Jennifer “Pinto Bean” Hart, a Bolingbrook High School graduate, was a Northern Illinois University student in 1995.
“I was talking about how I was going to do the flag football thing during Thanksgiving,” she recalled. “Somebody said, ‘Why not try rugby?’ “
“My whole world opened up once I got out there and got to tackle someone,” she said. “I was always afraid of playing sports because of not making it, or not being accepted.
“I found a camaraderie with rugby. I was hooked. It has helped shape me as a person and professionally. It helps to be around strong women.”
Hart is a science teacher at East Aurora High School, and at age 40, still plays rugby, although that will end soon, as Hart is retiring.
The County Will Morrigans will play at 11 a.m. Saturday in Milwaukee against the Milwaukee Scylla in the semifinals of the Midwest playoffs. Hart has been with the Morrigans for 13 seasons, virtually since their inception.
“We won the Chicago Area Rugby Football Union; it’s one of four sections in the Midwest,” Morrigans coach David Harris-John noted. “The top teams from each section play in the semifinals this weekend, and the winner of the Midwest championship game next week will go to the [Division II] nationals.”
“Twenty-two years is a long time to be playing rugby and is hard on the body,” said Annie Verbic, one of Hart’s teammates. “We are hoping to go all the way to the nationals this year, as every year, but it would be extra special to us if we could go while Jen is still on the team.”
“We haven’t crossed the first hurdle yet,” Harris-John reminded. “Scylla beat us last year at this stage. But maybe we can surprise someone. This team, I think, is a grade or two above last year’s.”
What always holds true, regardless of wins or losses, is the Morrigans are more than an athletic team.
“That’s the thing about the Morrigans, they integrate everyone into this camaraderie they have,” Harris-John said.
They were not about to allow Hart, after her many years of service to the team and organization, to enter retirement without doing something special. That happened last week, during the final home game of the season at Central Park in Manhattan.
“It was pretty amazing,” Harris-John said. “She likes unicorns, and they gave her a pony with a unicorn on its head.”
“Yeah, I had my retirement match over the weekend,” Hart said. “I started and played a good portion of it. I may be retiring, but my heart will always be out there on the field, and I’ll never be completely away from it.”
Meanwhile, in her final season, Hart continues to get in the middle of the action and contribute.
“Jennifer plays in our front row, she’s in the scrums,” Harris-John said. “The best way I can describe her is she is a solid pillar.”
“Pinto is always ready to help teammates at practice by giving them tricks she learned throughout her career,” Verbic said. “Even today, no matter how much pain she is in, she is always booted up and ready to play any position needed.”
Some may question Hart’s sanity.
“I remember my dad saying, ‘Why jeopardize your health to play some stupid sport?’ she said with a laugh.
“I feel the pain and the bumps and bruises, but they are temporary. Rugby has opened so many doors for me.”
One was the opportunity to teach at East Aurora.
“I probably would not have my job if not for a former NIU rugby player helping me get it,” she said.
Hart’s boyfriend, Ryan Stoddard, has a long association with the Will County Shamrocks and the Chicago Blaze rugby organizations. The couple met and have traveled around the country and even to South Africa, thanks to rugby.
THE RUGBY INFLUENCE
Working for the Morrigans off the field, in addition to playing, has helped formulate Hart’s adult life.
“I have learned money management, time management, how to be a president or a secretary of an organization,” she said. “You need all these people to make a team successful.
“Rugby is a great common denominator. I never would have met so many good people without it. They all have a passion, a love, for the game, and they’re willing to put themselves out there when they’re playing.”
Hart said the hardest thing for her was to step away from rugby for a while a few years ago so she could complete work on her master’s degree.
“That time gave me a lot of perspective,” she said. “A few of the younger players on the team took on more of the administrative roles, and that helped me come back and enjoy my last couple of years playing.”
As for her nickname, she said she actually received it when she was in high school, before she began playing rugby.
“I’ve heard worse,” she said. “I got my nickname in high school when some friends were naming everyone by nicknames.
“There were four or five other Jennifers in college. I said you guys can call me Pinto Bean. Usually in rugby, you do something stupid and that gives you a nickname.”
Something other than your given name can come in handy.
“I’ll shop at a Walmart or Target, and I might run into one of my students,” she said. “As a teacher, you are always ‘on.’ But in rugby you are able to let your guard down. It’s sometimes good when you get away from everything and have an alias.”
The attitude Hart brings to the Morrigans, on and off the field, is infectious.
“A teammate put together a slide show to music, with the lyric ‘Til The Day I Die,’ and we all really believe that,” she said.
“I’m on the sideline,” Harris-John said of his role as coach. “I wave the baton and conduct. All I ask the girls to do is look me in the eye when they come off the field and tell me they did their best. No coach can ask for more than that.”
Whenever the 2017 playoff trek ends for the Morrigans, Hart’s playing career will be over. In one way or another, however, she is sure to keep rugby in her life. She plans to give back to the sport that has given her so much.
“There’s not enough I can do,” she said.