Unraveling the Cuban rugby mystery: One week after team returns, questions still lingering about what happened and why
KEY WESTó Saturday will mark exactly two weeks from the date when the hopes and dreams of rugby players ó both American and Cuban ó were dashed for reasons still unknown today.
BY DANNY ALLER
Those hopes surrounded the potentially historic, first-ever rugby match that was to be played between an American-based team and the Cuban National team on July 4 at Jose Marti Stadium in downtown Havana. The game was to be played in front of thousands, possibly including Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who was invited to attend the event.
However, when the 40-person team ó composed of 36 South Florida rugby players, including four from the Key West club (Capt. Bill McDonough, Mike Westenberger, Patrick Campbell and Mike Spontak) ó arrived in Cuba on Saturday, July 2, according to the man who spearheaded the entire trip, Sean Reddick, “the rug was pulled out from underneath us, the Cuban team and a chance to make history. And we still don’t know why.”
To shed further light on this, let’s follow the team’s plight during their eight days in Havana, the last four of which were spent trapped ó without power, water or communication ó at the Hotel Vedado because of Hurricane Dennis’ direct hit on Cuba.
According to those who were there, this is how it all went down:
The team arrives early in the morning in Havana. Oddly, the president of the Cuban Rugby Development program, Chukin Chao (also the primary contact during Reddick’s year-long quest to make this trip happen) was nowhere to be found.
“We thought after all the build up, and as big of a deal as this was supposed to be, someone would be there to greet us,” said McDonough. “That just didn’t happen, so right away I think everyone felt like something might be wrong.”
The second omen came moments later.
On the way to the hotel, McDonough began chatting with their cab driver about their reason behind being on the island, and the response he got was not encouraging.
“I started telling him how we were the American rugby team in town to play their national team,” McDonough said. “He started laughing and told us, ‘We don’t have a rugby team,’ to which I replied, ‘sure you do. We’re playing them on Monday night in Havana.’” He just laughed again and said he hadn’t heard a thing about it. To me, for something that had been so highly publicized, it wasn’t a good sign that even this one guy hadn’t heard anything about us, his own team, or the game.”
By the afternoon, the team was settled into the hotel, awaiting a chance to go and practice. However, Reddick’s inability to reach Choa was disturbing, he said, and when he finally did hours later, his comfort level about the situation didn’t get any better.
“Before we came, I’d been in extensive contact with [Mr. Choa] and he assured us that all the permissions were granted, the game was set and everything was a go. We were excited and so were he and his players,” Reddick said. “When I finally reached him once we arrived, the contact we had on the phone was very short to say the least. ‘The government has canceled the games. There is nothing we can do,’ was all I got. There was simply no further explanation.”
Reddick, obviously feeling the sting of watching a whole year’s planning quickly going down the drain, not to mention the aspirations of building a lasting relationship with their Cuban neighbors, tried to overcome the sudden adversity. Privately, he asked to meet with Choa that afternoon, but Choa declined. With the rest of the team still fairly in the dark about what was happening, Reddick went to sleep that night holding onto the only thing he had left at that point: Hope.
With still no word when he awoke, Reddick tried to put the situation in the back of his mind and just focus on playing rugby ó one way or another. He, along with the team’s coach, Larry Fox, scoured Havana that afternoon in search of a field for the team to practice on. When they found one, they brought the team to it, which is also when he and coach Fox delivered the bad news.
“We were all just standing there, about to start playing, when they walked up with these looks on their faces. Then they said: ‘We’ve got some bad news,’” McDonough said. “Although we still needed to hear it from them, I think we all had an idea what was coming.”
With their spirits dampened, but far from crushed, the team went ahead with their practice. After all, Reddick said that the team was still holding out hope that when they hosted their team dinner later that night ó an event they’d invited the entire Cuban National Rugby team to attend ó they’d finally get some answers, or at least be able to explain to someone, anyone, they were simply in Cuba as goodwill ambassadors on behalf of the sport of rugby ó nothing more, nothing less.
Unfortunately, neither the Cuban team, nor Chukin Choa, showed at the dinner that evening, as the American team ate alone.
“That was about as disheartening as anything,” Reddick said. “Rugby was what we were here to play, but spending time with these guys and building relationships was what we were there to do.”
Reddick awoke to find Hotel Vedado crawling with media. Reuters, The Associated Press and even a local Miami TV station were on hand for the game that was supposed to be played later that day. When Reddick finally met with some of the media, the rumors were already circulating that the game was off.
“Everyone was like, ‘What’s going on? Why has the game been canceled?’” he said. “I told them they knew about as much as I did, but we were about to go and find out any more information that we could.”
Finally came a visit to Hotel Vedado from Choa and a couple of the Cuban National team players, which is when Reddick and his team found out from Choa that the path to find out that information led directly to the Cuban Sports Ministry, and more specifically the Cuba Deportes office, which is responsible for arranging and scheduling all foreign sporting events.
