An Inner-City Team Is Putting U.S. Rugby On The Map While it's a popular sport overseas, rugby has struggled to get a strong foothold in the U.S. One program in Memphis, Tenn., is now having a lot of success, earning even international attention.
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An Inner-City Team Is Putting U.S. Rugby On The Map

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An Inner-City Team Is Putting U.S. Rugby On The Map

An Inner-City Team Is Putting U.S. Rugby On The Map

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

While many Americans are watching the World Series this weekend, millions more overseas are tuned into the World Cup Final of Rugby. Now in this country, the sport's more associated with prep schools or elite colleges. That could change. For member station WKNO in Memphis, Christopher Blank looks at one high school rugby team that's getting international attention.

CHRISTOPHER BLANK, BYLINE: It's cold and raining, and two dozen bodies are piling up in a muddy field, which is good. They need this.

ROB REETZ: Every year, when we get to a championship game in any kind of tournament, somehow it's always raining.

BLANK: Coach Rob Reetz recently took over one of Tennessee's fastest rugby teams. Fast doesn't go well with mud.

REETZ: That seems to be our Achilles heel, so getting a practice in the rain is awesome.

BLANK: Reetz blames the weather for last season's championship loss, not the fact that the very word rugby, in these parts at least, always comes with this description.

CALVIN GENTRY: Basically, it was football and soccer put together, no pads.

BLANK: That's Calvin Gentry, a 17-year-old senior. Like most muscular, tough kids, he wanted to play football. But his school couldn't afford a team. Power Center Academy is a public charter school in impoverished south Memphis. It's in a strip mall. The athletic teams practice in local parks and use gyms at other schools. The big kids wanted to play a real sport. So in 2012, Principal Steevon Hunter held what he promoted as a football interest meeting.

STEEVON HUNTER: And just to get a bunch of guys there - so the guys showed up in droves, and then that's when Shane introduced rugby as a sport to them, and they were, like, captivated ever since.

BLANK: Shane Young had come to Memphis with Teach for America, but he really wanted to start a rugby team. He quickly addressed the sport's bad reputation.

SHANE YOUNG: You know, if you go youtube rugby, you get a really biased look at what the sport is because they show you all the very roughest, most violent tackles.

BLANK: Tackles, he means, without helmets or pads, while running what looks like an over-inflated football across a goal line. He couldn't understand why it wasn't more popular at inner-city schools.

YOUNG: Rugby is the lowest cost sport you could possibly play. You don't need anything but a patch of grass and a ball.

BLANK: And with little more than a ball, Young's first team went from losing every game that first season to last year when they won almost every game. Three players became national all-stars. Success didn't surprise Young. But his all-African American team did stick out in Tennessee, where the sport is mostly played in wealthy, white suburbs.

YOUNG: We reminded our kids that they're in a fishbowl, and they are being watched, and they are being judged and sometimes unfairly.

BLANK: At Power Center Academy, junior Samuel Johnson walks the halls with his rugby ball cradled like a baby in his arms. He was hooked from game one.

SAMUEL JOHNSON: The second game I couldn't play because my grades were, like, terrible.

BLANK: Now, Johnson is college bound, one of several players being recruited. About 30 American colleges offer rugby scholarships, which is one reason Gentry says his team plays harder than their private school rivals.

GENTRY: We play rugby because we need to go to college, and they play it because it's just a sport to them. And like, we live rugby, and we want to go to college through this, and we want to get scholarships.

BLANK: By next spring, Memphis will have six inner-city rugby teams with around 170 players. And this is being watched overseas. Young has talked to the BBC and the Guardian newspaper. He says communities like south Memphis have a lot of untapped athletic potential for their sport. And if rugby takes off here...

YOUNG: They say, wow, OK, this is sleeping giant. Give it one more generation of players to come through. Pretty soon, USA Rugby will be competing in the World Cup and hopefully not just going and losing every game.

REETZ: This is what I'm talking about. When it starts raining, we all lose our heads.

BLANK: It's still a long way from a muddy city park in Memphis to the World Cup of Rugby, not that these kids really know just how far that is, which might be why they've come so far already. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Blank in Memphis.

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