Adam Kendhammer is a seasoned veteran of the Minneapolis Mayhem Rugby Football Club. As a prop, he is a self-described “tank of the rugby field”, a physical power force ready to hold the opposing team back at whatever cost. In our interview, he discusses the training required for such an intense sport and the importance of a strongly connected team.
MMG: Let’s start at the beginning. Were you athletic growing up?
KENDHAMMER: I was very active as a kid, I grew up in the country so I had plenty of space to explore and adventure. I started ice skating when I was 3 or 4 and was playing hockey by age 5. I did that throughout high school, as well as Tae Kwon Do. Unfortunately I did not keep up with either of those while I was in college.
MMG: So with your hockey and martial arts days behind you, how did you end up playing rugby?
KENDHAMMER: Funny story about that one, I was working down in Antarctica and was looking for something active to do in my free time. Scott Base, the primary New Zealand station, is a short distance from McMurdo station – the primary US base. They have a rugby match each year to celebrate the partnership between the two, and so that the Kiwis can show the Americans how little they know about rugby.
MMG: Back up a sec, how did you end up working in Antarctica?
KENDHAMMER: I had gotten a contracting position as support staff for the station and worked down there for two summer seasons and spent time in New Zealand in the off season. Basically I found a job posting online and applied thinking “what the hell” and the contacted me, did a few interviews and offered me the job. I think the fact I am from Minnesota helped, a lot of people seemed to be from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, or Alaska.
MMG: That’s awesome. What was is it like playing rugby there?
KENDHAMMER: We practiced and played on top of several feet of packed snow, piled on top of many feet of sea ice, above the Southern Ocean and at the foot of an active and smoking volcano. In retrospect it was very surreal, but you become accustomed to it when you are living there. You had to make sure you had as little exposed skin as possible, not necessarily because of the cold but because the snow was full of ice crystals and if you got tackled into it you would get a ton of really tiny cuts. Rugby was not nearly as dangerous as the softball tournament, I assume because we practiced a lot before hand. Softball strangely had a lot more injuries.
MMG: Now, you are living in the Twin Cities, and have kept up with rugby as you are a member of the Minneapolis Mayhem Rugby Football Club. How did you end up joining?
KENDHAMMER: When I moved back to the US after spending a few years abroad I was looking for a way to stay active and meet new people, and the team has provided me with that and a lot more.
MMG: The Minneapolis Mayhem has a great mission. Can you explain that a bit?
KENDHAMMER: The mission of the Mayhem is to promote participation in rugby among traditionally under-represented groups, including but certainly not limited to gay men. We also partner with Minnesota Youth Rugby and have close relationships with some of the Women’s rugby teams as well to help grow the sport in those areas. Our goal is to provide an inclusive environment for players to compete in rugby at Regional, National, and even International levels.
MMG: Tell me about your teammates. What’s the group dynamic? A few of my friends are on the team and you seem to be a very social bunch off the field, but how does that translate into matches?
KENDHAMMER: Rugby is a game of support and for us that means on the pitch as well as off of it. During a match you have 15 men on the field as well as up to 10 subs that will switch in – that is a lot of people to work with. When you really get to know someone, you can pick their voice out on a field surrounded by 30 screaming hooligans. You get to know how fast they run, how far they can pass, and you know damn well if you end up in a maul they will be right there with you. These are the same guys that will show up to help you move, get tickets to watch your show, or celebrate your wedding with you. It really builds the team cohesion. When you step out on the pitch it’s not your team versus the other team; it’s you and your friends versus the world.
MMG: Having lived in Antartica, maybe it wasn’t that bad for you, but we have had an awful winter here in Minneapolis. I imagine it didn’t afford you much time outside on the fields. What does your off-season training consist of? What’s a normal week?
KENDHAMMER: We have actually had twice weekly practices indoors since February on gymnasium floors and occasionally turf. It’s not the ideal environment for a rugby practice but we have certainly made do. Generally when our Fall season ends everyone has a bit of a respite during the holidays to relax and recover. We began our winter fitness mid-December, an hour and a half CrossFit workout every Saturday, and then once the New Year hit we added team weight training sessions on Monday and Wednesday nights (the same nights as practice during the season). This is a great time for new recruits to come and meet the guys on the team, learn what it takes to place rugby, and for some learn how to train effectively. You see guys who used to be afraid to approach the free weights at the gym start tracking their one rep max.
