John Moonlight: His Early Retirement and its Unprecedented Response
Written By: Doug Crosse
A Day Later: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt
There have been a lot of players to pull on the jersey for Canada over the decades, and with the passing of time you get the eventual announcement that full time has been called on a career. Most times, it feels right, especially as a player gets past 35 and the rugby miles have piled up. You just know it is the right call.
But hearing the announcement on Tuesday morning that John Moonlight is giving his jersey back, as he said in his open statement on Facebook, there was a sting of disappointment. Then I instantly realized how selfish it is to be expressing ‘disappointment’.
"I’m excited," Moonlight said in an interview with CP. "I’m so privileged in the fact that I had an unreal rugby career. I travelled the world representing Canada on so many occasions. And I get to switch from that career right into probably one of the next best careers that you could have — in my hometown — and finally be able to give back to the community."
What John Moonlight put together over the course of his career is staggering when you get behind the numbers. In sevens, a game he took up at the urging of his cousin – long time sevens stalwart Dave Moonlight – John has 71 caps, amounting to the number of tournaments he attended. Big number, but when you look at the number of games, albeit 14 minutes at a time, he appeared in 318 matches, scoring 116 tries.
It is fitting that he was able to hoist a Cup after nearly a decade of disappointment, precisely a year ago when Canada won the Singapore Sevens.
"(It was) huge for me," he said. "One of the things I always said in my career was I wanted to lift a cup before I ended (playing)."
Sorry, did we mention he also played 15s for a good chunk of his career, often not having more than a two-week vacation annually to rest his body between the two disciplines?
He played 23 test matches for Canada, starting in 19, notching three tries. But what you don’t see is the massive contact, big tackles being made, and also the tackles he took, bringing his 6 foot, 230 lb frame to ground.
So, as a rookie firefighter in his hometown of Pickering in Ontario, the 30-year-old will be charging through doors with a well broken in body for that line of work.
He had some big moments in his career. I was happy for him when Canada won the 2015 Pan Am Games gold medal, his second. But the most emotional moment was probably the try in Vancouver in 2016 to beat France for the Bowl final. Canada had no business even having a chance to win that game, but John put himself in a position to power across that line, and while it wasn’t the Cup Final, it might as well have been for the 30,000 fans screaming their love for him and his mates.
As he notes in his farewell address, “I’ve had the pleasure of playing in front of 80,000 screaming fans in Twickenham, facing a sea of green at Millennium Stadium in a World Cup, and playing in front of 43,000 Canadian fans on home soil. Rugby has allowed me to travel across the world playing in countries like Hong Kong, Australia, and even India. I am forever grateful for everything it has given me in life and leave knowing that I gave it all I had.”
I think it is not even close to a fair trade. All the memorable moments John has given to fans over the years since his 2009 debut, there is credit remaining on the account. The people of Pickering are going to have an amazing guardian dousing fires, cutting victims out of car wrecks, and administering CPR after running up five flights of stairs in bunker gear. And he will very quickly become a leader among the fire crews, once the rookie shine wears off and he has shown what he can do.
On a personal note, I want to thank John for always having a moment to do an interview even when it wasn’t a happy story. I remember a battered John in South Carolina after falling to the USA in the Olympic qualifiers in 2015. There was not much that could be said, but I still had to ask the questions and he still answered with his forthright demeanour. And then afterwards, as with always, asking how things were going in my personal life.
Good luck to John in his new career, though luck rarely plays into any success when it comes to John Moonlight. The sweat equity, homework, and tenacity create its own luck!
The Announcement – A Day Later
We at Ædelhard are as big a fan of Moonlight as many Canadians, and for the past 24 hours post-announcement have read with surges of pride all the many accolades rushing in to Rugby Canada, and to John himself, from all corners of the world. It is so unprecedented these tributes, that we wanted to ask John how he was feeling about it all, how he feels a full day later, and whether or not it’s all sunk in.
“My phone is still ringing 24 hours after the announcement” he shares, with a modest amount of emotion. He’s tired. He’s answered many questions, repeated the same words over and over again in the last day.
He’s also still digesting the words of former teammates such as Jamie Cudmore, Tyler Ardron and Phil Mackenzie, not to mention the heartfelt words of his current 7s squad. World Rugby's Brett Gosper even stepped in to offer his praises: “All best to a superb player and global rugby ambassador….all at World Rugby wish him well.” John can hardly believe the amount of praise, let alone the level.
The biggest shock to Moonlight’s system hasn’t been the change in his daily routine. It’s been the reality sinking in that he’s not with his team – his second family – any longer:
“It’s almost like a divorce. Me and the guys share a tight bond. I spent more time with these guys than I have in recent years with my own family. You live together, you share everything. It’s going to be hard.”
The drive back to Ontario will afford Moonlight a lot of time to reflect on a career well-played. He counts himself incredibly lucky to have played so many big games in great countries. To see the world and meet the people.
Moonlight goes on to say that he’s going to step back a bit. Let the healing happen, dive into the new job and get settled. Then he’s going to give back.
He feels a responsibility to return to the grassroots and help the next generation develop to the high standards that rugby in Canada needs in order to be successful.
The resounding message John keeps repeating is that he wanted his retirement from the game to be of his own accord. He didn’t want to be the guy just there on his name, no longer contributing. He wanted to do it before he was forced to.
I ask how he’s feeling. “It will kick in this weekend when I’m driving home to Ontario and the guys are playing in Singapore. I’m stopping to watch their games when I’m on the road…” he trails off.
“It’s been unbelievable,” he says of the tributes and reactions in the last day.
“It’s above and beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I never realized the people I’ve influenced over the years.”
I tell John he’s been such an incredible ambassador; it’s been a pleasure and privilege to follow his career.
It occurs to me late in the evening that the reason there has been so much attention heaped on John in recent days is because while he's a talented and hard working player – not only because he can play 80 minutes for 15s or 4 games of 7s over a weekend for 14 minutes a piece – he had opportunities to accept overseas contracts but he chose to play at home exclusively. He's a Canadian legend for certain...
Like Doug, I expressed my appreciation for the fact that John always took the time to speak, to respond to messages and cheers over the years.
“You’re welcome,” he says “it was always so appreciated, the support I got.”
I let John Moonlight have the last word:
“I just really want to thank everyone, the fans, my family, Rugby Canada…..it’s been a heck of a ride.”
- 23 Games
- Debut - June 6, 2009 Canada vs Georgia
- Last Test - Canada vs Romania October 6, 2015
- Debut - Hong Kong 2009
- Last Tournament - Hong Kong 2018* and Commonwealth Games following week in Australia
- 65 World Rugby Tournament Caps
- 318 Matches
- 580 points scored
- 116 Tries