written by Steve Van Auken and photography by Ashley Kouri
The children and parents file in quietly. They stand uncertainly along the sideline of the gym. They glance over at the large man who is pumping-up what look like footballs on steroids.
The large man is Bob Perko. He and Cory Langenbeck greet all those arriving for the first practice of the second season of the Joeys, the boys and girls club of the Greater Akron Rugby Association. As late-comers arrive at the Mason Park CLC, he observes, “They’re running on rugby time.” No one should expect to begin a full game this afternoon. “You got to get the basics down first. We’ll get into tackling at a higher level.”
The newcomers might have felt more at-home if this were the first day of baseball practice. Or football, or basketball. Sports they know something about. But the Joeys play rugby football. Not exactly a household name in Akron.
They don’t have long to worry. Langenbeck guides the young players into a circle. He shows them how to toss the funny-shaped ball: underhand, turned a bit, with a flick of the wrist. Soon twenty boys and girls are running up and down carrying, tossing, and dribbling. Among them, joyfully on the loose, dash younger brothers and sisters. Somehow, it all works.
First lesson learned: We’re here to play rugby, and we start now. We talk while we do. We learn to think on our feet.
And this: If you want to be a part of rugby, then you are. Whether you have played for years–as all of the Joeys coaches, and some of the parents have–or just wandered in the door.
Rugby, originally from England, has a proud history and is played all over the world. But why would kids in Akron want to learn a sport that they have never seen played anywhere?
Alecia Benninger is here with her two children. She played for the women’s side of the Akron Rugby Club for five years. She had enjoyed track and power-lifting. But she found something extra in rugby. “It’s the violent camaraderie.” She sees young rugby players growing in “self-confidence, independence, courage.”
James Dunchuck, a Joeys parent and coach, and a retired player, wants his son to have rugby’s “fellowship, camaraderie. It makes you feel important,” to have older players take an interest in you. “It’s a great group of people. There’s a community of a couple hundred,” women and men locally. As they age-out of their playing days, they find a role in coaching.
Cory Langenbeck didn’t get his start in rugby until he was 20. What he found made a deep impression. One that has lingered, even after an injury ended his playing days.
“It’s like a culture. You meet somebody who plays rugby, you just instantly get along. It’s like a club. Like all the good things of sports rolled-up into one. The speed of the problem-solving is awesome. There are so many options at every point.” Every player is a decision-maker.
This is a part of rugby that means a lot to Bob Perko. Built like a line-man, he enjoyed playing football in college. But his role on the field was limited. In rugby, “As a big guy, I do get the ball. I get to run with it,” and pass. Rugby includes “elements of other sports, football, basketball, wrestling. Ball-handling is important, not just colliding with others. There is anecdotal evidence that rugby players have less issues,” with concussion. Players don’t wear helmets or pads. “You maintain your feet, attempt to wrap-up,” the other player rather than fly through the air at him. Teamwork is key. “Everybody’s got to do their part or everything falls apart real quick.”
Rugby is known for one other thing. The camaraderie continues after the game. “The home side provides a meal. It’s not just, everybody goes their own way.” The crowd gets into the act as well. Fiercely partisan during the game, afterward the home crowd welcomes the visiting crowd. Everyone parties together. “It’s a really neat atmosphere.” Beer has been known to be involved. The Joeys enjoy their post-game meal with apple juice.
The sense of rugby as an international game is never far away. Watching the young players with a seasoned eye is an enormous man with a red beard. He is Nick Macey, coach of the men’s youth team for the country of Wales. He is in town to visit his father, but rugby beckons. He says he likes what he sees. “Akron is a gold-mine for rugby that hasn’t been discovered yet.”
When a player travels, chances are he can find a team. “Rugby in America,” according to Perko, “practices Tuesdays and Thursday.” A visitor is always welcome. Rugby transcends other boundaries. “The equality of it,” is a strength. Rugby is growing in popularity among women. “The rules, the equipment are the same. Rugby is still small in the U.S. but it’s growing.” For example, Notre Dame College now has a women’s program.
For young people, playing rugby builds skills that they can also use in other sports. And its intensity is unsurpassed. “There’s football fit. And then there’s rugby fit.”
The Joeys practice at Mason Part Community Center, at 700 E. Exchange St. in Akron. The Middlebury Revitalization Project sponsors them. Langenbeck notes, “There’s a real niche for anything for youth here. They’ve been very welcoming to us.” Too many neighborhood children have “nothing to do,” once school is out. Coaches provide “a positive, safe environment” for kids while “learning this awesome game. The more kids can be out, interacting, the better. The kids have been loving it.”
On a blustery day in April the Joeys gathered for their first outdoor practice. The wind still carried hints of winter but no one took much notice. Soon twenty players were on the move, running, throwing, and making “tackles,” which at this level involve pulling a flag off another player’s belt.
There was exercise going on, most definitely, and teaching and learning. But if all you had to go by was the shining faces of the players, you would just say that there was a whole lot of fun.
The Joeys club trains boys and girls, beginning at age six. They play on the same team until they turn thirteen. They can be found at akronjoeys.org. There is no fee to join. New players can join the team at any point in the season.