“When [Choa and members of the team] showed up, it was apparent to us right away that they were all just as disappointed as us,” he said. “The rugby spirit in all rugby players is strong, but you tell their spirit was just as let down as ours.”
Reddick placed several calls to the office after Choa advised against idea of flashing his American bravado and marching downtown for an explanation. The calls went unanswered, and on a day when millions of Americans were joyfully celebrating their country’s independence back home, 40 American rugby players sat restless and saddened in a Cuban hotel, wondering what had gone wrong.
Following an 11 a.m. call from the secretary of the president of the Cuba Deportes, Reddick, along with their team doctor, Dr. Dave Williams, trip co-coordinator Tom Napierkowski and Alexis Edelstein, who speaks fluent Spanish, got dressed up in slacks, button down shirts and their dressiest shoes, and went down to the office.
“The secretary called and told us that he was in a meeting that was breaking around noon and we could probably catch him then,” Reddick said. “We thought this was our chance to explain that we were just here to play rugby and we hoped that they didn’t see this as political.”
However, when the team arrived, they waited and waited and waited. Finally, after about an hour, Edelstein, and Edelstein alone, was ushered upstairs.
Fifteen minutes later he returned ó and without good news.
“He told us that the president didn’t want to meet with us and wasn’t able to give us any further explanation about why the game had been canceled,” Reddick said. “We’d started to wonder whether or not all the press the event was getting had led to them canceling it, and while Alexis said he wasn’t sure, he did say they were very aware of an article written by the Miami Herald [about the team’s trip].”
At the time, Reddick had yet to see the Herald’s piece, but soon found out that it featured a quote where Castro was compared to Osama Bin Laden.
The quote, given by Alfredo Mesa, executive director of the anti-Communist Cuban American National Foundation, said his organization supported the “purposeful travel that goes to support the dissident movement,” but was unhappy that Castro had been invited to attend.
Mesa’s remarks in the Herald article were as follows: “What can I say? That’s disheartening. That’s like inviting Osama bin Laden to view the reconstruction of the World Trade Center.”
The article, written by Cammy Clark of the Miami Herald, did not appear until July 4, making the timing of the cancellation nearly impossible to blame on one newspaper piece, considering the game had already been canceled by Saturday.
Still, Reddick offered these thoughts on what role the piece might have played in the cancellation: “Before Ms. Clark wrote the article, we asked that they not politicize this event at all, but they chose to anyway. We’ve since told her that we were not happy with what she wrote because it was a delicate situation from the beginning. We have no way of knowing what role that article played, but it certainly wasn’t perceived as positive in Cuba.”
That night, the team had a barbecue dinner planned, and again, had invited the Cuban team to attend.
And again, they didn’t show.
With the game appearing as if it was most certainly canceled, and no hope of being rescheduled, the team turned its focus away from rugby for a moment and toward their own self-preservation.
Hurricane Dennis was coming, and Cuba, as well as their homes in South Florida, were all directly in its path.
Wednesday ó Sunday:
“By now, we’d all started making plans to get back home and cut our trip short in an effort to make sure our homes were hurricane ready,” said McDonough, who along with all the Key West players and few others, were able to hop on the last remaining flight to Nassau, Bahamas, that day and were flown back to Fort Lauderdale later that evening.
Meanwhile, Reddick and the rest of his team were unable to find any additional flights out in enough time, meaning they would have to stay on the island and ride Dennis out.
“We’re all from South Florida, so we knew how to prepare,” Reddick said. “We went out, bought canned goods, water and everything else we needed and settled in for a very long four days.”
After Dennis hit, the island was without power or water for four days, as the team stayed holed up in their hotel. They finally left aboard their pre-booked flight on Sunday.
Once they got back safely, Reddick returned his focus back to the failed trip.
“The question I kept asking myself was, ‘Was there something you could’ve done differently to ensure this wouldn’t have happened?’ He asked. “While I came to the conclusion there were 1,000 things, I’m not sure how much of a difference it would’ve made. We have to remember that they live in a communist country and we can’t even begin to imagine the pressures they must face. In America, we feel like we can work anything out through reason and discussion, but things are much different there. When the government says no, they mean no, and we realize that the Cuban team had nothing to do with that. We harbor no ill-will toward anyone on that team. We’re probably more disappointed for them than we are for ourselves.”
Which leaves the questions: Is this the end? Will an American vs. Cuban rugby showdown ever get a chance to find its place in history?
After this experience, Reddick isn’t so sure, but he said he hopes this isn’t the end to what could’ve been a promising future.
“I tell people, ‘This was the worst rugby tour we’ve ever been on, but it was also the best,’” he said. “In terms of frustration, on a scale of 1-10, it was a 10. In terms of experiencing a place that many Americans never get to see, it doesn’t compare. Unfortunately, the story now is that we didn’t play, whereas the story should’ve been this momentous achievement by both teams. The Cuban people were wonderful, it’s just shame that members of two feuding countries couldn’t come together to play simple game of rugby.”