Rick Bailey, one of the most hard-nosed athletes to ever come out of Napa High, was more than happy to share the gridiron with members of the marching band.
He had been one of them in middle school, playing the trumpet and coronet in the Redwood band.
The 1972 Napa High graduate — who passed away on June 26, the day after his 67th birthday — was a man of countless major interests. He didn’t just dabble in things. He immersed himself, especially in sports, music and leadership when he was young.
In elementary and middle school, Bailey was a ranked junior tennis player and excelled at baseball, basketball, and wrestling. A born leader, he also served as Redwood's student body president and captained the flag football team.
He looked like a college athlete as early as his junior year at Napa High, growing to 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. He was a heavyweight wrestler, tennis player, power-hitting catcher in baseball, and an All-North Bay League two-way tackle in football.
As noted by the Napa High Athletic Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 1998, Bailey wrestled and played football and helped the tennis team win the league title. As a junior he was captain of the baseball team when he sustained a broken leg that threatened to his fall football season. But he bounced back big, earning All-NBL and All-Redwood Empire honors with Napa’s NBL co-champions.
Bailey turned down a professional baseball contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers and baseball scholarships to top colleges to accept a football scholarship at Brigham Young University as a linebacker. But by his sophomore season, he was at San Bernardino Valley College, earning All-Mission Conference honors as a linebacker at the junior college.
“My position coach at BYU had left for UCLA and the plan was for me to play in a JC to avoid penalties as double transfer, and then go to UCLA,” Bailey explained last year after being elected to the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame. “But I didn’t like SoCal. When Cal recruited me again, I said ‘yes’ and signed my letter of intent.”
Bailey joined both the football and rugby teams on scholarship at UC Berkeley. Meanwhile, his father taught him how to fish and duck hunt and they eventually evolved into two of his favorite pastimes. His mother, Delores, saved nearly every varsity patch and newspaper clipping. Bailey was also a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity and graduated with a bachelor's degree in kinesiology.
After college, he played rugby for the Old Blues and led them to seven national championships. While bartending at the Royal Oak, he met his future wife, Elizabeth, and was given the nickname “Boomer” for his boisterous and extroverted nature.
From 1979 to 1987, he was a member of the first U.S. World Cup rugby team and a mainstay on the U.S. National Team, prompting his induction into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame. As a U.S. National Team member, he was also awarded the Craig Sweeney Award for his exemplary character on and off the field.
In 1981, at the close of playing rugby, a year before elder daughter Brianna was born, Rick told a newspaper reporter that his life goal was to “have a happy family life someday," and he would. In the early 1990s, he owned a Harley Davidson and, with two friends, opened a sports bar in Oakland named the Golden Bear Saloon. Elizabeth, a professional chef, made giant pots of soup and sandwiches to be sold at the bar.
Bailey returned to Cal to serve as an assistant coach on the varsity rugby team with his best friend, Jack Clark, leading the Golden Bears to three consecutive National Collegiate Championships. Subsequently, he enjoyed a long career as a freight executive while living in Oakland and later in Fair Oaks.
He was passionate about ethical hunting, fishing, and conservation, and worked tirelessly to support his community of fellow outdoorsmen and conservationists. Many friends shared in his countless outdoors adventures of duck, elk and wild boar hunting, fly fishing in Alaska, the Yuba River, Madagascar and Montana, as well as fishing for halibut and salmon in the San Francisco Bay, deer hunting in Alaska and Hawaii, and sportfishing in Mexico and Central America.
After moving to Fair Oaks, influenced by sister Kathleen Snodgrass, he took up golf and excelled at it as a member of North Ridge Country Club.
Don Miller, a friend who owns a sausage and ballpark frank company and sells at the majority of Division I collegiate sporting events, named one of the prepared hot dogs "Boomer Bailey."
Clark, who is Brianna Bailey’s godfather and was the best man at Bailey’s wedding, has coached Cal Rugby for 40 years — 38 as head coach. He’s seen a lot of players come and go, but he’ll never forget Bailey.
“Rick played the most demanding position on the rugby field, prop. The position requires strength, power and technique. Rick had all the requirements, plus he brought great athleticism to the position. I think this is what separated him from his opponents. There are plenty of big strong guys, but very few with the overall athleticism Rick brought to the pitch,” Clark said last week.
