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At last spring's New England Rugby Tournament, Harvard captain Keith Oberg, playing with his head bandaged, looked like an American revolutionary. After a season of continual hard hits in the middle of the scrum, a bruise in Oberg's temple region had opened up and required stitches. A week before the New England's the stitches became infected, leaving Oberg with a nasty, swollen, pus filled abscess in the side of his head.
Yet the gusty hooker suited up and played superably in Harvard's opening round win over Norwich that Saturday morning. After a quick trip to the hospital to clean and redress his wound, Oberg returned for the semifinal overtime win against a physical Brown squad in the afternoon. That evening the doctors told the scrappy redhead not to play in Sunday's consolation final, but Oberg lived up to the revolutionary's motto, "never say die," and finished the season along side his teammates.
Last week the West Hartford, Ct. native, now in his second year as captain, recalled the weekend in his characteristic modesty. "That was nothing," Oberg recalls, "just some tape for a few cuts and bruises.
His teammates put Oberg's ability and determination in a better perspective.
"Keith's a tough, hard nosed competitor who plays hurt. He just never gives up," wing forward Greg Carey said after last Saturday's rout of B.U. in which scrum-half Oberg played the entire second half with a sprained ankle.
Rugby laurels in the past year include two undefeated fall seasons (9-0 in '79 and 10-0 this year), a second in the Ivy League tournament and another silver in the New Englands, both last spring.
When compared with the 1975-77 clubs, which former rugger Sabin Willett '79 describes as "a bunch of good athletes with little organization playing low scoring, American football rugby," one realizes the transformation of the program--the ruggers outscored opponents 245-41 this season.
Added second lineman Rod Walters '80, "In the old days, Harvard didn't score twenty points in the whole season. Keith's turned the entire program around."
Oberg knows his sport and the capabilities of his teammates. In Saturday's finale against Yale, in which Oberg played with strained ligaments in his ankle, the Crimson executed sluggishly throughout the first half, controlling the ball in the Eli end only a handful of times.
During the halftime break Oberg told the squad it was worthy of its unbeaten record, but had to show that to Yale. Psyched up, the Crimson dominated the rest of the game, adding two more tries to finish the season like true champions.
"Keith always plays with a tenacity, a grim determination, and thus sets a pace that one can follow in practice and in games," club president Kip McKenzie says.
Oberg learned the fundamentals of rugby in the summer before his senior year at Conard High School playing with some friends from Springfield College, the subsequent founders of the West Hartford Yahoo rugby club. One of the few Americans to arrive at Harvard with rugby experience, the American History major started at "A" side hooker in the fall of his freshman, year and was elected captain in the spring of his Sophomore year.
Although he wrestled in half the varsity matches as a Yardling, Oberg, a three time Connecticut State High School wrestling champion, decided to devote himself to rugby. "It offers a different outlook on sport," he said. "Rugby's casual, without any pressure from a coach or alumni. The social aspect (weekend roadtrips to away games, the annual "pig roast," and kegs after games) almost equals the competitive element," Oberg adds; "My rugby experience has reallybeen the people met and the friendships made."
Oberg fills his athletic void in the winter coaching high school wrestling at the Buckingham, Browne, and Nichols School in Cambridge, an obligation of over 20 hours a week.
"The satisfaction makes the time commitment unnoticeable," the former high school letter winner in football and lacrosse said. Emphasizing positive reinforcement, knowledge, and fitness, Oberg strives to instill confidence in his athletes to build a stronger overall program.
McKenzie, who made the original connection with BBN, coaches the junior high schoolers, while hooker Rick Kief works with the fifth and sixth graders. "Keith motivates the kids to incredible efforts, drawing out their inner drive to achieve their potential," McKenzie adds. Looking ahead, Oberg, who is also president of the Pi Eta Speakers Club, plans eventually to attend business school but adds, "there's a lot of time to go to work.," Meanwhile, he'll spendnext summer in New Zealand to fine tune his rugby skills, then return to California for a tryout with the Pacific Coast team, and--if things go right--the U.S. National squad.
Reflecting on the tryout, Oberg says, "After six years, I'm ready to give the game a shot at a higher level," adding, "I'd always wonder if I didn't try."
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