New Sport, New Location
For members of Harlequins youth league, it’s a new sport in a new location
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
By Dan Gigler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On a recent hot afternoon at a run-down ball field, the jovial coach with the gravelly voice asks a dozen or so of his elementary- and middle-school-age rugby players to rattle off the “rules.”
They loudly respond in unison like a well-drilled platoon: “No cussin’! No fightin’! School matters! Respect yourself and respect others! Have honor! Have fun!”
“No passing gas!” The kids break up in laughter.
This healthy mix of discipline and droll has helped make the Pittsburgh Harlequins Rugby Football Association’s youth rugby league a success for nearly a decade.
A history professor at California University of Pennsylvania by day, Madden morphs into Coach Sean at night when he runs the Harlequins youth program, an instructional league for roughly 250 kids from 23 neighborhoods at five sites: McKees Rocks, Braddock, Homewood, Hazelwood and Garfield.
Founded in 1997, the free program is underwritten in large part by the Heritage Health Foundation, a community-based Health and Wellness center in Braddock, as well as several Pittsburgh-area foundations, which wish to remain anonymous. The city programs receive some funding from the federal Operation Weed & Seed program. In addition, the Harlequins coach three high school club teams — Sto-Rox/Canevin, Woodland Hills and Fox Chapel.
“We have a shoestring annual budget and no paid officers. How we make it year to year is amazing,” Madden said.
Credit their membership for that. Mike Loughran, a teacher who runs the program in Braddock, said that to be a Harlequin, participation in the youth program is compulsory.
“If you want to play rugby for us, we have three rules: Make every practice, maintain every blade of grass at our facility and coach youth rugby,” Loughran said. “We place a strong emphasis on volunteering and community, and it creates a family atmosphere in our club that you won’t see elsewhere.”
Forty volunteer coaches put the kids through the paces during two weekly practices from March until May, teaching them rugby basics, culminating in a series of games against each other near the end of the season.
Referred to in rugby circles as a “ruffian sport played by gentlemen,” rugby is marked by backward passing, tackling, constant running and kicking. It can be extremely physical, but a premium is put on good sportsmanship. The Harlequins teach a slightly boiled down two-hand-touch version of the game to the kids.
Though one of the most popular team contact sports worldwide, particularly in Europe and the South Pacific, rugby in the United States is better known in affluent circles, typically picked up on college campuses. Youth leagues are few and far between, and the game is as foreign as polo to kids in urban, working-class and low-income neighborhoods.
Neal Brendel, a Downtown lawyer who is the chairman of the sport’s national governing body, USA Rugby, said the ethos of rugby and “spirit of the game” were extremely valuable for youngsters.
“The code of conduct that rugby teaches — respect your opponent, don’t talk back to the referee, emphasis on sportsmanship — it’s important for kids to hear that. I don’t think that kids get that message from American professional sports anymore,” Brendel said.
Chris Tully helped start a collegiate rugby team while he was a student at Robert Morris University. Now he coaches kids at the Sto-Ken-Rox Boys’ and Girls’ Club in McKees Rocks.
“Almost none of the kids had ever seen rugby before the first day. It’s very challenging to them, because they’re so used to American football. It’s a foreign concept,” Tully said.
It’s a foreign concept not only to the kids, but also to their parents.
Marlene Johnson, of McKees Rocks, had never heard of rugby a few years ago. Now she logs on to the Internet to learn about the game, as it has become a family affair in her home — her two boys, Marlon and James, and two girls, Mia and Jasmine, play for the Sto-Ken-Rox team.
Likewise for Carolyn Carroll, also of McKees Rocks, whose daughters, Caitlyn and Courtney, play.
“They should continue to have sports like this,” Johnson said. “It’s a great game, and I love the work the coaches do. It keeps the kids busy and out of trouble.”
“This is a wonderful program,” Carroll said. “I commend the coaches.”
Brendel said he was also pleased that the Harlequins’ program spreads rugby to a nontraditional demographic in the Pittsburgh area, a trend that is being reflected nationally.
In February, USA Rugby announced a partnership with Team ROC, a nonprofit community outreach program founded by hip hop guru Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella Records label. Roc-a-Fella co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Damon Dash hopes to establish a New York City rugby league for inner-city kids, and then expand it to other major urban areas.
“One of the most unique of learning curves, with new coaches and with the kids, is their interaction,” Madden said. “You have different races, different societal backgrounds getting together to play sports.”
Paul McGregor, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, referees the league matches and works with the Homewood and Braddock teams.
“It’s great because you can be [ticked] off at work, have a hard day with boring meetings, fight traffic to get here, and then you come here and get a big smile on your face,” McGregor said. “A lot of these kids aren’t used to having guys around to work with them. It’s like a feel-good factor.”
“We aren’t a societal solution,” Madden said, “But we try to affect what we can when we can. We aren’t trying to be surrogates or patronizing. We’re just a dedicated group of people committed to our community.”
For the coaches, the experience is therapeutic. For the kids, it’s a blast.
Marlon Johnson plays football, but his preferred game is rugby, and his sister, Mia, said she might try to start a team in high school if her school doesn’t have one.
Samantha Hurte, of McKees Rocks, likes rugby more than any other sport because, “You learn a lot, meet new people and do lots of cool stuff,” and most importantly, she says, “It’s fun to play.”