Despite the many obstacles that Jesse Danka knew he would have to overcome, he took it upon himself to create the North Pitt United rugby club last year.
The reason he decided to be the one to tackle this task was because of his obsession for the game of rugby as well as wanting to enable others to learn about and feel a love for the sport.
“Many people still have a pre-conceived notion about what the sport is or how safe it is. I have played many sports in my life including football, basketball, and baseball in high school, but none stress the importance of humility, respect, sportsmanship and community like rugby,” Danka, who is also the coach of the team, said.
He recruits members by reaching out to local high school athletic directors, advertising in school newspapers, posting flyers, and contacting students via social media. Danka was able to draw several members and draw interest through his advertising.
“I was drawn to the program because at a young age I always wanted to play rugby, but there were never any teams around here. As soon as I heard there was a team, I contacted the coach and he was knowledgeable of the sport. He was a really nice guy and I figured it would be fun to play for him,” Shaler Area senior, Christian Henning, said.
The team consists of students from Shaler Area, North Allegheny, Pine Richland, Hampton, and North Hills which allows students from schools that do not have rugby teams to still have the opportunity to play.
One of the players’ favorite aspects about the rugby program is that it is not specifically their own school, but that they are able to mix with other districts.
“The best thing about the rugby program is that there are a various amount of school districts that all play together. You get to know the kids from other schools and you grow as a team. That’s one aspect that I really like about this program,” Henning said.
However, for schools like Shaler Area and North Allegheny, traumas from the past have resulted in concerns rather than excitement when it comes to the sport.
In 2006, a North Allegheny senior who was a member of the Pittsburgh Harlequins Rugby team suffered a severe concussion in a match, and after ten days he passed away due to complications related to a herniated brain. Although the team was not affiliated with North Allegheny, this story became a national caution about the potential dangers the sport brings.
This story has been a roadblock for Danka, but he pointed out that the problem in that case was that the student was playing on an adult team with 20-30 year olds.
“An 18-year-old should never be playing with 20-30 year olds. He should’ve been playing for a local HS club, but there wasn’t any in his area and he was a good athlete. None of my players will ever play with adults. That is why I am trying to establish the HS Rugby Club and grow this amazing sport,” Danka explained.
Although that injury seemed to be the result of playing in the wrong age division, playing with similarly-aged peers does not necessarily guarantee safety.
Shaler Area High School student was severely injured during one of his school’s club matches in 2002. He fractured a vertebra in his neck and after a complicated surgery, eventually recovered.
His mother led a movement to have the school district discontinue the club rugby team. After persistence and eventually widespread support, the school’s team was abolished.
These terrifying tales from North Allegheny and Shaler Area have not stopped Danka from trying to reach his goal of getting the sport to take root and grow.
“Those two particular stories have caused some struggles in the beginning. I worked hard for two years prior to establishing this club by speaking with athletic directors, superintendents, community members, and speaking with students on social media,” he said.
However, this has not discouraged students who have displayed a strong interest in pursuing the sport.
“I had no hesitation playing because there is always a risk of injury in everything you do but if you learn to do it right the likeness of injury is much less,” Henning said.
In fact, Danka is confident that rugby will become a common high school varsity sport once more.
“This is the fastest growing sport in America and we are seeing teams grow every year. Just like lacrosse over the past 5-10 years, rugby is on the rise. Our goal at North Pitt United is to keep developing the sport just north of the city and then branch off to single school teams in the future. We look forward to being the driving force to the growth of HS/Youth Rugby in Western PA.”