After a short-lived athletic career in high school, I came to Oberlin knowing I wouldn’t be playing a sport. I routinely played pick-up basketball the summer before arriving at Oberlin in 2014, so I thought I’d be able to continue hooping. In fact, a couple friends and I decided to join forces and enter Oberlin’s intramural basketball league that fall semester. But I never imagined playing any other sport here.
I lived in Kahn Hall my first year. I got many eye rolls whenever I said that because Kahn is considered one of the nicest dorms to live in on campus since it is the newest living space that provides residents with A/C but not everyone got to live there. During orientation week, I was headed to the gym to play pick-up, but found a group of young men (some who I met early in orientation) laughing together and tossing a ball around in North Quad. Phil, a senior then, kicked what looked like a football, but it was shaped differently and was slightly larger. Is this some sort of sport? I thought. Then I remembered that another Oberlin student told me that there would be a rugby practice happening that day to recruit first-years to join the team.
“Come play with us,” one of the players said loudly. I realized I was awkwardly staring at them practicing too long to not stop and join them. I grabbed the ball closest to me and couldn’t figure out how to toss it, but I tried it. “Good pass! You’re a natural,” they said. The ball ricocheted on the ground. I knew this tactic. They affirmed that the pass was a “good” one even when it wasn’t because they wanted me to join. Their tactic worked, and I stayed for the remainder of practice. We even played a game of touch rugby with slight contact. It was fun. But I had no knowledge of the rules and norms of the game. I didn’t grow up with rugby. Basketball and football were the sports I was most familiar with.
“You should join rugby. We’re a club sports team, the commitment is not the same as varsity,” said one of the second-years on the team. Tempting, I thought. But I told them I’d consider it. At the end of that practice, I went to the gym to see if the guys I had originally scheduled to play pick-up with were still there. I also never went to another rugby practice that semester.
Some time had passed-- a full semester actually. After winter term break, I ended up giving rugby another try. Some guys on the team kept asking me to join the team. It was a chilly Saturday afternoon and next thing I knew, I was suiting up for the game. I didn’t have cleats for that game. The last pair of cleats I owned were in my last football season during my junior year of high school. Luckily, a senior on the rugby team lent me a pair he wore once that season before injuring his ankle. I didn’t play much the first half. This was a relief. I had no idea how to even play, so I was fine with cheering the team from the sidelines. Then the second half of the match came. “Come on the field!” a new teammate of mine shouted. With rattling knees and a rapid heartbeat, I managed to pull myself together and run out into the field. I had no idea where to position myself, but the seniors on the team directed me to the spot I was filling in. The whistle blew, the ball was kicked to the opposing team, and I ran down the field full speed. I tried to tackle the player on the opposing team who caught the ball, but foolishly missed. “Get up,” I told myself. We got the ball back from a turnover a couple plays after. I set up a pod, was handed the ball, and BAM. A rival player hit me, HARD, and then laughed. Phil, the senior on the team, picked me up and said, “Don’t worry, I got your back.” Next play, he sets up a pod, gets the ball, and trucks the player who just hit me. We got the last laugh. More notably, in this moment, a brotherhood initiated for me.
Being from Chicago exposed me to gang vendettas and violence that was prevalent in my neighborhood. I formed a strong brotherhood with my high school friends and ensured that we would protect each other from such gang influence. Oberlin, being a small city in Northeast Ohio, was different. I didn’t think I’d find friendships where we looked out for one another like the ones I fostered back in Chicago. When the senior rugby player told me he had my back, I remembered the other times I’ve heard those words at home. I recalled the sense of safety and belonging I felt when I heard those words. Because of this, it was no accident that I gravitated towards the team more. I felt more comfortable being a part of the team where I knew my fellow Gruffs were looking out for me, both on and off the pitch.
Much to my surprise, I became a club sports rugby athlete. Who would've ever imagined? Sports became a part of my life again. Two weeks ago, I played in my last rugby game with the Oberlin College Men's Billy Goat Gruffs. I guess you just never know what’ll happen or what you will be involved in once you come to Oberlin.