Jasamine Nelson’s high school, Freedom Prep Academy, is located in a former elementary school and surrounded by modest single-story homes in south Memphis, miles from where you might expect to find a rugby powerhouse.
Two years ago, the school didn’t have a girls rugby team, but last month, the FPA girls rugby club team won its first state title with the Tennessee Rugby Association. The payoff for Nelson, a rising senior, is more than a trophy, however.
“I never played sports in high school before the 10th grade,” Nelson said. “Rugby has taught me to be a leader outside of my sports and inside my school. I’ve never been the type to stand up and speak loudly. It developed me as a person. I wasn’t a very outspoken person at first and it taught me the difference between being a leader and bossy.”
Next fall, thanks to funding by Republic Services waste management and sweat equity by Habitat for Humanity, Memphis will have its first community rugby field, where Freedom Prep, Power Center Academy and Soulsville Charter, the three inner-city charter schools in the Memphis Inner City Rugby program, can play.
“I’m so excited we have a new field coming up,” Nelson said. “You should see the field where we practice now, behind Freedom Prep, where there’s a lot of potholes. Now, we have a place to call our home. Before we always had to find a place to play and we had to find rides. Now, we get to play on a field with even ground.”
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The field, which will have artificial turf and will be lighted, will allow a program that has had surprising success, on and off the field, to have a central location for games and practices.
Shane Young played high school rugby in New Jersey and helped begin a club program at Florida Gulf Coast University and played for a USA Rugby select team. When he graduated from college in 2012, he started a two-year stint with Teach for America in Memphis and connected with fellow TFA teacher Devin O’Brien, who had played rugby at Colby College, to form Memphis Inner City Rugby.
Young and O’Brien teamed with Bradley Trotter and Andres Lopez to start teams at their respective schools and each team competes in the western division of the Tennessee Rugby Association.
After initially only offering boys teams, the program now has three boys teams and three girls teams.
MICR’s statistics list that every player who stuck with the program through high school was accepted into a four-year college.
“The kids in Memphis are starving for opportunities like this,” Young said. “They need challenges like rugby. By their determination and combine that with really good coaches and educators and mentors, we feel like we have accelerated them way faster than in what’s happening with youth rugby across the country.”
When the sport was first rolled out at Power Center Academy in Memphis, principal Steevon Hunter told players he was holding “a football interest meeting” so as not the scare off potential athletes. Football would have been a much more expensive undertaking than rugby and Power Center Academy, at the time, was a new charter school located at the Mendenhall Square Mall in south Memphis, right around the corner from a Cash America Pawn Shop and the La Fiesta Market. One of the athletes who showed up for the meeting was Donovan Norphlet, now a sophomore on national rugby powerhouse Life University.
“Our school at first didn’t have many sports,” Norphlet said. “Our principal knew a lot of the male students were interested in football. We showed up and Coach Young was standing there with a rugby ball. That’s how it all started. At first I was kind of skeptical, thinking, ‘I don’t know about this. This ain’t football. Somebody lying.’ ”
Norphlet didn’t try out at first, but a friend did and encouraged the 6-1 Norphlet to join and he was soon hooked on the sport.
Power Center’s first game, against the Barbarians, was an eye-opener.
“The first rugby game we ever played was one of the saddest rugby game I’ve ever been in,” Norphlet said. “It was one of our worst losses I’ve had in a rugby jersey, but it taught us how an actual rugby team should look and play.”
Norphlet and his teammates improved quickly under Young’s coaching. Norphlet tried going back to his first sport, basketball, for a season, but found he missed rugby.
“I think the thing I missed was the brotherhood that comes with rugby,” he said. “On a rugby field, it’s a contact sport, but everybody is friendly and loving afterward.”
When he was a senior at PCA, the team won a conference championship. In 2016, as a freshman, he played on a national championship team at Life, where he is on an athletic scholarship, majoring in biology.
“If anybody comes up to me, I would definitely tell them to give (rugby) a try,” Norphlet said. “Once you play it once, you fall in love with it. It’s very easy to learn. The toughest things to pick up were the set piece plays, lineouts and scrums. There’s a lot of technical stuff and a lot of form. With lineouts, it takes a little getting used to two people picking you up and you being helpless whether they’ll drop you or not. It builds a lot of trust.”
Young and MICR say the sport has had a strong academic impact. Players must keep up with their studies or risk missing games or practices and the programs. The program is also nearly year-round.
“We have them playing for 11 months a year,” Young said. “We have them playing 7-on-7 rugby and 15-on-15 rugby and in all-stars. They’re engaged all year long. Other teams have their season, but for us, there is no off-season.”
Nelson said she’s interested in studying veterinary medicine in college.
“If the school I go to doesn’t have rugby, I would still like to be in rugby, either staying locally so I could coach or joining a local team, like the Pink Flamingos,” she said.