It took his own tragedy to fully demonstrate exactly why Mark Dombroski was drawn to rugby in the first place: The sport is one collegial family, tying together teams and states and even the broader sport as a whole.
In March, St. Joseph’s freshman rugby player Mark Dombroski was killed in a fall while the Hawks were taking part in the Bermuda Sevens college tournament. The fall had nothing to do with rugby, nor did it have anything directly to do with something Dombroski did wrong, he just took the wrong turn when it was dark at night and slipped and fell off a rock formation.
Yet it has been in the aftermath of that tragedy that the rugby community at St. Joseph’s and Archmere Academy (Del.) have bonded together to help Dombroski’s personal and rugby family heal, all while continuing to compete.
“It’s tough to deal with,” said David Niumataiwalu, a former All-Australia rugby player who now serves as the head coach at Archmere and an assistant at St. Joseph’s. “Being so unexpected it’s hard to wrap your head around it and come to terms with it. You look at it happening on a rugby tour at the end of a tournament when they’d had success and were at a meal with families. You expect guys to be back at practice next week, then this happens and you realize what’s important and how impactful each moment is. For our team, there’s something here that is probably going to stay with them for the rest of their lives. Hopefully we can make use of that in a good way.”
That hasn’t always been easy for the St. Joseph’s program to do, nor was it for Archmere, where Dombroski had a profound impact despite spending less than five years in the sport. According to Niumataiwalu, the St. Joe’s freshman was a standout wingback and fullback on the Rugby 7s pitch, where he racked up a number of impressive personal achievements en route to larger success for Archmere. There was his length of the field try against Pennsylvania rival Conestoga. There was a massive end-to-end effort he put forward in a victory against Salesianum. There was his try-forcing difference which earned Archmere the 2015 High School Rugby Championships crown.
The next year Archmere defended that title in 2016, with Dombroski in the middle of the action. He captained that team in his final act at the school during the 2016-17 school year, leaving behind an enduring legacy.
No one thought that legacy would have to be permanently remembered so soon after he left the school. As part of the memorial to Dombroski, the recently completed Penn Mutual 7s collegiate championships named the tournament MVP award in his honor. Archmere is also memorializing his impact in a permanent way.
And the collegiate team he left behind, St. Joseph’s, took to drinking pickle juice shots to memorialize Dombroski’s trick for relieving in-game muscle cramps en route to the Hawks’ plate semifinal appearance at the Penn Mutual championships.
Regardless of how institutions are remembering him, Niumataiwalu said that the community immediately around him felt his impact even more profoundly.
“One of the really key aspects to come from this is how many people it’s affected,” Niumataiwalu said, “His brother who played at St. Joe’s before, his whole family, they all went to St. Joe’s and Archmere. It’s this sense of how important you are in your life. The information you get from his mother about how active he was in service in the community, both through his church and after school programs. I didn’t know how actively he was involved, and it gave the perspective of even when you know someone in life, that doesn’t mean you know all aspects of his life. We should celebrate those people and use them as role models to follow in his footsteps. He’s really inspired people in the Archmere program that he just left last year. Hopefully that’s something we can all move forward with in our life.”
His mother was even more direct about the impact her son has had, and that his teammates have had on their family in turn.
“We appreciate all the support, from everywhere,” Lisa Dombroski, Mark’s mother, told The Athletic. “This is a way for his legacy to be remembered. That’s comforting. The depth of sadness for us has been indescribable. The shock was horrifying. Mark was a bright light. He wasn’t a typical 19-year-old. He knew how to make people feel better, whether they were 3 or 85. He was just born that way. He had an impact on a lot of people’s lives. To see his memory get carried on this way is a great tribute to him.
“It’s not just a sports story. It’s about a person, our son, and the many lives he touched. And the way people have responded to that. Everyone wants to carry on a piece of Mark. Not just here at the school. The St. Joe’s family has been wonderful. But we’ve received sympathy cards from people we don’t even know. That means so much as well. In Bermuda, each of the club teams have ties. They sent us one from each team. So it’s not just a Delaware County story, or a Philadelphia-area story. It has such a larger scope. It’s about the goodness of people, trying to look out for one another and never let his spirit be extinguished.”