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For These 3, Rugby Offers a 2nd Career : Trio to Play for U.S. Against Japanese Today

Times Staff Writer

For two former football players and a former basketball player, the sport of rugby has proven to be a fountain of youth for their athletic careers.

Ed Burlingham, Kevin Higgins and Mike Purcell are former Orange County athletes who are now members of the U.S. national rugby team that will meet Japan in a match today at 3 p.m. at El Camino College in Torrance.

Higgins and Purcell came to the sport by way of football and Burlingham by way of basketball, yet all three have managed to adapt their skills to what was once exclusively an English sport. Burlingham, Higgins and Purcell are allied with 12 others from across the country who have trained together this week at Cal State Long Beach in preparation for today’s match.

Players are drawn from four regional areas--East, Midwest, West and Pacific Coast--with this trio having been chosen by the governing U.S. Amateur Football Union as being among the better players from the Pacific Coast.

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Burlingham is a Costa Mesa businessman, Higgins a marketing student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Purcell a a petroleum geologist in Davis, Calif.

Each came to the sport with different backgrounds and skills, yet each has grown to appreciate the various aspects that this high-contact sport has to offer.

“What I like about the sport is the camaraderie of it all,” said Burlingham, a former basketball player at UC Irvine (1967-72). “Sure, it’s a hard game, a physical game, but there is a great social side to it, too.

“With rugby players, it’s like a fraternity--we really look after each other. . . . If you happen to meet another rugby player, he’ll treat you like a brother. Or if you meet them in another country, they’ll feed you and take you in like an old friend.”

Rugby has provided them all with worldwide travel, having taken Burlingham to England, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, usually at minimal cost. Expenses are typically paid for by governing bodies or by the host countries.

If there is a downside to the sport, according to the players, it’s the time involved in practicing and traveling to games and the misconceptions that people have about their sport.

Burlingham, 34, runs his own metal finishing business, so he is able to make his own schedule. But he cited instances of friends or former teammates who had to choose between jobs and the daily two-hour practices that many rugby clubs require.

With Burlingham, a father of two, balancing time between his job, his family and rugby is not easy, but he remains hooked on the sport, which he took up in 1972.

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Higgins, a former Mater Dei High School tailback, is single, but even he admits that finding time for both his schoolwork and play often is difficult.

“I graduate in June and I’ll have to make a decision then on whether to get a job or play on the World Cup team for next year,” he said. “I guess it’ll depend on the job (offer).”

Higgins has proven clever enough to incorporate his play into his schoolwork, having recently written a paper about the marketing of rugby-related products.

But Higgins has certainly made his presence felt on the playing fields at Cal Poly. CPSLO. This spring, Higgins became the first three-time Rugby Collegiate All-American selection.

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Purcell, a defensive back at Costa Mesa High, Golden West College and the University of the Pacific, has found rugby less violent than football.

Said Purcell: “Some players wear teethguards, other players don’t. There are gentlemen’s rules that many fans aren’t aware of. Playing Japan Saturday, we know they play by the rules and there won’t be any cheap shots (at the bottom of pileups) at all.”

Fresh from matches in Hong Kong, Scotland and South Africa during April, Purcell said that he has played in front of more than 50,000 people at such places.

“It’s one of those cases where here nobody knows you and over there everybody knows you,” Purcell said. “You can walk around town afterwards and people will come up to you to compliment you or discuss strategy.”

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