“Rugby’s a game for gentlemen played by hoodlums,” says Calvin Gentry. “I play like a hoodlum.”
Gentry is the star of The Rugby Boys of Memphis, a very American film about a game invented in Britain and played around the world which screened at the Tribeca festival and is now available via Amazon Prime.
He underlines the point by putting a lower-case spin on the most famous team name in rugby. His high school, he says, has diversified the game in Tennessee simply by showing up to play – by “being an all black team”.
The film cuts rugby action with a tour of South Memphis, one of the most impoverished places in all the 50 states. A break down the blind side at the West Tennessee championships; a drive-by of a corner store where Gentry has seen “many people shot”. Broken-down buildings next to vacant lots; tackle practice on muddy ground at night, flying bodies floodlit by the full-beam lights of cars.
There is also the award of Gentry’s rugby scholarship to Arkansas State, the Varsity Cup finalists for whom he is now a powerful No8 forward.
“I honestly feel rugby saved my life,” he says.
That salvation came through Memphis Inner City Rugby, a nonprofit founded in 2012 by Shane Long and Devin O’Brien, two twenty-somethings who worked for Teach for America, loved the game and wanted to use it for good. Looking to expand the project, they staged an event in New York this week.
At face value, the fundraiser on the 20th floor of a downtown tower was far removed from the muddy fields of South Memphis, where 200 high-schoolers now play rugby union in fall and spring. Phaidra Knight, new member of the World Rugby Hall of Fame, mingled affably. So did Todd Clever, the most-capped men’s Eagle. The retired WWE champion John Layfield, become a rugby evangelist, conducted a successful auction.
The raw appeal of MICR was, however, very close to the surface. O’Brien is from New York and has moved back, to manage the Coney Island Brewery. But he remains a driver of MICR and his opening remarks had a strongish tinge of a sermon. Young is from New Jersey and played rugby in Florida but still teaches and coaches in Memphis. His exhortations from the stage were sprinkled with very Tennessee “y’alls”.
Later, in a side room, Young was equally passionate if softer spoken. He explained how this unlikely evening came to be.
“We applied to the Walton Family Foundation,” he said, “they came back to us with a grant for $10,000 and said this is restricted funding, you don’t use this on your programme, you use it to stage an event that will raise more money.”
And so The Rugby Boys of Memphis was screened while New York rugby lovers drank bourbon and ate the culinary miracle that is deep-fried mac n’cheese. By the end of the night, $20,000 had been raised.
“We’ve gotten the best of American rugby and a WWE champion, JBL, here to support a bunch of kids in Memphis,” Young said, with a smile of happy surprise. “It’s powerful. Rugby leads you to some strange places.”
‘The pathways through rugby are becoming real’
Five years ago, Young and O’Brien brought rugby to a place that would be strange to most of its fans worldwide. Partnering with Power Center Academy, a Memphis high school, they lured students by pretending the first meeting was about football, a sport the school could not afford to run. In contrast, rugby required only a ball and a patch of grass.
The students took the deception well and the MICR programme built from there. It now includes academic requirements, mentoring and even the provision of yoga, to help calm everything down off the field.
Gentry is not the only player who has come through and secured a college place: among others, Donovan Norphlet and JaVoni Merritt are at Life University in Atlanta, long a power of American rugby.
Young enthused over the “pure American-bred determination, athleticism and winning mentality” of the young men and women he has introduced to the game.
“These are not football players turned into rugby players,” he said, citing World Sevens player of the year Perry Baker as a famous example of that development path. “We are intercepting them before they get to football.
“To be frank, American football is on a very quick decline especially with the youth because of the concussion issue and the politics of it. The pathways to college through football are becoming scarce. The pathways and opportunities through rugby are becoming real. When we can bring that to the city of Memphis, that’s a real engine of change for rugby and also for the city.”
Asked about his next aim, Young said he wanted MICR to reach 14 schools by 2021, up from from three now. The programme currently runs six teams, three for boys aged 14 and up and three for girls the same.
“JaVoni was our first female athlete to leave with a scholarship, last year,” he said, stressing the importance of the women’s game as well as the need to monitor progress after high school is over.
“Of the alums that are in college, we’re learning quickly that we have to reach further into their lives. When you are someone going to college from a low-income household or an impoverished community, the challenges you face are not the same challenges that I faced, for example.
“I could take risks, I could waste money, I could fail a class, and because I come from a well-to-do family, I would be all right. For our kids, just giving them rugby in high school and saying ‘Good job’ can often lead them right back to where they came from.
“We have high expectations for our young men and women. They can matriculate through some of the nation’s best colleges but they just need support because of economic conditions and some of the academic shortcomings they experience coming from a disadvantaged city like Memphis.”
Gentry also spoke to the crowd in New York, alongside Young and Clever. He was the first person in his family to go to college, he said. He had found the academic side a challenge, failing most classes in his freshman year. A fourth person on the stage, he said, had been there to help him out.
Allison Polly, executive producer of branded content for Pepsico, was part of the New York panel. The company paid for The Rugby Boys of Memphis. When Gentry found himself unable to pay $632 of college fees, the drinks giant paid that too.
Pepsi, Polly said, is looking to turn The Rugby Boys of Memphis into a scripted full-length feature. The prospect is an intriguing one, perhaps a rugby version of The Blind Side, the story of the Tuohy family and their discovery and sponsorship of the football star Michel Oher. The Tuohys have supported MICR.
But five years at the sharp end of American life have made Young as cautious as he is ambitious. “There are preliminary discussions taking place with writers and directors to possibly make a [feature] film,” he said, picking his caveats with care. His smile, though, betrayed how far his project has come – like the young athletes it has reached.