Our story is about a group of athletes. We’re not talking about professionals, but rather a team of amateur players who have learned something valuable about themselves while preparing for the game. They are young African American men who live in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. They are students in a school where money for extra-curricular activities is often scarce, and the introduction of a new sport can be difficult. But as Brian Purchia says their coach has found a way to get his young athletes ready for life, by playing rugby.
Four years ago, when Hyde Charter School started a rugby team, most of the students had never heard of the sport. But coach Tal Bayer was persistent, “We went from the first year, where [on] game day we had 13 guys needed for a 15-man team. We were pulling kids as we’re walking out the building, ‘hey, come play,’ and they played because we had to fill the team out.”
J’rah says few of his friends outside of Hyde had even heard of rugby, “At first they ask me what it is. I tell them. They ask me to explain what stuff is what position I play and all this other stuff. It takes like probably ten minutes to explain to them what rugby is after that still don’t get it.”
Some visitors thought Hyde was in a high-crime neighborhood. It was difficult to find opponents.
Coach Bayer says, “I would say they’re probably, if not the only all African-American team. They’re one of the only. When we first came here it was a pretty rough area. And some people had some concerns about coming in here to play.”
The Hyde Leadership Charter School opened its doors in Washington, D.C. in 1999. Hyde is an alternative to the D.C. public school system. In 2002-2003, more than 50 percent of the city’s public schools failed to meet national standards in reading, math or both, according to a new federal report. For some of the students, Hyde is their last chance, because they’ve been kicked out of numeous other schools. Hyde stresses character education, and requires parents and faculty to attend monthly meetings.
One of the first teachers hired was Tal Bayer. He played rugby, and thought the kids at Hyde could benefit from the sport. Coach Bayer says, “Rugby is a great character-education sport. It’s a sport full of characters. But umm, true characters.”
On this day, Hyde is playing the Maryland Exiles, a team they’ve never beat. If Hyde wins, they are guaranteed a high seed in the league playoffs, and the Exiles are eliminated from the tournament for the first time in ten years.
Encouraging the team, Coach Bayers tells them, “You’ve always risen to the occasion. You’ve got to believe in excellence in yourself and others, ooh, ahh, On three: One two three. Hyde! The kids watched the game. It’s contact, it’s fast. There’s hitting, there’s running. The littlest guy, up to the biggest guy, gets to run with the ball and tackle.”
P.J. Komognan is one of those littlest guys. He inspires the team by telling them, “If one mess up, all mess up. If one do good, all of us do good. If one cry, all of us cry.”
J’rah remembers when P.J. was an eighth-grader, he says of P.J. “When he came here, my mother was like don’t speak to him. He’s this really bad kid or whatever.”
P.J. had never lasted long at any school in D.C. before Hyde. He was always in and out of trouble with the law. In the spring of 2000 his life changed forever. “I picked up some glass that was on the track and I just started throwing it on the field.” Coach Bayer recalls going over to him and asked “I went over and was like, ‘what the heck are you doing.’” P.J. replies “He was like how do you feel if you get hit on the glass. I told him I wouldn’t get hit. So he gave me the ball, and told everybody to start chasing me, and I started running.”
Coach Bayer talks fondly about P.J. “He ran over my kids, he ran through them, around them. We couldn’t stop him. So at the end I said, ‘tomorrow you’re going to play rugby with us.’” J'rah chimes in “Rugby became like another place for him to I guess to take out his anger, or harness it at least.”
And Tal gave him something he didn’t have at home.
P.J. replies “He’s like a male figure for some of the players like myself. Like I don’t have my father I don’t like interact with him.” Coach Bayer says, “It wasn’t like some miraculous change over the next day. Because we spent probably the next two or three years with P.J. being suspended and close to expulsion, and being led out in handcuffs and he actually quit the team.”
Tal challenged P.J. to be the best he could be in the classroom and on the rugby field. P.J. says, “I take whatever he tells me I take it and use it as a motivation.”
Today, P.J. is a member of the United States under-19 rugby team. He has just returned from a three-week rugby trip to South Africa with his coach and mom. He says, “I almost didn’t get to South Africa because of my grades. I had to actually stay after school and hit the books hard. Like I had to hit it more than I ever hit it before, just to go to South Africa.”
At halftime against the Exiles, Hyde is down 15-14.
Coach Bayer, encourages the team, “We want to send them the message that it’s over for them and this is the beginning of Hyde.” P.J. tells his team mates, “We need to suck it up. It ain’t over yet.”
Hyde responds. They score a series of tries to take the lead and hold on for a 33-20 win. Tal says there’s something more important than the big win. Just like all of the seniors from Hyde last year, all of the seniors on the rugby team this year have been accepted at four-year colleges.