“Rick wasn’t the typical aloof superstar. He had an approachable, every-man quality, which led to him being a leader on every team he represented. We looked to Rick for leadership. If we needed confidence, he displayed it. If we needed resolve, he would demonstrate it. Whatever the team and players needed, Rick instinctively knew. This included reminding everyone to relax and have fun.”
“It was fantastic to coach with Rick at Cal. He had so much knowledge to offer the players and he was a gifted teacher. What I remember most was the empathy he had for the players as they learned. He understood their challenges and appreciated them for their efforts. Those players would run through a wall for him.”
Ray Lehner played rugby at Cal from 1989 to 1993, and Bailey was his forwards coach from 1991-93.
“Under Coach Bailey, our forwards were dominant and we won three national championships. In 1991, myself and six teammates were named to the All American Team, in no small part to Coach Bailey,” Lehner said last week. “Rick used to pack live scrums with us he was a very powerful and aggressive scrummager. It definitely was tougher than a real match.
“So my senior year I got injured and had to miss part of the season. We had to rush to get my replacement ready for a big match, so here comes Rick with live scrum practice and in an overzealous moment he ended up injuring the guy that was going replace me. The head coach was not pleased.”
It didn’t scare Lehner away. He and Bailey would hunt together in later years.
“He was a wonderful man," Lehner said, "rough and ready with incredible candor, wit, and generosity of spirit.”
Michael Stepanian was a mentor to Bailey, and a rugby teammate and hunting buddy.
“Rick’s blood ran blue,” Stepanian said of the main color on Cal's uniforms. "Prop forwards have an affinity for each other. Opposing front rows must respect each other, giving room to secure and bind the scrum, no matter the score, the time left, or the intensity of the moment. Any weakness reverberates through both packs. This mutual respect is why they say 'rugby is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen.'
“I have had the fortune to play against many great props in my time. Rick was the best. His footwork, balance, and timing were impeccable. He had leadership, strength and conviction. Rick was one of those great players who could excel in the new game. An essence of Rick’s team philosophy was that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Stepanian said Bailey was one of the brightest people he’s ever known.
“He was extremely knowledgeable in hunting and fishing matters. I unfailingly followed his counsel,” he said. “Rick loved and respected his family and friends. He never, ever, thought life shortchanged him even though he left this earth prematurely.
"Two weeks before he closed his eyes for good, we fished the Lower Sac with our two good friends. Rick gave me the best spot on the boat for the whole day. This is who he was. We were together for decades. During the season we spoke all the time. I loved him.”
Blane Warhurst toured extensively with Bailey.
“Rick and I had so many shared experiences as fellow Golden Bears — Sigma Chis, football, rugby, Old Blues and Eagles. I have numerous memories of Rick,” Warhurst said. “One of my most memorable was in our first national title game. It was tied in overtime when Rick, leading our dominant scrum, pushed the New York team back into their end zone to secure the first of seven national titles. I will always remember Rick for his skill and spirit.”
Ron Fisher, who will be inducted into the Napa High Athletic Hall of Fame in March, grew up with Bailey, from elementary school through their first year of college, and in the same neighborhood.
“I can remember the kids in our neighborhood playing a game where a guy grabs the football and tries to run to the other end of the lawn without being tackled. We played it on the front lawns or in the fields at Pueblo Vista Elementary School, and you always wanted to know where Rick was when you had the ball. He hit hard.
“There must have been something special with that neighborhood as three of us are or will be in the Napa High Athletic Hall of Fame, all Class of '72.”
That something special had a lot to do with Bailey.
“He was a special athlete and a true friend. I am sure that it helped all of us to compete against each other because you always had to be at your best to compete against those guys,” Fisher said. “If you did not give it your best effort, you were going to get smoked.
“I remember a tennis tournament he was in at Napa Valley Country Club and the partner he was going to play with bailed on him. He called me to fill in for the guy. I was no tennis player, so I showed up with blue shorts and a blue shirt. No go. I was not going to be allowed to play because I did not have any white tennis clothes. So Rick went home and brought back some of his clothes and white shoes. He wasn't big back then in the eighth or ninth grade, but he was a couple sizes larger than me, so I changed and we played on.
"Rick was so competitive and driven to win that he drug me around the court for this whole tournament and we lost in the finals in a close match. It was all Rick. He changed to football and baseball in high school and instantly became a starter on the teams. He really blossomed when he got to high school. He was dedicated to getting stronger and quicker, and he did both. What made Rick a special athlete was his dedication, determination, excellent eye-hand coordination, quickness for a guy his size, and his toughness.
