Taking Root On Rocky Ground
Pittsburgh Rugby: Taking Root On Rocky Ground
By Eric Poole
June 4, 1999
The nature of a pawnshop is one of desperation.
So it is perhaps fitting that one of the few active storefronts on the main street of Braddock, PA belongs to the Steel City Pawn Shop. Surrounded by an almost uninterrupted string of vacant storefronts, the pawnshop’s existence in a once-vibrant town, now almost completely abandoned, speaks volumes about life in post-industrial America.
The only substantive difference between Braddock and the ghost towns of the Old West is the metal in question — steel instead of gold.
If the 20-mile long strip of land running along either side of the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh to McKeesport had been an independent nation 50 years ago, it would have been the world’s largest steel producer. And Braddock could have been its capital.
That strip of land was called “The Steel Valley”. It still is.
But that title is a misnomer, now. Braddock only boasts one working mill, the U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Works. But the Thomson Works employs only a fraction of the workforce it boasted during the heyday of Big Steel. And few, if any, of them live in Braddock. In fact, few people live in Braddock if they can afford to live anywhere else.
This is a depressed municipality.
That isn’t an opinion; it’s a fact, according to two separate US District Court decisions, one dealing with public housing and another with education.
It is an unlikely place to grow a successful youth rugby program. But that is exactly what the Pittsburgh Harlequins Rugby Football Association is doing. The association is affiliated with, but distinct from, the Pittsburgh Harlequins Rugby Club, which fields one of the top 50 rugby teams in the United States.
With coaching assistance from active and retired players, the youth program has also taken root in the Sto-Rox School District and the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Homewood-Brushton — two regions that differ from Braddock from a socioeconomic standpoint only by degrees.
The Braddock youth rugby squad feeds into Woodland Hills High School. StoRox also has a high school team.
Canevin Catholic High School and Fox Chapel High School also field teams connected with the Harlequins’ program. One is a parochial school and the other a public school in an affluent area — the kind of place where rugby is likely to gain acceptance.
But the greatest measure of the Harlequins’ success has been gained in some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in western Pennsylvania. There the association has proven that African-Americans have not reached out to rugby largely because rugby has not reached out to African-Americans.
Taking Advantage of Disadvantages
Social service organizations do much of their work in places like Homewood-Brushton and Braddock — which is, after all, where they are needed most. The Harlequins were able to take advantage of a social support system already in place, using facilities and counselors from private and public social service agencies.
“We look to see if there’s already something in place for kids; if the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club have really come through here,” says Bill Schildnecht, coordinator of the Harlequins’ youth program.
“Their object is to keep kids off the streets.”
Toward that end, the goals of the social organizations dovetail perfectly with those of the Harlequins program.
“We try to promote the spirit of camaraderie that is engendered by the spirit of rugby.”
The program also uses community figures, even those who don’t necessarily have a background in rugby.
In Homewood, Darien Russell is something of a surrogate father to the sons of single mothers. Known simply as “Coach Doc,” Russell looks like exactly what he is — a football player who went into coaching while still a young man. He is a coach in the Homewood Stingers’ football program’ and the defensive coordinator for an area high school football squad.
And even though he has never played rugby himself, he is one of more than 60 certified rugby coaches affiliated with the Harlequins program. Russell learned about rugby through coaching clinics, where he earned his certification.
The participation of community athletic figures like “Coach Doc” has given the Harlequins some badly needed credibility among would-be participants — and more importantly, their mothers.
Selling The Moms
In neighborhoods such as Homewood and Braddock, where more than three quarters of kids are being raised in single-parent homes, the program had to be sold to mothers before it could be sold to the children.
“We’re missing a lot of our leadership roles in the African-American community and these guys take a lot of the kids to the doorstep,” says Russell “I was skeptical at first, but I can see they’ve got a true love for the children.”
But sometimes, love isn’t enough. With the realization that young African-American players need to develop role models within the sport, the Harlequins invited the Grey Wolves, a nationally-known African-American team, to play in June at the team’s annual sevens tournament, a charity event to benefit the Traveler’s Aid Society.
The Grey Wolves also put rugby’s off-the-field comportment — through songs and the sport’s innate camaraderie — on display and encouraged the kids to see them as role models.
Our kids had a chance to see African-Americans play rugby and that’s very important,” says Russell. “Some of the songs, there was so much emotion, there were tears running down their cheeks.”
Another community organization that provided assistance — in the form of young players — was the Allegheny County legal system. Through a youthful offenders program, some juveniles have chosen to play rugby instead of doing time in the county’s juvenile detention center. Judges and juvenile officers enforce such agreements.
As a result, fans at Harlequins youth rugby matches have been treated to the rare sight of players wearing ankle bracelets over their rugby boots.
Success Stories (and a few misses)
Everett “Mooch” Cunningham takes a pass and throws himself into a narrow opening. Untouched — especially fortuitous since this is a game of touch rugby — he gets to the corner and dives into the end zone for a classic try, just like a picture from a magazine.
