House Rugby: rugby on an HBCU campus

Coach Shawn Elms was turned on to a fledgling rugby program in Atlanta in 2012 when his senior club, High Country Rugby Club, received a call from a few students at Morehouse College. Apparently some rugby players on campus – with four years of high school playing experience – were perturbed there was no team, so they did their homework and reached out to the inclusive rugby community for assistance. Elms and a club mate, Jim Dalberg, made the short trip to Morehouse.

“They said they needed some help and structure, but they had the boys and the heart,” Elms, a Caucasian Georgia native, said. “They just started grabbing kids from around the quad and, before you knew it, they had 11 people.

“My value to my senior club, High Country, at first was really just as a coach and impact sub at best if I’m being complimentary to myself. Morehouse was in much more need than High Country was. We just went over there with balls and cones and started running practice.”

The process of starting a rugby club at any university has trials and tribulations, but the attitude the Morehouse students exhibited early benefited the program in several ways. At an alumni barbecue marking the football team’s first practice, House Rugby athletes donned their kit to serve boosters. Taken aback by the class and generosity of the students, the football team’s coaches immediately learned more about rugby culture than they had heard second-hand. As the club continued to train and play in the eyes of the firmly-entrenched athletics programs, those unfamiliar with the sport could do little to deter their intrigue.

“Because we overlap with a lot of the football facilities the athletes look at us,” Elms said. “They always say complimentary things: ‘You guys are crazy;’ ‘I could never do this without pads.’

“They’re very nice about it, but I’m really sensitive to the fact there’s always skepticism from coaches about another sport coming in that isn’t NCAA-aligned. They don’t want their players, in the offseason, doing something potentially detrimental to their primary sport. To help assuage those fears I tell the coaches straight up I don’t want their players, but I want to have a good relationship with the other sports on campus.”

One of the boosters at the barbecue, Javarro Edwards, with no prior affiliation to rugby, took heed of the squad’s presence and humility. He made a sizable donation early in the program’s life, leading to an official kit – though it would not be able to sport Morehouse College on the chest. Thus the “House Rugby Black Sabers” moniker, which is a reference to the school’s Maroon Tigers.

House Rugby kit can also be seen across campus away from the field spaces shared with official members of the athletics department, as Black Sabers are active members of the Morehouse community in non-athletic as well as major-specific clubs. The rugby team competes in NSCRO’s Region 2 – Mid-Atlantic South, facing four of five regular season opponents within the state lines of Georgia, and has been a conversion attempt away from reaching a conference championship bout despite starting only its third year in the competition last season. An integral member of the coaching staff, Atlanta Harlequins’ Wanita McCoy, or ‘Scorpio’ as she’s known with the team, works with the forwards while Elms focuses more on the backs.

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Morehouse traveled down to Tallahassee, Fla., in 2014 for the self-coined HBCU Rugby Bowl, a one-off match with the now-defunct Florida A&M University team. The idea was to bring more attention to HBCUs playing rugby, which would eventually lead to a more robust league of HBCUs. Florida A&M also hosted a small invitational sevens tournament in 2015, but was unable to continue drawing the necessary numbers for a program.

In addition to alumni donations, House Rugby has benefitted greatly from a partnership with Penn Mutual, NSCRO’s title sponsor. Not only has the firm provided equipment like ruck shields, balls, and kicking tees, it has also sought to enhance the students’ financial knowledge, offering seminars to Economics majors and other members of the club.

“They wanted to come in and give the team a talk on financial literacy, and talk about an internship for the guys that are Economics or Business majors,” Elms said. “My flanker, a Business and Marketing major, told the department chair about it, and she asked if she could bring the entire department. Now this poor guy’s on the hook for more pizza than he originally intended!

“But he’s really happy about it and the administration has taken note of that.”

Closer to inner-city Atlanta than the regions recognized as part of the “global city,” Morehouse is well-known for notable alumni Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, and Howard Thurman – among countless others. A portion of its mission statement reads:

The mission of Morehouse College is to develop men with disciplined minds to lead lives of leadership and service by emphasizing the intellectual and character development of its students . . .Morehouse College

More recently, Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the current president, said:

. . . a Morehouse Man is one who moves through the world with obvious competence and confidence, able at once to compete and work in the world that is, and yet imagine and work for the world that must yet be.Dr. Wilson Jr., Morehouse College President

The House Rugby players have followed their school’s values simply by playing and organizing rugby. This summer, members of the team will link up with Atlanta Youth Rugby for inner-city youth rugby camps. The primary goal was never to create a Morehouse rugby team that would focus on championships, but to instill rugby’s core values of discipline, integrity, passion, respect, and solidarity in a community that prides itself on similar principles.

As such, Morehouse has indeed taken notice of its rugby club. There is still no official sanctioning or direct support, but an institution annually ranked in the top five HBCUs in the country has seen the residual benefits of the program. Prospective students and student-athletes around the country are beginning to look at Morehouse as an HBCU option that now offers rugby.

“It’s a slow process,” Elms said. “They know who we are, and that we’re not just a bunch of fly-by-night people. I leveraged the College’s mission statement against the university; I’m doing the exact same thing through what USA Rugby’s telling us to do. I’m teaching them fraternity, teamwork, grit, determination; everything you’d think to get out of it, and they’re going to be better Morehouse Men by being Morehouse rugby players.

“They know there are eyes coming to the school. The administration likes the fact they’re diversifying athletically outside of basketball and football. Morehouse considers itself in a higher-tier educational category, and things like lacrosse and rugby show students the diversity of things they can do when they come onto campus.”

The diversity and inclusion initiative is not lost on House Rugby, either. While an HBCU is predominantly populated by African-American or black students, Morehouse is still the only all-male HBCU to start a rugby club. The plan is to encourage more HBCUs to offer rugby to students to pass on the values of the game and provide a fresh alternative to America’s major sports.

Elms, a volunteer with House Rugby yet an active member of the Morehouse community, knows it takes more than rugby-mad people to make a club work. It is imperative, however, to have an impassioned employee at the school supporting the program to assist in aligning it with the Athletics department and on-campus facilities.

“I don’t know if this will be a forever-passion project for me or not – I’ll keep it up as long as I can – but it requires somebody on campus,” Elms said. “It requires an administrator, secretary, teacher, somebody at the university who is super passionate about rugby and is willing to give up time and money to something that isn’t giving money to them to be able to do it. Not all HBCUs are in the same situation as being as established a university as Morehouse is, either.

Getting to know them and to appreciate the diversity of their background, geographically, but also their rugby experience – they really sucked me in and made me become fans of them, the program they’re trying to start, the school, and what the school’s trying to accomplish outside of rugby.

“I’m desperate to get an HBCU competition off the ground. If there was an HBCU bracket that ended up producing a champion that got to play against a Life or Saint Mary’s, that would be amazing. How quickly would the U.S. get behind an HBCU team? It’s like playing a game in Boston and all the Irish people come out; you have an inset community of people that want to be fans.”

USA Rugby celebrates the work of Morehouse’s rugby club and the surrounding community, as well as the HBCU rugby initiative. A game for all, rugby should be shared and valued on every post-secondary educational campus nationwide without limitation.