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Traditionally, rugby is not a vehicle to get kids into college. However, in Memphis, Tenn., a group of Teach for America (TFA) participants has made rugby a centerpiece in helping kids have the tools to excel in higher education. Memphis Inner City Rugby (MICR), which began in 2012, has grown to include a myriad of local schools and now encompasses nearly 200 of high school boys and girls.
After graduating from college in 2012, Shane Young moved to Memphis to start a two year stint in the Teach for America program. Young, who grew up playing rugby in New Jersey and started the rugby program at Florida Gulf Coast University, wanted to introduce the sport to the local youth. As fate would have it, he met Devin O’Brien, a former Colby College rugby player and TFA educator in Memphis. Together the tandem came up with the idea for an inner city rugby program that used the sport to teach the local youth valuable life lessons and give them tools to attend college.
The pair faced many challenges throughout the process, but one of their biggest hurdles to overcome was the fact that rugby was foreign to everyone. Getting buy in from kids, parents and administrators was a difficult task.
“The word rugby didn’t mean anything to these kids back in 2012. Neither the students nor the school leaders knew anything about the sport,” Young said of the MICR in its early stages.
Young and O’Brien teamed up with fellow TFA corps members Andres Lopez and Bradley Trotter to start teams at each of their respective high schools (Freedom Prep, Soulsville, Power Center). Each high school competes in the western division of the Tennessee Rugby Association and has the opportunity to play for a state championship against schools all across Tennessee.
Additionally, in 2015, MICR expanded to include their first two girls programs. Spearheaded by another TFA educator, Sanam Cotton, the girls program has seen tremendous growth and now has a third team.
“When I was introduced to the MICR, there was only a boys division. I saw the great things they were doing and became an advocate for starting a women’s program,” Cotton said.
The MICR program has given some much need structure and taught valuable life skills to the boys and girls. While the kids are enjoying learning a new sport, the game is instilling in them values that translate off the pitch and into other aspects of their lives. “I want them to understand that teamwork and leadership help you to achieve your goals. The mentality of ‘let’s have a goal and push towards that goal’ is something I work very hard to instill in the girls,” exclaimed Cotton.
In addition to the values that rugby instills, the MICR has used the sport as a means of providing accountability. The program puts academics first. The organization has instituted academic requirements and mandatory tutoring sessions.
“Academic tracking is a core part of our program. Participating is a privilege and in order to play our athletes must maintain a certain academic standard,” Young indicated.
The values and accountability that the students are learning through rugby is leading to many athletes pursuing college. A number of athletes from MICR have received scholarships and have gone on to play in a number of different college divisions while others are learning important life skills to excel in college whether they play or not.
“Our hope is to give kids the skills needed to excel in college whether they are playing on the rugby team or are just pursuing a degree,” Young stated.
Several athletes have gone on to play for Penn Mutual Varsity Cup and Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC) participating teams. Donovan Norphlet, who received a scholarship to attend Life University, competed in the 2016 Penn Mutual CRC. Additionally, Calvin Gentry, who played on the under-19 United States national team, is currently finishing his freshman season with Arkansas State’s rugby team that reached its first ever Varsity Cup final as a program.
MICR players have also reached the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO). Jahlyn Hayes has gone on to play for the nationally ranked Tufts rugby team. The New England school played in the NSCRO final four this spring.
In the fall of 2016, the girls team Cotton coaches finished third in the state. The success of the program is garnering attention from some top tier college programs including Lindenwood University. The Missouri school hosted a clinic in the spring of 2017 for the MICR women to improve their skills and see if they might be a good fit for the program.
College rugby programs are not the only ones recognizing the hard work put in by the staff at MICR. The MICR has been recognized for their efforts both on the field and in the classroom. The program received the Mid South Spark Award for the best non-profit in the mid south. Additionally, the US Rugby Foundation invited several MICR members to speak at the “Lost Afternoon Luncheon” held in conjunction with the USA match against Australia in 2015. Most recently, RYOT produced the documentary “The Rugby Boys of Memphis” profiling the impact that MICR has had on the local community.
In addition to a number of domestic awards, the MICR was on the shortlist for the Beyond Sport Award. Members of the MICR were flown to London to attend the ceremony and were honored for their efforts on a global stage.
“The awards are a wonderful reminder that what we do is not only making a difference in Memphis but inspiring others around the world,” Young concluded.