Sports play a common role in youth development across America. In inner-city America, those sports typically have a traditional look along the lines of basketball and football leagues.
But in Memphis there is a movement to bring nontraditional sports to the city’s youth in the form of rugby and golf.
Growing up in New Jersey, Shane Young was like many typical 10-year-old American boys who played a variety of sports. Only in addition to the traditional sports, his father signed him up for flag rugby.
It turns out Young was pretty good. He loved the inclusivity of a sport that saw everyone get the ball. He had success in high school and at college at Florida Gulf Coast University, even playing on a U.S. team.
Young found his way to Memphis with Teach for America. It was during teacher training in the summer of 2012 that he met Devin O’Brien, and the two decided to start a rugby team. Young taught second grade and O’Brien was placed at Kingsbury High School. So the two launched a rugby team at Kingsbury, and what eventually became known as Memphis Inner City Rugby that now has boys and girls teams at three Memphis charter schools.
Young said rugby had an outstanding effect on classroom achievement for the students who came out to play.
“We implemented a valued-based coaching model,” Young said. “Every drill and strategy we talk about our four core values of respect, discipline, grit and leadership. We found creative ways to get kids thinking about those values in everything they did. And the reason it worked so well is the sport is brand new. Everyone is an open canvas. It’s a physically demanding sport with elegant rules.”
But while it was successful at Kingsbury, Young said they realized students there already had athletic outlets with other sports, whether football, basketball, track or soccer. They saw an opportunity at charter schools where smaller enrollment numbers make fielding a football team, for example, difficult.
“We realized there must be hundreds and hundreds of kids who go to charter schools and they could use an outlet like this,” Young said.
It first launched at Power Center Academy where Young continues as coach. There now are boys and girls teams at Power Center, Freedom Preparatory Academy and Soulsville Charter School. The schools serve the kids in the surrounding community. Whitehaven students, for example, play on the Freedom Prep team.
The majority of the students in the program’s target demographic areas are African-American. A small percentage is Latino. The Memphis Inner City Rugby teams play other high schools such as White Station, Christian Brothers, Germantown and Brighton. The program serves students the full year. The fall league is 7-on-7 and the spring is 15-on-15.
It’s not just a club or after-school activity that gives students something to do. Many of the participants have found lasting success in the sport. Since 2014 when the program’s first seniors began to graduate high school, its athletes have earned more than $4 million in college scholarship offers. There currently are 10 alumni playing college rugby, four of whom do so on college rugby scholarships.
Young said the sport is growing nationally with more colleges adding programs and increased TV coverage. The Memphis league has gained prominence with David Darg’s “The Rugby Boys of Memphis,” a short documentary that tells the story of Memphis Inner City Rugby player Calvin Gentry who went from being a Power Center Academy student to rugby player at Arkansas State University. The film was chosen for this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Young said his organization does fight against safety concerns. Parents who don’t know the sport often voice concerns about the lack of pads, like in football.
“It is physical but we take a lot of pride in exposing parents and students to the truth of rugby,” he said. “It’s governed by laws designed to make it safer. You have to wrap up and tackle below chest level. Stats show rugby is safer, especially regarding head injuries. The lack of pads force you to play the game with regard for your own safety. You have to protect yourself.”
Young said the organization sees plenty of potential to grow, but it depends on capacity and money. It has served the communities it works in on a complete volunteer basis. Young is executive director and a coach, but he’s also a full-time teacher. The immediate goal is to hire a full-time director.
A secondary goal is expansion to serve middle schools that will create a pipeline for the high schools. And a third goal is to influence other cities to focus on urban communities.
In fact, Memphis Inner City Rugby has helped urban rugby programs start in Baltimore and Dallas.
“We’ve had people reach out to us to find out how we’re doing this, paying for it and building relationships with schools,” Young said. “Once we achieve sustainability here in Memphis and not fighting for every penny we get we’ll be well positioned to grow.”
There are a couple of ways the public can help Memphis Inner City Rugby’s work. All proceeds from an online store go to the organization to help pay for gear and other items such as liability insurance.
Memphis Inner City Rugby also recently launched Five for Five, a campaign in the organization’s fifth year of service that is looking for five donors who can raise $5,000 to help launch five new programs next year.
The First Tee of Memphis introduces students to golf. The focus isn’t just on the inner city, although 40 percent of the participants in First Tee of Memphis are inner-city kids.
First Tee is open to all Memphis-area children ages 5 to 18, whether in Memphis, the suburbs, West Memphis or North Mississippi. The organization teaches life skills through the game of golf for separate boys and girls sessions.
Weekly lessons are centered on one or two of the nine core values: responsibility, sportsmanship, perseverance, confidence, judgement, integrity, respect, courtesy and understanding.
“Every lesson we have one or two of those core values that are stressed,” said Nyrone Hawkins, executive director of The First Tee of Memphis. “We teach that core value through golf. A young person at 7 and for these next 11 years they learn these values. The chances are slim that we turn a kid into a pro golfer but we’ll turn them into a great adult. Our job is to assist in giving them the skills to be successful in life.”
The First Tee of Memphis started in 1991 as the Mid-South Junior Golf Association at Pine Hill Golf Course. It became a part of the national First Tee organization in 2001. It had 435 participants in the three sessions last year.
The First Tee of Memphis operates at the former Firestone tire plant in North Memphis where they have a 450-yard driving range with nine target lanes, a 20,000-square-foot short putting green and a 10,000-square-foot bunker green.
The First Tee of Memphis is set up to provide programming during the spring, summer and fall. In theory a participant can spend 21 weekends out of the year learning life skills and golf at First Tee.
Sessions are held once a week. The spring session began March 25 and runs on Saturday mornings for seven weeks. Students participate on different levels, but it’s not based on golf ability. An experienced golfer who is new to the program still starts at the introductory player level. That’s because they must learn the life skills.
Players take a written life skills and golf knowledge test to advance to the next level, called Par. Further advancement also requires a golf skills test in addition to the life skills and golf knowledge tests.
“You get a kid who is exceptional in school and they don’t pass the test. They’re devastated,” Hawkins said. “That’s when we talk about perseverance. That’s where we let them know golf is a game and you have to persevere. As they move up in levels there are life skills built in each lesson that are age appropriate. At the Par level we have a term called personal par where we teach kids to set a personal par. It might be to get up when the alarm goes off and not hit snooze, or make a better grade in school.”
No matter the focus of a specific session, it always starts with participants introducing themselves, shaking hands and articulating their name properly. That introduction to communications might seem simple but it serves a purpose.
“What you find is a kid who naturally is shy that part of the program is what they hate but by week five that’s the part they look to,” Hawkins said. “They come out of their shell. That helps them build relationships outside school, church and home.”
Relationships are at the core of what helps the program maintain a 74 percent retention rate.
“That’s how we keep kids in the program,” Hawkins said. “Golf isn’t a sport where one session you become Tiger Woods. But because you built relationships with other kids your age you want to keep coming back.”
The cost is $55 per student for the seven-week session that includes up to two hours every Saturday. About 40 percent of the participants are exempt from paying because of financial hardship. The organization doesn’t turn anyone away.
There are a variety of ways for the community to help First Tee’s work. Some parents actually pay more than the $55 amount to help cover costs of other participants. The Friends of First Tee program allows parents and participants to get others to make $10 donations.
Nike sponsors the organization, giving a branded hat, shirt and glove to each kid. First Tee also builds a custom set of golf clubs for participants for a $40 donation. That cost is covered for exempt participants.
The public can help the program by sponsoring participants. It costs $110 to sponsor two kids.