Rugby inspires LA's inner city youth
MAR 15, 2013 10:26a ET
Hot isn’t a descriptive word that comes to mind when you think of winter. But this is Los Angeles, the place non-Angelenos swear there’s only three seasons a year instead of the customary four – Lakers season, Dodgers season and summer year-round.
Nevermind the whole hot and winter thing, what’s even rarer is the sight on the green grass at Jesse Owens Park on this day. There is an elementary flag rugby tournament taking place on two parallel fields and about 100 yards away the ICEF middle school girls team is practicing.
Rugby? Here, in South Los Angeles?
The flag tournament is the first of its kind and the idea of Johnson coming into fruition right before her eyes. Bringing rugby to the inner city is the brain child of ICEF Rugby Director Stuart Krohn, a self-proclaimed "rugby guy" a former UCSB All-American who played professionally in France, South Africa, New Zealand and Hong Kong during a 13-year career.
ICEF (Inner City Education Foundation) public schools are a group of 14 schools grades K-12, where 82 percent of the students are African American, 16 percent are Hispanic and 80 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch, according to the school’s website. Students throughout the ICEF schools combine to make up the ICEF rugby program.
Krohn, with a grant from LA84, decided 11 years ago that he wanted to bring the sport he loves to those who ordinarily wouldn’t have tried it. He had previous experience building a program at the French International School in Hong Kong. He was also previously a head coach at Dartmouth. This time, he figured he’d try to tackle South Los Angeles where, quite frankly, most don’t know much of anything about the sport.
“I was like, what is this sport?” said junior Noah Trotter as he recalled his first experience in the ICEF rugby program five years ago. “Who tosses a ball sideways? Or kicks it like it’s soccer?”
As Kohn tried to kick start the program, he came across Johnson, a sixth grader at the time, and others who became pioneers of the program.
“(She’s) a first generation,” a proud Krohn says smiling in the direction of Johnson. “It’s amazing.
“I envisioned this.”
For Johnson, the game of rugby changed her life.
“This gave me so much breadth of experience,” said Johnson, now a junior and member of the Dartmouth rugby team. “I was kind of a geek and I wasn’t into athletics until I started playing rugby (in the sixth grade) and that really opened it up for me. When I’m in college thinking about what I want to do on my break, coming back here was top of the list.
“Kids want to stand out. They want to feel special. Playing rugby, when no one else did, that was like ‘man, I’m cool.’”
Johnson is one of three ICEF alums who currently attend Dartmouth, and there is another at Brown. Some of the other four-year destinations of ICEF alums include Cal, UCLA, and UC Riverside.
Rugby has allowed students to stay out of trouble, learn a new sport, and travel the world.
The boys and girls team went to New Zealand last year for a U16 tournament. They were the only American team there but the boys were able to knock off others from around the world and returned to the States with a tournament championship.
The trip was filmed and made into an award-winning documentary, "Red White Black & Blue." The film depicts members of the ICEF rugby program rising above their circumstances of growing up in the inner city -- dealing with stored up frustration, trying to break the family cycle of crime and drugs -- while learning togetherness and leadership through rugby in a land where rugby is its national sport.
"Red White Black & Blue" won Best Documentary and Honorable Mention for Best Director at the Idyllwild Cinema Fest in January. It received the Canada International Film Festival's 2013 Rising Star Award and is a finalist in the Africa World Documentary Film Festival, which will have screenings in the United States, United Kingdom, and Africa. Locally, it was screened at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival in Los Angeles last month.
Currently the program is on its 10th international trip, which is a 12-day event in China with stops in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, where the ICEF club will play in the Hong Kong Sevens tournament as well as with and against the program Krohn started at the French International School.
Earlier this year they participated in a tournament in Las Vegas, and they've also gone to Africa and England to compete. Later this week, they will head to China for a 12-day event in which they’ll visit Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, where the ICEF club will play with and against the program Krohn started at the French International School.
However, not just anyone can go. Obviously, you have to be skilled in the sport.
Students’ grades must be in order, fundraising is expected, and they are also required to write an essay touching the topic: How will I benefit from this trip?
In essence, rugby has become a tool for this group of inner city youth. Doors have opened that previously were not thought about by the students because of the sport.
“They grow because this is new and at the beginning it’s very foreign,” said the CEO of ICEF public schools, Parker Hudnut. “Particularly for those lucky enough to go on these international trips, it’s exposing the world to them.”
Johnson’s life was changed when the Dartmouth women’s rugby team came to host a clinic while she was in high school. She was hooked.
“I was a 10th grader and I was like ‘I’m going to go to Dartmouth,’” Johnson recalled. “I definitely didn’t look at Dartmouth until the rugby aspect.”
Krohn’s idea has not come without some strain. There was a lot of pushback when he decided he wanted to bring rugby to South Los Angeles.
“It’s hard to believe it’s going to come to fruition, but this was the plan, to spread rugby in an inner city area,” he said. “Whenever you try to go outside of the box, you’ve always got push.
“It was actually about getting the right people, people that are tough, like Taylor, so it was actually the girls, really, (who) got it going at first. The boys played but the girls were more ready to go outside of the box, where the boys were like ‘We play football. We play basketball. We don’t play rugby,’ and they just watched and then they seen how cool it was getting and once we started traveling. The star of the football team actually came from rugby and then he became the star of the football team and they were like ‘Hey!’”
The pushback hasn’t completely subsided. You don’t hear young African Americans growing up saying they want to be professional rugby players. The NFL or NBA are usually the choice. Those that have taking a stand for rugby and announced their love for it are looked at in a different light. It’s not a popular choice.
“(My relatives and friends) want me to be a football player more than rugby but it’s my life and I get to choose what I want,” said Trotter, who also plays football and runs track at View Park, an ICEF-member school. “Rugby is what opened my heart more and wanted to make me strive for more.”
Trotter intends to attend college at either UCLA or UC Santa Barbara and play rugby.
Krohn believes some of his current players will have a shot at the 2016 Olympics with rugby being reinstated for the Rio de Janeiro Games, including 14-year-old phenom Nia Tolliver.
Tolliver, who plays at View Point Prep High, is a rugby prodigy according to her coach, who says her aggression makes her a perfect fit in the sport.
"I played basketball but I always fouled out because I'm really a contact person," Tolliver told Intersections South LA. "I'm big."
It's a large goal for some of these athletes like Tolliver, but the ICEF rugby program didn't make it this far without Krohn having big dreams.
It’s a hot, winter day in South Los Angeles and chances are, yes, inner city youth are playing rugby.
+ SHOW COMMENTS +