By Terry Davis, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Five years ago, Donovan Norphlet had never heard of a sport called rugby. That changed when a group called Memphis Inner City Rugby (MICR) came to his school, Power Center Academy.
“We listened to what rugby was, and we were interested,” Norphlet said in a YouTube interview. “And we were like, ‘We should go try out and see what it’s about.’ And we did. And ever since then, we’ve been on a rugby team.”
For Norphlet, that chance encounter turned into a rugby scholarship at Life University in Georgia. Now, Norphlet and his fellow Running Eagles teammates are Division 1A champions – a championship game in which Norphlet made his first-ever start.
The accomplishment might have never happened if not for rugby enthusiasts and community activists Shane Young and Devin O’Brien. The duo co-founded MICR to provide options and teach life lessons to youth who might not otherwise know what rugby is – let alone actually play the sport.
“Devin and I became teachers in neighborhoods suffering from adverse socioeconomic conditions,” Young said. “We had a passion for rugby and wanted to see how it could enhance the lives of our students.”
Some consider rugby the father of American football – the balls are even shaped similarly. But unlike American football, there is no forward pass, and players can only advance the ball by running or kicking it. It is fast paced, dynamic game that challenges players both mentally and physically. Young said.
And though most kids’ sports dreams involve basketball and football, Young said that rugby hasn’t been a tough sell to Memphis youth. New students learn the game by watching video and coaching. Ultimately, they have to get out on the pitch – or rugby field – and try the sport out.
“They fall in love with the game pretty fast,” Young said. “They get the ball in their hands, they get to be physical. They became part of a brotherhood or sisterhood by talking a new challenge.”
To the untrained eye, rugby looks even more rough and rugged than American football. Players tackle each other, but they don’t wear helmets. Still, tackling in rugby is generally considered very safe – so safe that both the NFL and NCAA have adopted some of the sport’s tackling techniques.
The transition from being a high-school student in Memphis to becoming a Life University student wasn’t easy for Norphlet. He struggled with both his grades and his play. But in his second quarter at Life, Norphlet improved his grades, his play, starting on the junior varsity team and gradually moving up to varsity.
In the quarterfinal game, Norphlet only played a few minutes, and didn’t play at all in the semi-finals. But when his coach switched strategy for the championship match against St. Mary’s College, he inserted Norphlet as a starter. The move paid off as Life defeated St. Mary’s 24-20 to polish off an undefeated 12-0 season with a D1A championship.
For Norphlet, winning a championship as a freshman may not even be his greatest achievement of the year. Life University will field a 7-member team competing for a spot in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Some of the qualifying games will be broadcast on the NBC Sports network in June.
This fall, MICR will field three boys’ and two girls’ Memphis high school rugby teams with over 120 students athletes. They will compete with Christian Brothers High School, Houston and other well-established programs. MICR will field teams at Soulsville Charter School (boys and girls), Freedom Preparatory Academy (boys and girls), and Norphlet’s alma mater, PCA.
Teams practice at local parks near their schools and play at University of Memphis or the USA Stadium in Millington. It’s not cheap, though – the cost to operate a team for an academic year is $10,000, mostly due to USA Rugby’s mandatory $75 per player registration and insurance cost.
MICR doesn’t charge its students, but gets support from donors and sponsors. To learn how you can support MICR, visit www.memphisinnercityrugby.com or find them on Facebook.