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GAME CHANGER: Memphis Inner-City Rugby winning over youth while winning championships

Memphis is known as hoop city. While growing up in this city, many young people have hoop dreams. On almost every corner, there are basketball goals on make-shift courts and in local parks.

But Shane Young and Devin O’Brien are trying to elevate another sport into Memphis culture: Rugby.

Young and O’Brien wanted to make a difference in the lives of young Memphians. So in  2012, as new teachers in the city with Teach for America, O’Brien and Young started Memphis Inner-City Rugby (MICR). MICR’s first team was at Kingsbury High School. The organization now serves about 200 student-athletes throughout Memphis.

With hoops being the dominant sport, rugby is not seen as a traditional sport on the streets of Memphis. For some Memphians, the sport is a culture shock. Now, however, rugby is being embraced by a small portion of the community and is no longer seen as a sport for rich, white kids in the suburbs.

The organization’s website says, “Before MICR, access to rugby in Memphis was relegated to relatively affluent and homogenous communities outside of the city. Through our Inclusion Initiative, we specifically target schools in low-income communities and in bring rugby as a zero cost opportunity. Since 2012 we have been building bridges between traditionally divided parts of our city and seen nearly 120 percent growth in racial and socio-economic diversity in West Tennessee Rugby.”

But like all youth sports, MICR needed sponsors and funding.

“There is so much passion to reach more of our kids in the inner city that we are working hard to secure significant funding,” said Michael Deutsch, MICR board chairman. “Plus (we need) playing field space in those communities and (help) forging additional local college partnerships so our kids have the option to stay home and play as they pursue a degree.”

“I am amazed with what has been accomplished with the resources obtained so far,” Deutsch said.

On March 16,  MICR held its annual fundraiser, “An Evening with MICR” at University Club. MICR raised over $20,000 to support their athletes. The keynote speaker was Phaidra Knight, World RugbyHall of Famer, three-time Rugby World Cup participant and Player of the Decade award winner. Knight told the crowd of over 160 attendees that rugby was a release for her.

“Rugby has had an enormous impact in my life,” she said. “Rugby allowed me to channel all my emotions and it was the vehicle to tap me into my power and it continues to do so.

“The sport was a huge part of me being able to come into a space that’s safe, and also to just discover that was a part of who I was,” she added.

As the event progressed, the recurring theme was how rugby changed lives for the better. Calvin Gentry, an Arkansas State University student, says rugby saved his life. The MICR alumni was introduced to the sport while a student at Power Center Academy and was the recipient of a full athletic scholarship. He stated that he would not be in college had the sport not impacted his life.

“Rugby changed my life; it made me a better man and a better person,” Gentry said. “It afforded opportunities for my family and I and introduced me to the world.”

Gentry was also featured in an Amazon documentary titled “The Rugby Boys of Memphis.” The film was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. And a separate 2014 short documentary film about Memphis Inner City Rugby called “The Power of Rugby” is available on Youtube (Scroll to the bottom of this post for a peek).

Freedom Prep Acadamy’s championship-winning rugby squad. (Courtesy photo)

Tracey Hightower, head coach of the Freedom Prep Academy’s 2017 state championship-winning rugby team, is very proud of her team. The team was presented their championship rings during the fundraising event.

“My team and I were introduced to rugby in Spring 2016. Those young women came into this sport as underdogs with such determination and dedication that within one year they won a state title,” Hightower said. “This extraordinary group of young ladies were resilient in their pursuit of success and achieved it on and off the field.”

Hightower said that this team made history in several ways — first to win a state title of any kind at Freedom Prep; first girl’s rugby team to win a state title in Memphis. And they are the first MICR team to win a title for the organization.

“My group of young ladies (embody) the true spirit of sports competition, and they have made me proud to be their coach,” Hightower said.

One set of parents, Frederick and Shametrius Jackson, were hesitant to let their daughter, Shaniah Jones try out for the sport, for they feared her being injured. However, they relented, and haven’t regretted the decision. “Shaniah is an outstanding player and the captain of her team,” said Shametrius Jackson.

The Jacksons believe the sport has made their 16-year-old daughter more responsible in all aspects of her life, and she is already receiving scholarship offers from various colleges.

Shaniah Jones said she chose rugby to become a better person, and playing the sport has helped her change her attitude as well as develop leadership skills. Jones pointed out that rugby is not a common sport for African-American females, but it’s one that women of any background can play and succeed in.

Through MICR, students are being introduced into a world full of opportunities and hope. Often, the young athletes travel to places they have never seen before — including when a select number of the FPA girls were chosen to participate in a tournament held in Las Vegas. This trip was the first time many of them had flown on a plane.

Sixteen-year-old twins Selena and Serena Jones, current FPA players, believe rugby has impacted their lives in a positive way. The Jones twins say the sport is a pathway to success and will help them have bright futures. Given their love of tackling their opponents on the field, one could even call them “The Smash Sisters”.

Tanya Jones, the twins’ mother, has always been supportive of her daughters. She had no problem supporting their choices when they wanted to try out for rugby.

“The rugby program keeps them grounded and gives them the ability to work together as a team.” Jones reiterated, “Rugby prepares them for life. This sport has developed them into strong women and has changed their attitudes tremendously.”

 

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