“He would always battle to the end, just as he did with his illness.”
Fred Paoli played rugby with Bailey from 1982-87. They were the props on the U.S. team, Bailey on he left and Paoli on the right.
“Boomer was hard,” Paoli said. “Every player on the field either respected him or feared him. But as hard as he was on the field, he was a big softie off it. He loved people. He’d strike up a conversation with complete strangers. Big-, big-hearted man. Boomer retired after the ‘87 World Cup and I didn’t see a lot of him. He was raising his daughters in Sacramento and I was busy practicing law in Denver and Montana. We talked on the phone a bit to keep in touch but that was about it until he got cancer five years ago.
“He retired from his trucking company right after his diagnosis and put together a bucket list heavy on hunting and fishing. I was his point man. We hunted pheasant, Hungarian partridge, and sharp-tailed grouse in Montana, pheasant and bob white quail in Nebraska and even the Mearns quail in the foothills of southern Arizona. We fished the rivers of Oregon, California and Montana. We assembled a motley crew of old teammates from the U.S. team and traveled the West hunting and fishing.
"It was on those trips that we gained insight on the real Boomer. He was well read. He was smarter than any of us ever knew, insightful and reasoned. He was everybody’s best friend."
Paoli was on Bailey's last fishing trip with Stepanian.
"At the end of that trip, we all hugged and cried, knowing we’d never see our friend again. In those five years, Boomer taught us what living a fulfilling life really meant. I thank him for that every day," Paoli said.
“We are planning our first trip post-Boomer now, the annual ‘blast ‘n’ cast’ to a beautiful ranch in the sweet grass hills of northern Montana in early September. Boomer loved that place and formed a real bond with the rancher in spite of them being polar opposites when it came to what was good for America.”
Teammate John Everett said Bailey was the “enforcer” of the rugby team.
“If there was any mischief happening, he was the individual who put a stop to it,” said Everett. “He was strong and athletic, in an era where his position was mostly played by goons. Off the field, Rick could be found in the corner of the room holding court. He was a true gentleman.”
He said the sheep rancher to whom Paoli had referred, Dave McEwen, had this to say when informed of Bailey’s passing: “I’ve met very few people that command the respect as much as Rick did, and used that respect as humbly as he did. Few people that I truly wish I would have known for a greater period of time. I miss him already and will forever. God bless him and the time I had with him.”
Everett was also on Bailey’s last fishing trip.
“He showed no pity for himself at any time. In only his way, it was a very fitting end to what was a very courageous fight he knew would cut his time here short, but he lived it to the fullest.”
Sheuerman was around during Bailey’s bartending days at San Francisco’s then-famous Henry Africa’s.
“He engendered the same admiration and love from the bar crew as he did on the rugby pitch,” Sheuerman said. “Rick was the kind of friend that no matter how long a period of time passed between your last visit, it seemed no time had passed at all. I first met Rick as an opposing rugby player on the archrival Bay Area touring side to his club team, the Old Blues. Trust me, we didn’t like playing against Rick, but that didn’t keep me from loving him. He was tough but never played dirty, and would be the first guy to pick up an opposing player after knocking them down. Every player respected Rick and most wanted to be his friend.
“Everyone knows Rick’s outstanding achievements as an athlete, and his varied interests in many sports exemplify what my lasting memory is of him — that Rick was a special man who had a unique ability to appreciate things that most of us take for granted. The big, tough, burly football player and rugby prop collected butterflies, was interested in conservation, and had a vast knowledge of animals, plants, wilderness areas, and the like. When he came to visit me in Arizona, he marveled at the saguaro cactuses we would pass on the highway, the desert landscape and the rock formations.”
Sheuerman said Bailey’s outward appearance and physique masked a kind soul and keen sense of humor.
“I’ll never forget his laugh — big and loud, like most of what he did. His ‘girls,’ as he called his wife Elizabeth, daughters and granddaughters, where his first love. He always spoke exuberantly about them and their achievements. He was always there to coach them and encourage sports or other activities they were interested in. While Rick may be remembered as a great jock, He was a lot more than that. He was a beautiful person.”
His family will celebrate his life in the early fall in the Bay Area. They ask that donations be made to Cal Rugby in his name by visiting give.berkeley.edu or calling (510) 642-2427 or mailing a check to Cal Athletics Fund 195 Haas Pavilion, Berkeley, CA 94720.
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