By Benny Harris
Duffin looks famished, like he’d much rather devour the pastrami sandwich in front of him than talk to me. He’s uncomfortable with where to clip the microphone on his grey-down coat. He clips it to his shirt collar. He grabs the sandwich and takes his first bite. He chews. The deep wrinkles across his face become animated. An uncomfortable silence passes before he assures me I can ask questions while he eats.
John Duffin McShane II was born June 30, 1968 in Wichita, Kansas. His whole family is from either Kansas or Texas. His uncle was recruited for basketball out of high school to Oregon State University (OSU) in 1977. The grandparents followed. The rest of the family followed. Currently none of them live in Kansas or Texas. “I think we all liked the green trees, the mountains, the oceans, the rivers and the lakes [in Oregon]. So we decided to move here. [This was] in 1980,” Duffin said.
He attended one year of high school in Oregon before he joined the Navy. Afterwards, he attended OSU from 1989-90 on an ROTC scholarship. Then he dropped out to play rugby. This was the genesis of a life long passion. He played rugby from 1991-97.
“That’s pretty much all I did. I played rugby. I painted houses. I worked as a bouncer at half a dozen bars. I lived in a rugby house for three years for free, with some foreigners. I was the only American,” he said.
In 1997, he and a friend, or “mate,” moved up to Seattle. The Super League had just started. “They had Division 1, Division 2, Division 3 rugby in the states. Then they created the Super League, which had sixteen different franchises. They were, generally, the most competitive, higher-level, big-city type rugby teams. Seattle had the only northwest franchise. A mate of mine was playing up there. I wanted to play in the super leagues so I went up there and played.”
He continues, “My mate and I were struggling. We were in that transitional period between our late childhood(s), which lasted in to our late twenties, to our mature years. We needed money. We needed a job. We were working odd jobs. We went to the team [The Old Puget Sound Beach Dogs] and said, ‘Hey, we’d like to start our own business.’ They wanted us to keep playing for them. We were able to get a $5,000 interest free loan to start our own [surface restorations] business. We did. The business is still going strong.”
The Beach Dogs didn’t win any Super League games the first year he played. The next year they won their first Super League game in Dallas. In 1999 the team improved. He attributes this to having more Pacific-Islanders (Tongans, Samoans, etc,) who had more rugby experience than the typical American on the team. They won almost every Super League game. They finished ninth in the nation. They went to play-offs in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, they lost the first game and weren’t able to continue on.
At the end of the 2001 season, Duffin became an epileptic due to accumulated head trauma. “I was lost. Rugby had been my life for fifteen years. I’d coached on and off the entire time I played. [This included] the University of Washington Men’s [Rugby]. Soon after my seizures, I was asked to be their head coach. I became their head coach. It couldn’t have been better timing for me. This was hugely depressing for me. But coaching brought a way to refocus my energy and passion for the game in a productive, positive way.”
One of the key rugby themes he mentioned is the tenacity between players. After his life-altering injury occurred, he said, “We had hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance bills and medical bills. After insurance, I still had $15-20,000 left that we had to pay out of pocket. All the rugby teams I coached, or played for, had fundraisers and raised enough money that I didn’t have to pay anything out of pocket. I got donations or people helping me [in the] rugby community from the east coast and California. I had never coached, or played, for those teams, never met those individuals, but that’s something you get from rugby: It’s a sense of community.”
Duffin is the current head coach of University of Oregon Club (UORFC).