Friday Night Lights will take on an entirely different meaning this Friday in Memphis. Spotlights will shine brightly not onto young men running about football fields but onto a group of young women who have run about open fields playing rugby. Their skills have grown at such extraordinary speed that in just two years they have gone from never having carried a ball to, as members of the Freedom Preparatory Academy Charter School (Freedom Prep) team, winning the Rugby Sevens State Championship. They will be honored, alongside their male peers, at a fundraiser this evening for “winning the first ever Tennessee State Championship in Memphis Inner City Rugby history!” Concurrently, spotlights will shine on set as production gets underway for a documentary short, led by an award-winning, female director/producer team, detailing the lives of these young women from predominantly low-income and working-class neighborhoods who are mastering a sport traditionally played by members of the middle and upper classes.
Memphis Inner City Rugby (MICR) Chairman of the Board Michael Deutsch remembers reading an article about the nonprofit’s beginnings and subsequently attending a game between Christian Brothers High School and Power Center Academy, where he met MICR founders Shane Young and Devin O’Brien. “What can I do [to help]?” he asked, with memories of his tenure as Head Lacrosse Coach at Christian Brothers High School flooding his mind. He understood what it would take to grow a competitive team, having done so in the early 1990’s at CBHS with a newly-formed program that won a state championship within five years.
Deutsch saw the disparity on the field that day between the CBHS and Power Center teams, with one having an abundance of support (a sea of purple in the stands), uniforms, and supplies while the other had players swap jerseys when they were substituted into the game. Now, through the generosity of numerous businesses and organizations such as lululemon, Agape North, Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, and GrizzFit to name a few, the disparity is drastically smaller. These Memphis student-athletes, these young women of rugby, are giving national and international teams a run for their money. For Deutsch, their phenomenal growth in such a short amount of time caused him to shift gears a bit: “I’ve done a lot of nonprofit work in Memphis and stepped away from others to focus on this one.” The investment into MICR by everyone involved is yielding, I believe, far more of a return than anyone may have anticipated.
Besides state championships, the young women (and men!) are earning college scholarships and traveling throughout the United States to play against- and with- fellow rugby players who are considered the best in the world. Eleven MICR players traveled to the Las Vegas Invitational this year, with nine never having flown on a plane before. Freedom Prep players Erica Cathey and Selena Jones earned two of the twenty-four spots on national rugby team Atlantis, joining players from nine other states and England to become this year’s High School Elite 7’s champion.
“Rugby means the world to me. Ever since I’ve gotten introduced to rugby it has changed my life. Besides academics I hope to exceed in it. Rugby is a big prime factor in my life that I wish to continue as I get older. Rugby gives me hope and hopefulness to a better future.” – Erica Cathey
The same hope Cathey feels as a rugby player is the same hope I felt during my years as a high school distance runner. Sports changed my life. When Deutsch expressed that MICR’s coaches and board members are an extension of family for the players, his words resonated with me because my high school track coach remains, even today, a father figure in my life. For many of us it is because of the sports we took up and their respective coaches that our academics flourished even when life’s pressures were taking their toll.
Embedded in the mission of MICR is a desire to give its athletes the opportunity to be leaders on the field, create more collegiate opportunities for them, and to do so in a safe, reliable, and consistent environment. “We want to be the spark in a neighborhood that needs spark,” shares Deutsch.
And from spark to spotlight, lives are being invigorated by a sport founded across the pond but quickly gaining momentum in a city on the river.
For more information about MICR, please visit www.memphisinnercityrugby.org
MICR was a 2016 SPARK Award honoree.
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