Of the four rugby competitions ever held at the Olympic level, the United States has competed in two. And with the help and leadership of UC Davis alumnus Colby E. “Babe” Slater, the U.S. holds a perfect 2-0 record.
In honor of the Olympic champion and former Aggie great, the UC Davis men’s club rugby team presented the first Colby E. “Babe” Slate Award to former head coach Steve Gray on Saturday at Sudwerk.
“We’re delighted that this award is being given out,” said Marilyn McCapes, Babe’s daughter and guest of honor at the banquet.
According to an official schedule presented by the rugby club, the “award is presented to a person who embodies the spirit, dedication and commitment to student athletics and to the game of rugby.”
Gray competed in six seasons as a captain on the first national U.S. rugby team, the Eagles, which was formed in 1976, traveling across the globe for international competitions.
After capturing a national championship while coaching at San Diego State in 1987, Gray moved to Davis, taking a teaching position at Sacramento State.
“With the kids growing up, I was out of rugby for some time, but then both sons played, and my younger son Andrew came to Davis in 2001,” Gray said.
The UC Davis rugby team qualified for the playoffs every year under Gray, twice reaching the Sweet 16, and the program never had a losing season under him.
Because of mounting job-related responsibilities, Gray left the post in 2007 to the command of the current head coach, Andy Malpass, who has been involved in rugby for over 30 years, beginning in the United Kingdom.
“What Gray has accomplished as coach here is phenomenal,” Malpass said. “This is the hardest division in the entire nation by a country mile. He’s definitely left huge boots to fill.”
The Pacific Northwest Rugby Football Union boasts the top two ranked teams in the nation – California and St. Mary’s. The No. 1 Golden Bears are the defending champions, with the Aggies finishing third in the league for the last two years.
“This is a great tradition,” Malpass said. “We’re here today to honor Babe and Gray and the sport of rugby.”
“We want to bring the past back into the future,” said assistant coach and team manager Rick Flynn. “We want to introduce the newer guys to the great rugby community that we have and to bring back the alumni. We want to show Davis that rugby is a serious sport.
“We want to take this event as an opportunity to develop the program, involve parents and faculty, and help the community understand what competitive sport rugby is in our area.”
The night was also a way to recount the legacy of Babe, one of the all-time rugby greats.
Receiving his nickname for being the youngest of four children, Babe is the only American to be included on the Rugby Pathway of Fame in Rugby, England, the birth place of the sport.
As a result of his time at UC Davis, which was then the farm school of University of California, Berkeley, Babe is a member of the inaugural 1980 class of the Cal Aggie Athletics Hall of Fame for football, basketball and baseball.
“He loved to ball,” said McCapes of Babe. “Anything that involved athletics, he was an all-around gifted athlete.”
He played rugby in high school, winning two state championships, including one with his older brother, Norman Slater, and he “was well recognized as a fine rugby player,” McCapes said.
After studying agriculture from 1914 to 1917 at what is now UC Davis, Babe joined the Woodland American Legion, driving ambulances for the Army Medical Corps in World War I.
A newspaper clipping on hold at the special collections section of Shields Library states of Babe, “If he can learn to heave bombs as aptly as he can hurl the pigskin, the ka’ser and all the little ka’sers will soon be wearing wooden overcoats.”
Babe was selected, on the basis of his athletic reputation and community involvement, to be in charge of 42 Yolo County recruits sent to Camp Lewis, Wash., for training.
In 1920, he was invited to join the United States rugby team for competition at the Olympics in Brussels, Belgium. The team, which was made up entirely of California residents, shut out France, 8-0, to win a gold medal. In the following 1924 Olympics, Babe was elected captain and again played alongside his brother Norman. The U.S. again beat the French for the gold, 17-3.
Following the conclusion of his participation at the international level, he returned to the Northern California area where he coached rugby and stayed active in the community, McCapes said.
Marilyn and her husband, Richard McCapes, donated Babe’s Olympic collection to Shields Library in 2003.
More information on Babe and his legacy is available at the inventory online at www.cdlib.org, or at the special collections section of Shields Library next to the information desk.
CHARLES HINRIKSSON can be reached at email@example.com.