MMG: To compare, what does training look like when you are in season and regularly playing matches? Are you just on the practice fields or are you doing anything in the gym?
KENDHAMMER: We run twice weekly practices throughout the season and a Saturday team fitness training, though our Saturday fitness eventually switches to Saturday matches. For most of us our training in the gym will decrease during this time, particularly on Sundays. The intensity of our practices increases and with playing matches as well you start to get bumps and bruises so your rest and recuperation needs become a lot higher.
MMG: On the team website it says your drink of choice is whiskey. Outside of libations, do you follow any diet to complement your training?
KENDHAMMER: For rugby, especially during the match season, when you eat is as important as what you eat. It really doesn’t feel good to get tackled on a full stomach, nor are you going to be able to last a full 80-minute match on an empty stomach. The night before a match I load up on complex carbs and in the morning, usually yogurt and a banana. I always have coconut water before and after matches – you sweat out so much during a match, especially during the warmer months. The pitch is the worst place to risk a cramp.
MMG: Your position on the team is a prop. What does that mean for those uneducated in the sport of rugby?
KENDHAMMER: There are 15 different positions in rugby. You are usually not restricted to any single position on the field, although most players specialize in just one or two that suit their skill and body type.
Props are essentially the tanks on the rugby battle field. We are not the fast ones but we are the most physical: front row in the scrum, center piece of mauls, lifters of line-outs, ruckers extraordinaire and crucial when your team is in control of the ball against a defensive line at the try zone. If you can’t go around them you are going to have to go through them.
One of my favorite memories is scoring a try where the other Prop had the ball and myself and one of the Locks pushed him at full speed through their defense into the try zone to score. It was like bowling a strike.
MMG: Your nickname is listed as “Bejeezus”. Can you explain what it means and how it came about?
KENDHAMMER: That’s something for our Rookies to find out!
KENDHAMMER: That is a two part process. I have a specific playlist of music that really helps get me into the proper mindset. The other part is running a mental inventory of frustrations – the stuff that makes you mad but you otherwise really can’t control, things you have screwed up in practice or previous matches, times when you wanted to take a stand against something but didn’t or couldn’t. It’s part of the reason I love this sport so much is the pure catharsis of it. You meet resistance and you push back even harder and that is exactly what you are supposed to do.
MMG: Do you like to compete? What has been the highlight of your time on the team so far?
KENDHAMMER: I do, I have a bit more of a competitive side to my personality than I previously realized. I think the team aspect of it helps drive that too, since I know how hard the other guys on the team push themselves at practice. I want to show them I am at the top of my game.
As for highlights, I would say the away trips are probably my favorite. We went to a large tournament in Chicago last spring and, despite having been sidelined by a high ankle sprain, being in a place surrounded by people from around the US and Canada who were all there due to the same crazy obsession with this sport was a really powerful feeling. You get to meet and befriend amazing people that you otherwise might not encounter in your normal day to day life.
MMG: As successful as the team is, you also face losses. How do you handle defeat?
KENDHAMMER: Accepting them as they come and learning from them. A lot of rookies have pointed this out to me as something the really appreciate about our team culture. Mistakes on the pitch don’t become a shouting match of who is doing what wrong and what the hell is wrong with you. It’s, “Hey, in this situation you did this and it didn’t work. Next time do this, or watch for that, or remember what we went over in practice”. Learn from your mistakes, don’t tear your team apart over a loss, and next time you’ll all be better for it.
MMG: Do you have any advice for anyone who is looking to train and compete in sports as an adult?
KENDHAMMER: Do it! Start right now! I get contacted by a lot of people who are interested in playing but are pretty sure they are too skinny, too fat, too old, too young, too inexperienced. They talk themselves out of it before they even show up to a practice. You would be surprised of what you are capable of doing. Go for it!
MMG: In CrossFit, we use the term “goat” to refer to something you suck at, like an exercise or lift. What’s your goat?
KENDHAMMER: Speed. I am not a fast runner and it is my Achilles heel on the pitch. A teammate once told me, “You may never be fast, but you can always be faster.” So I work on my form, I practice sprinting; I watch how other people run. I’m faster than when I started.