How Rugby Stole My Heart
October 4, 2016
America’s love affair with contact sports has been going on for some time. Since the early 80s though, football has separated itself from all of the others, becoming the nation’s most popular sport. Just last year, around 6 million Americans took part in playing tackle football and 111.9 million people tuned in to watch the Super Bowl.
With such a deeply engrained cultural embrace of contact sports, it’s not surprising that the nation is taking notice of rugby. Since it was reintroduced in the 2016 Olympics, research reveals that rugby has actually garnered almost 300% more attention than it had just a year ago; that’s more attention than the sport has ever had in the history of the country. Of course, it still has a way to go to catch up with football, but it’s clear to see that rugby is on the rise.
Football was the sport that really sparked my athletic career early on, and the same can be said about many of the athletes that represented the United States in the Rio Summer Olympics. The team of 13 U.S. rugby players sent to Brazil was comprised of 13 multi-sport athletes, 9 of which being former football players. Certainly one of the most notable of these converts was Nate Ebner, free safety for the New England Patriots turned USA Eagle. Carlin Isles and Perry Baker, the team’s two bolts of lightning along the wing, were both former football players; Perry having made the transition from arena football in Pittsburgh, and Carlin being previously signed to the Detroit Lions’ practice squad.
For me it all started in the 5th grade when I went from a small school without any sports teams to a much larger school that offered more programs. I was excited to finally get a chance to play football on an actual team, the sport that I grew up playing and watching. I made the change from playing pickup games in empty streets to playoff games in open fields. Sneakers were swapped for cleats, skin and bone became shrouded by padding, and my favorite exchange of all, two-hand touch, was at last abandoned for full contact. Before long the sport grew to be a large part of who I was and during the 2008-2009 school year, I became one of the more than a million high school football players in the United States.
I went into high school intending to play football all four years, and I did just that; slowly making my way from a nose guard in the center of the defensive line to a defensive end by my senior year. Toward the end of my sophomore year though, I had the great fortune to happen upon rugby. I was lucky enough to attend a Jesuit high school with a proud rugby tradition, and even luckier to have a few good friends on the team who convinced me to check out just one of their practices. Little did I know it at the time, but that one practice would be the start of an eight year and counting rugby career, spanning from high school, to college, and now to men’s league rugby.
Our football team in high school made it to the league Championship three times in my four years, sadly to always come up short in the end, and the first full season that I played for our school’s rugby team, we went on to win the team’s first ever State Championship, followed by a tough runner-up spot in the following season. Having played both sports and experiencing a good deal of success in each, I naturally came to the point where I had to make a decision as to which sport to continue pursuing, the sport that I grew up loving, football, or the sport vying for my heart, rugby.
Of course the two are both very physical in nature, and they do share other parallels like a few similar rules and a seven point scoring system with a three point conversion option, but I came to realize that the gap between the two is greater than it might appear on the surface. Football is a game of mostly specialists; one that involves athletes contributing to their team by performing one specific task on the field. This is why there are rarely any football players that play both offense and defense, and why there is such a generally large contrast of skill-sets across the positions. By playing both sports, I learned quickly that rugby is not the specialist’s sport that football is. Rugby players, from backs to forwards, are expected to assume many of the same responsibilities on the field. Passing, catching, tackling, rucking; all of these skills are equally necessary across the pitch, while kicking could be seen as the main specialty in rugby.
There is also a certain social aspect to rugby that I’ve found doesn’t quite translate to the football world. In my experiences, as well as those of many other athletes familiar with both sports, rugby tends to instill a certain comradery amongst its players that is unparalleled by the all-too-frequent animosity brought about on the football field. That being said, any combination of contact and competition is a potential hotbed for hostility, but it tends to be much less so in rugby due to a mutually shared respect for the sacrifices, both physical and mental, necessary to play the game. This was much less so with football, with many on-field skirmishes making their way off of the field due to personal pride.
Quite possibly, what could be the most difficult aspect of making this transition is getting acclimated with the change of pace. Rugby really places a greater emphasis on stamina and endurance compared to that of football. The endurance required by the stop-and-go pace of football pales in comparison to the 80 minute, for-the-most-part continuous game-play of a rugby 15s game. Not solely from an aerobic standpoint either, rugby entails a very specific set of techniques and proper forms, all of which require exceptional stamina to be performed well in the late minutes of games. The same could be true about football, but the frequent substitutions and stoppage of play tend to detract from this emphasis.
Overall, I couldn’t bring myself to abandon either sport entirely, but in the end, it was an easy decision for me to choose rugby over football. They both involve physicality and competition and are continuing to grow in popularity. I can see more and more athletes who played football migrating to rugby, much like I did.