Tom Selfridge, who turned to rugby when a careeer in professional football didn’t materialize and went on to become one of the most influential people in the sport, will be inducted into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame Saturday in Houston.
The 67-year-old Selfridge, a Cleveland native who moved to Schenectady in 1973 when he started the Albany Valve & Fitting Company, played for the Schenectady Reds and Albany Knickerbockers before being named to the first two United States Union teams in 1975 and 1976. He played a total of five international matches for the U.S., and went on to become president of the Eastern Rugby Union in 1980.
Selfridge, who still lives in Saratoga County, played three years of varsity football at the University of Cincinnati, starting at both fullback and tight end for the Bearcats, who led the nation in scoring while Selfridge was on the roster.
He had hopes of playing pro football, but when nothing panned out, turned to rugby.
“I would have liked to have kept playing football,” he said in an interview with The Daily Gazette in 1979. “But the few offers I got wouldn’t have made it worthwhile. There just wasn’t any structure to give me the chance to play more football. Rugby was a nice way for me to continue a career as an athlete.”
Little did Selfridge know that he would be at the center on one of the most controversial games in the history of U.S. Rugby.
As the president of the ERU in 1981, Selfridge helped organize a three-game tour of the South African national team — the Springboks — in the U.S. But the tour became the target of anti-apartheid protests, and games in Rochester and New York City were canceled.
Then-Albany Mayor Eratus Corning II gave the approval to hold one of the games at Bleecker Stadium, but then-Gov. Hugh Carey said the game should be canceled, citing the massive costs of police for crowd control. When Corning backed off his earlier commitment to support the game, Selfridge went to court to block Gov. Carey’s executive order.
Over 1,000 protestors met at the Capitol building the morning of the game, and marched to Bleecker Stadium in the rain, but the game was held without incident, with the Springboks dominating an ERU team, 41-8.
The Springboks were scheduled to play the U.S. national team, the Eagles, the following Saturday in New York City, but New York Mayor Ed Koch has earlier pulled the permit for the game to be played at Downing Stadium.
So Selfridge arranged for the game to be played a day earlier, on Sept. 25, in the wake of the bombing of a rugby club in Evansville, Ind.
On that Friday morning, the two teams were driven to the remote Owl Creek Polo Ground in Glenville, where the game was played in front of 30 spectators, the lowest attended international match in the history of rugby.
Selfridge ran afoul of the United States of America Rugby Football Union with the day-early match. USARFU administrators had arrived from all across the country to watch a Saturday afternoon Springboks-Eagles contest, and they were furious when Selfridge rescheduled it.
In a later interview, Selfridge said, “The next time the Springboks come to the United States, apartheid will be gone. And the game will occur and maybe the score will be down next to the high school scores.”
Selfridge, who also has a MBA from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, retired from rugby in 2004.