Anyone who has played football or soccer will recognize the big idea behind rugby: Keep the ball moving forward and try hard.
“If the ball goes backwards, somebody get it,” said Jaron Henry, coach of the Raymond Raiders, an all-black, mostly female, under-11 rugby squad based at Shaw’s Raymond Recreation Center in the District.
Though the Raiders have been forced to practice indoors as the District swelters in a late July heat wave, they have a big tournament this weekend and have to give 100 percent.
Or, as Henry put it: “Keep going!”
Rugby, invented at Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, in the early 19th century, is not often associated with inner-city America. But Henry is one of a handful of rugby coaches bringing the game from the British Midlands to the Mid-Atlantic.
“Older kids I talk to think it’s majority for white people,” Henry said. “That’s what they see. . . . I’m like, ‘No, black people play rugby, too.’ ”
Not long ago, Henry, 26, was just another D.C. kid unfamiliar with a game that looks like a muddy combination of soccer and football with a lot of lateral passes. That changed when he started playing rugby in his senior year at Coolidge High School with coach Brian Mihelic, a software engineer and rugby evangelist.
Mihelic is president of Washington D.C. Youth Rugby, a nonprofit he co-founded in 2004 that’s billed as the only youth rugby program in the District. Though Mihelic grew up in Pittsburgh and didn’t take up rugby until college, he said the sport offers more opportunity for players to shine — and to develop minds of their own.
“In football, you’re told exactly what to do for six seconds, do that, and stop,” he said. Rugby is different: “You don’t stop and talk about things — the captain on the field makes decisions. Every player gets to run the ball.”
Henry said rugby helped him control his anger and become a leader.
“Rugby changed my life a lot,” Henry said. “I have to think about stuff before I actually do it.”
Brian Hilliard, whose 10-year-old son plays for the Raiders, said rugby at Raymond lets kids who grew up in the same neighborhood come together to “touch the ball.” He said the children, often raised on football and basketball, rapidly adapt to the novel rules.
However, while explaining some arcane rugby terminology — the equivalent of a touchdown in football is called a “try,” for example — he paused.
“I want to make sure I’m getting it right,” he said. “I’m still learning.”
Elsewhere in the city, rugby has been put forward as an anti-gang initiative for at-risk youth. One team at Perry Street Preparatory Public Charter School was even eyed by Hollywood screenwriters in search of a feel-good story.
In 2013, rugby came to Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights. The program brought a sport familiar at elite, expensive private schools to primarily black and Hispanic students in the city. In 2015, the school beat Landon, a private school in Bethesda, to win a regional title (although Landon soon paid it back, winning the title this past May).
Dale Hensley, the head coach at Bell, said rugby has to compete for resources with athletic directors who see it as a threat to football, but the battle is worth it.
“The whole purpose of our program is to expose this very kind of club sport that’s not well known in the U.S. but is increasing” elsewhere, Hensley said, pointing out that rugby returns to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next month after a 92-year absence. “We want to show at-risk youth the benefits of being involved.”
Players, however, don’t need a discourse on rugby as a social good to get on the field (or, more accurately, the “pitch”). Tiara Brown, 9, took up rugby in the fall and quickly became a faithful Raider.
“It was something new that I wanted to learn,” she said.
Mihelic said the message of the sport is easy to understand.
“In life,” he said, “you always want to go forward.”