In the spirit of rugby time, it seems I might be forgiven for submitting an obituary for Lowell ‘Bullit’ Carlson a few years after his passing. And as a perennial favorite character at the Maggotfest for more than 30 years, this is the time of year that our memories of him come through the strongest.
Anyone who played rugby in the Pacific Northwest will remember Bullit. He played, refereed, inspired, and coached rugby for Portneuf Valley Rugby Football Club in Pocatello Idaho for three decades. He was loved and respected by the greater rugby community.
Lowell embodied the ethos of coaching in the most comprehensive way possible. He took a few good players, a few bad players, and a lot of average players, and made us better than the sum of our individual contributions. He coached, he cajoled, he pushed, he pulled, and he ultimately inspired us to be the best team we were capable of being. We played hard-nosed rugby, but with a strategy that came from Lowell’s deep awareness of the game.
But Lowell also made us better individuals. He taught us what it meant to be part of a rugby team; and those qualities he nurtured in us helped us become better fathers, better sons and better husbands. He helped us understand that the qualities it took to be a great rugby mate, were transferrable to our jobs and other relationships.
As a player for over 20 years, Lowell was well regarded around Utah, Idaho, and Montana as a fierce competitor. By the time he turned to coaching, he had long been a student of the game. Before the internet, he subscribed to Rugby News and had friends send him articles and rugby magazines from all over the world. He showed us bootleg videos of many of the classic matches and he would de-construct them to explain the macro-strategy that dictated the phases of play. He understood the newly evolving strategy and tactics of the modern game long before most in America even recognized the game was changing. The limitations of Portneuf Rugby, few as they were given our population base and geography, was on us as players—never on his ability as a coach.
Like the words hero, courage, and genius, the phrase ‘one-of-a-kind’ is misunderstood and overused in the modern lexicon. But there is no other way of concisely summing up all that Bullit was—he was spectacularly unique, even among the quirky characters we often see in the rugby community. He was raised in Point Baker Alaska and was as rugged and durable as that country demands; he embodied many of the characteristics associated with his home state. He was creative, adaptable, quick-witted and physically the toughest person I have ever known.
Lowell was not one-of-a-kind because he was uncommonly smart, or a talented athlete, or a brilliant strategist, or tougher than a box of nails, or a committed friend to dozens, or a loving father and husband, or a skilled craftsman or a fabled storyteller—but because he was all of these.
His pre-game speeches were stuff of legend. He seemingly drew inspiration from Shakespeare, Ulysses S. Grant, and Monty Python. His delivery was part Southern Baptist preacher and part Henry the VIII. At times, he spoke in tongues and made up words that were only partially intelligible. Kids were kept well clear of his pre-game rituals for good reason. But the effect was clear and well realized and we took to the pitch fired in our own sort of Haka-like intensity.
Like many great leaders, Lowell was complicated. He was a marine in Vietnam—an experience that left him with permanent invisible wounds. His toughness was contrasted by his tenderness and love for others. If you crossed Lowell, it was best to leave the state—and then put some more distance between you and him. As is sometimes the case in Alaska, negotiating can be a more physical affair than cerebral, and Lowell was equally adept at either. Your choice, but choose wisely.
But if he loved you, which he did most, there was no truer friend. He was far from perfect. But his imperfections were transparent and he accepted them even while making a life-long effort to shave down the sharper edges.
Lowell died on April 2, 2015. He was preceded in death by the love of his life Maria. Maria was a fiery Greek redhead and I believe the only person who truly understood Lowell. They left behind two beautiful daughters, Katie and Danielle, who have forever been adopted by Portneuf Valley RFC.
Even if you never met Lowell, you know his kind. These hard-headed, battle-scared rugby veterans still can be found around the country. These are the men and women who kept the sport alive in this country before anyone knew what rugby was. They are the reason we enjoy the great rugby climate we do in this country today.
So the next Tuesday or Thursday or Saturday, if you are with a few mates, raise a glass to the Lowell’s of the rugby world, and thank them for the opportunity to participate and be part of this great sport.
Portneuf Valley Rugby Football Club – Center (ret.)