|MS/PS 279's extraordinary success on the rugby field (or court, as the case may be) has translated into academics as well. (Photo by F. Pinto)|
By Fausto Giovanny Pinto
In the concrete courtyard of PS/MS 279 in Morris Heights on a school day afternoon, coach Mike Rosario screamed at the Bronx’s most successful youth rugby team. “You already know!” he yelled. “Yes! Yes!” a varying range of pubescent middle school boys and girls yelled back, as two teams of five lined up for a drill.
Rosario tossed what looked like a bloated and misshapen football at the kids, who were all wearing what appeared to be oversized karate belts around their waists.
While the players went at each other, tossing the oblong ball at odd angles (never forward) amongst each other while defenders sought to strip them of their karate belts, local residents stopped at the school fences, curious and fascinated to see the foreign game of rugby being played by a group of mostly Hispanic youngsters.
“You get a lot of people from the neighborhood who stop and ask, ‘What’s going on?’ and when I tell them, they are like, ‘Rugby?’” said Rosario, a PE teacher at the school for 12 years now.
Yes, rugby. While many don’t associate the Bronx with rugby, PS/MS 279’s recent success is putting a spotlight on a sport that enjoys most of its popularity in countries like South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Rosario’s team recently won four trophies in two separate tournaments, prompting local Councilman Fernando Cabrera to honor them with a city proclamation.
|The MS/PS 279 rugby team with coach Mike Rosario (top left). (Photo by F.G. Pinto)|
The team originated four years ago when Rosario attended a Department of Education workshop looking to promote physical activity among middle school kids. (The Bronx has one of the state’s highest rates of obesity among young people.)
Rosario asked if there was anything more exotic he could bring back to his school. Workshop organizers informed him about an upstart program called, Play Rugby USA, which uses the tagline: “Developing youth through rugby.”
PS/MS 279 was the first Bronx school to participate in Play Rugby USA. At the team’s first tournament, they beat a veteran team and caught the attention of the tournament sponsor by performing the Haku, a war chant performed by the All Blacks professional rugby team of New Zealand.
The team practices in a small outdoor courtyard the size of a full-length basketball court, which is less than half the size of a normal rugby field. Rosario says training in the confined space has been an advantage. At tournaments, with much more space to play, the team dominates.
The co-ed team often competes against all-boys teams that are often quick to underestimate their female opponents.
“Being a girl, we prove the boys wrong [in their assumptions],” said Edna Valasquez an 8th grader who has played on the team for two years.
Aside from the glory of victory and weight loss, Rosario says there has been another other positive byproduct of the rugby program: improved academics.
Every team member must have a weekly tracking sheet that measures grades signed by all of their teachers. Those who fare poorly are not allowed to play.
Rashaan Graves, a 6th grader on the team, said he barely made it out of fifth grade with a 69 average. Since joining the team, he said his grades have improved and on his last report card he averaged a 91.
“My mom was crying because it was such a big change,” said Rashaan who attributed the gains to the discipline he learned playing rugby.
Because of its low cost and multiple benefits, MS/PS 279 Principal James Waslawski called the program “a principal’s dream.”
“It’s appealing in capturing the student interest,” he said. “We need more programs like this that can achieve all it has.”