But it isn’t the typical picture of rugby in the United States.
“Black kids don’t know anything about rugby,” says Frances Sumpter, Mooch’s mother. “It’s great to get them involved in another sport.”
In a lot of ways, Sumpter is a typical rugby mom. She is learning the sport to “make sure nobody cheats.”
She is the daughter of a local semiprofessional football star and sport was a big part of her household while growing up.
But as a girl, she had precious few outlets for her own athletic impulses. “I would have played rugby,” she says. “I always wanted to play football and my brothers told me to get out of here.”
Mooch is one of about 20 participants in the Homewood youth rugby program. The Braddock team consists of almost 75 kids. He will move up to tackle rugby this year, probably as a flyhalf.
“He has good hands, a reasonable foot, and he’s very shifty on the run,” says Schildnecht.
If he’s lucky, he could turn out to be the program’s next Roosevelt Norfleet.
This year, Norfleet could break the starting lineup for the rugby team at the Indiana University (PA), which was an improbable qualifier for USA Rugby’s Final Four last season. He is the first of the Harlequins youth success stories.
But Schildnecht says just getting some of the participants on the same field and then out for a pizza and Pepsi afterward is a major victory.
“You might see kids who were in different gangs on the same team. We bridged some gaps in the community.
“They’re supporting one another, helping one another, passing one another the ball.”
Schildnecht admits the program’s strike rate has been less than 100 percent. A few players have taken the rugby shorts and boots provided by the Harlequins —and never returned to practice. Other kids, some of whom could have been promising players, have been asked to leave the program for disciplinary reasons.
Schildnecht doesn’t like to talk about those who were reclaimed by the streets, and with good reason. His task is exhausting enough without dwelling on the failures.
But for kids like Mooch, rugby works.
“It’s fun,” he says.
That’s true, in part, because there is a place for everybody in rugby, a selling point Schildnecht brings to minority neighborhoods like Braddock and Homewood, where basketball and football are the sports of choice.
But in rugby, being short or slender is not nearly the handicap that it is in basketball or football, because there is a place in the sport for a 5-foot-4 hooker or a 145-pound wing.
In football, being pigeonholed in the offensive line means never getting to carry the ball. No such limitation exists in rugby.
Finally, effort means a lot more in rugby than it does in baseball, where all the heart in the world means nothing if you can’t hit a curve ball.
To a 12-year-old kid, those aren’t just lessons to be taught, they are reasons to embrace an unlikely sport. “When you watch the game, you never know who is going to be a hero,” says Schildnecht.
In terms of fund-raising, one of the biggest factors in the Harlequins’ favor is listed directly beneath the word “Patron” on the group’s letterhead.
Dr. Anthony J. F. O’Reilly’s name goes a long way in the rugby world. The hall-of-fame wing went on two tours with the British Lions and was a 20-year mainstay for the Irish national team.
But in Pittsburgh-area business circles, that name goes even further. O’Reilly is the former chairman of Heinz — the region’s largest corporation — and was routinely one of the best-compensated executives in the US, right up until his retirement in 1998.
Schildnecht admits O’Reilly’s lending his name to the Pittsburgh Harlequins Rugby Football Association got checks from business leaders who might not otherwise have even read a letter soliciting funds for an inner-city rugby program.
The support and advice of David Figgins, another rugby player-turned Pittsburgh area executive, has also proven invaluable. Figgins, who is involved with a number of non-profit organizations, was able to offer guidance on how to set up the foundation.
‘“You’ve got to make deposits before you can make withdrawals,’ he told us,” says Schildnecht.
So in order to prove they were serious about doing some good work, the Harlequins passed the hat amongst themselves and came up with more than $35,000.
The organization also had to form a non-profit corporation. In this effort, the Harlequins used a resource that most men’s rugby clubs have — professionals among the active members. In this case, that included Schildnecht himself, who is an attorney.
In the near future, the association will generate capital for its youth program. A newly built rugby pitch in Pittsburgh’s North Hills serves as the Harlequins new playing facility and will serve as the venue for this year’s National Club Championship.
When the clubhouse and locker rooms are completed, the new facility will be available for soccer and rugby
matches by club members. Membership dues generated by the Harlequins’ new home will help cover expenses of the youth program.
But the time commitment is just as important as tracking down funding. Many of the Harlequins’ active players are certified coaches and most help out with the youth programs.
This can’t be overrated, because the coach-to-player ratio among the under-12 players is about 1 -to-3.
“It’s more work than I ever thought it would be,” says Schildnecht.
But it may have done more good than Schildnecht ever though it would be. All at once, an unlikely sport has helped bridge a gap between neighborhoods, between gangs and between races. Perhaps most importantly, it has given at-risk young men evidence that someone cares about them in a world where such evidence has been difficult to find.