Monday, October 5, 2009

Play Rugby USA - “Brownsville to Xavier: Developing Youth through Rugby”

Got this great email from my friends over at Play Rugby USA and thought I'd share it.

“Brownsville to Xavier: Developing Youth through Rugby”

Gaining a high quality high school education while getting the chance to compete in sports that you love, especially Rugby, is not an everyday opportunity in America. It is even further out of reach for young people from inner-city environments, where public high school rarely exists and educational opportunities can be limited. However, that’s exactly what one young man and Play Rugby USA program participant has just accomplished, having recently enrolled at Xavier High School an academically elite school in New York City with one of the top rugby programs in the country.

Isa Sylla graduated from IS 392 in Brownsville, Brooklyn this year as valedictorian of his class. A well liked member of the school community and MVP of the school’s 2009 Mayor’s Cup Championship winning flag rugby team, Isa is hooked on rugby. Given his athletic talent, Isa attracted the interest of local athletic directors and football coaches, and earned the offer of an athletic scholarship from a well know prep school in Brooklyn with a strong football program. For most public school students in Brownsville this would have been a dream come true, but for Isa it wasn’t enough...he wanted to play rugby!

The ambitious 13 year old learned about Xavier High School from his rugby coaches while participating in the New York City’s Department of Education C.H.A.M.P.S. program. Isa is a great ambassador for the program – a perfect example of a C
ooperative, Healthy, Active, Motivated, Positive, Student. Isa has successfully balanced his development of character, physical fitness and academic commitment and is a leader within his local community – exactly what the Play Rugby USA mission seeks to achieve.
Recognizing Play Rugby USA’s successful youth development program at this year’s Mayor’s Cup Flag Rugby Festival attended by 38 NYC-based teams, Kenneth Podziba, New York City’s Sports Commissioner, commented: “Play Rugby USA has worked tirelessly to create a terrific program in New York City that has positively impacted the lives of thousands of students. I commend their efforts to create an educational environment that imparts many of the core values associated with the sport of rugby such as commitment, discipline, leadership, respect and teamwork”.

One of Play Rugby USA’s full time coaches, Dominic Wareing, trained Isa’s physical education teacher Ovi Grozaf how to coach rugby. Ovi too, is hooked on the game, running rugby for 60+ students at his school and another 20+ at a Brownsville elementary school. “Coach Ovi” deserves a good deal of credit for Isa’s development.
Recognizing Isa’s talent both on and off the field, Play Rugby USA Founder Mark Griffin contacted Xavier, to see if it might be possible for Isa to attend the Manhattan school. Knowing the school’s reputation in both academics (99.9% college enrolment) and athletics – especially rugby and football – Xavier seemed a fantastic opportunity for Isa. Over the summer, Isa and his parents met with Xavier’s Head Rugby Coach Mike Tolkin and Mark Griffin to take a tour of the school. They loved it and, given Isa’s excellent academic potential coupled with his superb natural athletic talent, he was indeed a perfect candidate for Xavier. However, the tuition would be out of reach for Isa’s family. Further, an athletic scholarship was out of the question as Xavier does not offer athletic scholarships and Xavier’s academic scholarships had already been awarded well before the summer. It seemed Isa would have to accept his football scholarship at the Brooklyn prep school, where he was told they would encourage him to stay back in 8th grade, for purposes of his athletic development.

A small group of Xavier alumni who had been introduced to rugby during their days as Xavier students and were connected with the Play Rugby USA program became aware of Isa’s dilemma and stepped up to the plate. The combination of Xavier’s need-based financial aid and the generosity of these alumni enabled Isa’s family to afford Xavier’s tuition and Isa was enrolled at the school a few weeks before classes began in September. Isa has settled into Xavier well, is doing well in his classes and on the football field and is looking forward to representing his new school at rugby this year.
“It’s great to have Isa at Xavier this year. Isa may be the first student we’ve ever had who learned about Xavier through rugby. Most of our guys learn about rugby through Xavier. Getting a Xavier education should be a great opportunity for Isa. Xavier has always been a place that offers young men from humble means a chance to earn an first class, college preparatory education – we were founded in 1847 to serve the Irish Catholic immigrants that were coming into New York – so as unique as Isa’s situation is, he’s following a 160-year old tradition offering an elite education to bright kids of immigrant parents. At Xavier we believe in educating the whole person, so Isa will work hard in class, do service to the New York community, learn the lessons of teamwork and sacrifice on the athletic fields and have the opportunity to see the world through both rugby tours and service trips to place like Appalachia and Mexico. He’ll have to work in the classroom and on the fields to make the most of this opportunity, but he’s such a mature, composed, and positive young man that I think he will excel in both academics and athletics. He certainly would not have earned admission to the school if we weren’t confident that he would do well here academically and I can’t wait to see him show his stuff on the rugby pitch.”
(Mike Tolkin, Head Rugby Coach Xavier and USA National Rugby Team, Defensive Coach)

Clearly, this type of opportunity is not available to every New York City public school student. However, Play Rugby USA continues to partner with the New York City’s Office of Health Fitness and Physical Education to ensure that more students are given the chance of participating in Rugby as a proven tool for their personal development. In addition to increasing participation in the C.H.A.M.P.S. program through rugby, the two organizations are in the early stages of discussions to introduce the game into the Public School Athletics League at High School level, initially in Flag and 7-a-side (Rugby 7’s) formats. Play Rugby USA works in over 50 organizations each year to bring the game to public schools and youth organizations, after school.

While, Rugby may not yet be able to offer as many scholarship opportunities as Football or even Lacrosse for example at High School or College level, there are more and more such opportunities every year as the game continues to grow at over 10% per year. It is likely to grow significantly faster over the next few years as the game gets organized on a state by state basis and USA Rugby’s National Teams may well have the opportunity to retain their Olympic Titles (USA 1924 Reigning Olympic Champions) with the USOC’s Committee recommending Rugby 7’s as a new sport for 2016. More importantly perhaps, Rugby programs focus on developing the athlete as a well rounded student – hence Play Rugby USA’s successful focus on character, fitness, community and academics. Perhaps the best opportunity for all Rugby players however, is the opportunity to continue playing the game for life, with opportunities to compete at any level from socially to professionally, and to be part of a connected worldwide community.
Mark Griffin, Founder of Play Rugby USA concluded: “We are really excited for Isa and look forward to him experiencing the life long benefits of rugby, both on and off the field. I’m sure he will be a great motivation to many other students who would like to create their own opportunities through involvement in the game"


Play Sports for Life is a registered non profit organization whose vision is to create transformational change for youth through sports. Play Rugby USA® is the unique youth development program with an underlying philosophy of “developing youth through rugby”.
520 Eigth Avenue - 2nd Floor | New York, NY 10018
Tel: 212 563 3250 |
This article text and photographs are courtesy of Play Rugby USA.


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