Steve Finkel runs with the ball in a match between the United States and Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1983.

Steve Finkel runs with the ball in a match between the United States and Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1983.

Photographer: Ed Hagerty

Finkel coaches for the United States at the Hong Kong Sevens in 1991.

Finkel coaches for the United States at the Hong Kong Sevens in 1991.

Photo courtesy of: Stephanie McNally

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Founding member of OHIO rugby club inducted into Hall of Fame

From a sport to a lifestyle, a retired rugby player’s journey around the world now gives him the highest honor. 

Steve Finkel of Mechanicsburg, Ohio, will be inducted into the United States Rugby Foundation Hall of Fame on June 30 in San Diego for his contributions to the sport as a player and coach.

A 1975 OHIO graduate, he is a founding member of the Ohio University Men’s Rugby Club. The club’s founder and captain, Jim Farmer, approached Finkel one day and asked if he would like to join the team.

“I said ‘what’s rugby?’ because I had no idea what it was,” Finkel said.

Finkel went on to play rugby all four of his years at Ohio University, and earned the reputation for being one of the fastest and hardest hitting flankers in the Midwest. He began as a fullback, a position known as the last line of defense, but quickly moved to the forward position of flanker after impressing the team with his speed and agility.

“Steve’s speed was immediately evident and he took well to the position,” Farmer said.

Following his years at Ohio University, Finkel earned a tryout for the Midwest Territorial Team, which he represented. He returned to his hometown of Columbus and began playing for the Scioto Valley Rugby Football Club, where his path crossed with Farmer again in a match against the Cleveland Old Grays.

“I found out it was more fun having Fink as a teammate as opposed to an opponent,” Farmer said.

In 1980, Finkel accepted a position with the national USA Eagles, a traveling team based out of Colorado Springs, Colorado at the time. With the USA Eagles he played across the nation and internationally. One of the highlights was playing in the United States’ first invitation to the Hong Kong Sevens in 1981. Today, it is one of rugby’s premier international tournaments.

“That was the first venue to invite all the national teams from all the countries in the world … England, China, the U.S.A., Australia, Argentina … the list goes on,” he said, noting that he competed in the tournament five times.

His international matches also incuded the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, hosted by Australia and New Zealand. Finkel traveled to compete in matches in England, Scotland, Spain, and Canada as well.

Luckily his daytime job as an owner of a fabrication and construction business afforded him the time to devote to the game. His business partner also played rubgy and understood Finkel’s passion for it.

Finkel was known not only for being an incredible player in the game, but also an incredible teammate off the pitch.

Brian Vizard, the executive director of the United States Rugby Foundation — the charitable organization created to popularize the sport — played beside Finkel on the Midwest Territorial Team as well as the USA Eagles. The two competed in the first Rugby World Cup and Hong Kong Sevens together. After Finkel retired from playing, he became Vizard’s coach on the USA Eagles’ 1993 Rugby World Cup team.

“He’s someone I always admired … he was a good role model and inspiration for me,” Vizard said.

Finkel was nominated into the Hall of Fame by his 1987 Rugby World Cup coach, Ron Mays.

The U.S. Rugby Foundation received 70 nominations this year, Vizard said. The list was shortened to include 20 nominees, then reached the 10 that will be inducted at the end of June.

“If you look at the inductees, just about every one of them made an impact on the sport,” Vizard said.

Finkel said he never dreamed of being honored in the Hall of Fame.

“To be perfectly honest, I was completely shocked when I got the phone call,” he said. “To be recognized for something you’re in love with, that’s a huge bonus.”

Finkel has a long list of people to thank for his memorable rugby career, especially his wife Beverly.

“I’ve got five minutes to thank everybody I want to thank. It’ll take me about four and a half to thank my wife,” Finkel said.

For Finkel, rugby is more than a sport. It is a fraternity for both men and women that holds people together.

“That’s the beauty of rugby. You can go anywhere in the world and if you find somebody who plays rugby, they’ll take you in just like you’re the best friend you’ve known your whole life,” he said.