the sport available to children in the area near Hunter Army Airfield and Fort Stewart -- as of now, the closest youth leagues are in Atlanta.
"One of my goals right now is to get something going with the Boys and Girls Club here," he said. "I've looked into it and now that I'm stepping away I'll have a little more time to try to get that started."
Sergeant Rutkowski began his military career out of high school with the Marine Corps. After serving four years, he separated to go to college. After he earned his degree, he entered the civilian workforce but missed the military.
"After a little time in the civilian world I was missing all the action so I joined the Army, because I felt there were more opportunities for me," he said.
Sergeant Rutkowski began in the National Guard and transferred to active Army in 2009. The Rutkowski Family arrived at Hunter Army Airfield in November of 2010, and they settled in Richmond Hill.
Upon his arrival in Coastal Georgia, Sgt. Rutkowski joined the Savannah Shamrocks, a club Rugby team. One of his teammates is a fellow 4/3 AVN Soldier, who understands Sgt. Rutkowski's decision to step away from the game.
"He's a Family guy so he knew this was going to be his year to play All Army or not, (because) he wants to spend more time with his Family," said Capt. Nathan Greer, 4/3 AVN, Company A commander. "I definitely respect him for that. He's recognized that he needs to prioritize his life and he wanted to give rugby the best that he could and now he's moving onto other things."
But before he said farewell to competitive rugby, Sgt. Rutkowski spent two-and-a-half weeks at Fort Benning, Ga. -- first trying out for the All Army squad, then playing with the team against the other four services. According to Sgt. Rutkowski, the Army underperformed, falling in the consolation game.
This year wasn't his first time at the Armed Forces tournament. In 1999, he played on the All Marine squad and in 2010 he was invited to the All Army camp, but broke his foot the first day of tryouts.
In his 17-year competitive rugby career, Sgt. Rutkowski has played in two Armed Forces Championships for two services and won a college national championship.
In the fall of 2001, he began his freshman year of college at Salisbury University in Maryland.
While at Salisbury, he earned a bachelor's degree in biology and in 2001, he and the SeaGulls won the Division II National Championship. In the title game against Arkansas State, Rutkowski scores the go-ahead try -- his most memorable college moment.
"Ask my wife what I went to college for, she'll say I went to play rugby," Rutkowski said with a laugh. "I got a biology degree but I went to win a national championship."
Though walking away from the competitive game after 17 years will be hard, working to be the best at other aspects of his life will keep his competitive juices flowing.
"I want to be the best sergeant in the platoon, if not the company," he said. "It's just how I'm wired."