Rugby inspires LA’s inner city youth

LOS ANGELES – It’s a hot, winter
afternoon at Jesse Owens Park in South Los Angeles and Taylor Johnson
has returned from the Ivy League to give back to her ICEF brothers and
sisters.

Hot isn’t a descriptive word that comes to mind when you
think of winter. But this is Los Angeles, the place non-Angelenos swear
there’s only three seasons a year instead of the customary four –
Lakers season, Dodgers season and summer year-round.

Nevermind
the whole hot and winter thing, what’s even rarer is the sight on the
green grass at Jesse Owens Park on this day. There is an elementary flag
rugby tournament taking place on two parallel fields and about 100
yards away the ICEF middle school girls team is practicing.

Rugby? Here, in South Los Angeles?

The
flag tournament is the first of its kind and the idea of Johnson coming
into fruition right before her eyes. Bringing rugby to the inner city
is the brain child of ICEF Rugby Director Stuart Krohn, a
self-proclaimed “rugby guy” a former UCSB All-American who played
professionally in France, South Africa, New Zealand and Hong Kong during
a 13-year career.

ICEF (Inner City Education Foundation) public
schools are a group of 14 schools grades K-12, where 82 percent of the
students are African American, 16 percent are Hispanic and 80 percent of
students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch, according to
the school’s website. Students throughout the ICEF schools combine to make up the ICEF rugby program.

Krohn,
with a grant from LA84, decided 11 years ago that he wanted to bring
the sport he loves to those who ordinarily wouldn’t have tried it. He
had previous experience building a program at the French International
School in Hong Kong. He was also previously a head coach at Dartmouth.
This time, he figured he’d try to tackle South Los Angeles where, quite
frankly, most don’t know much of anything about the sport. 

“I
was like, what is this sport?” said junior Noah Trotter as he recalled
his first experience in the ICEF rugby program five years ago. “Who
tosses a ball sideways? Or kicks it like it’s soccer?”

As Kohn
tried to kick start the program, he came across Johnson, a sixth grader
at the time, and others who became pioneers of the program.

“(She’s) a first generation,” a proud Krohn says smiling in the direction of Johnson. “It’s amazing.

“I envisioned this.”

For Johnson, the game of rugby changed her life.

“This
gave me so much breadth of experience,” said Johnson, now a junior and
member of the Dartmouth rugby team. “I was kind of a geek and I wasn’t
into athletics until I started playing rugby (in the sixth grade) and
that really opened it up for me. When I’m in college thinking about what
I want to do on my break, coming back here was top of the list.

“Kids want to stand out. They want to feel special. Playing rugby, when no one else did, that was like ‘man, I’m cool.’”

Johnson
is one of three ICEF alums who currently attend Dartmouth, and there is
another at Brown. Some of the other four-year destinations of ICEF
alums include Cal, UCLA, and UC Riverside.  

Rugby has allowed students to stay out of trouble, learn a new sport, and travel the world.

The
boys and girls team went to New Zealand last year for a U16 tournament.
They were the only American team there but the boys were able to knock off
others from around the world and returned to the States with a
tournament championship.

The trip was filmed and made into an award-winning documentary, “Red
White Black & Blue.” The film depicts members of the ICEF rugby
program rising above their circumstances of growing up in the inner city
— dealing with stored up frustration, trying to break the family cycle
of crime and drugs — while learning togetherness and leadership
through rugby in a land where rugby is its national sport.

“Red White Black & Blue” won Best Documentary and Honorable Mention
for Best Director at the Idyllwild Cinema Fest in January. It received
the Canada International Film Festival’s 2013 Rising Star Award and is a
finalist in the Africa World Documentary Film Festival, which will have
screenings in the United States, United Kingdom, and Africa. Locally,
it was screened at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival in Los
Angeles last month.

Currently the program is on its 10th international trip, which is a
12-day event in China with stops in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong,
where the ICEF club will play in the Hong Kong Sevens tournament as well
as with and against the program Krohn started at the French
International School.

Earlier this year they participated in a tournament in Las Vegas, and
they’ve also gone to Africa and England to compete. Later this week,
they will head to China for a 12-day event in which they’ll visit
Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, where the ICEF club will play with and
against the program Krohn started at the French International School.

However, not just anyone can go. Obviously, you have to be skilled in the sport.

Students’
grades must be in order, fundraising is expected, and they are also
required to write an essay touching the topic: How will I benefit from
this trip?

In essence, rugby has become a tool for this group of
inner city youth. Doors have opened that previously were not thought
about by the students because of the sport.

“They grow because
this is new and at the beginning it’s very foreign,” said the CEO of
ICEF public schools, Parker Hudnut. “Particularly for those lucky enough
to go on these international trips, it’s exposing the world to them.” 

Johnson’s
life was changed when the Dartmouth women’s rugby team came to host a
clinic while she was in high school. She was hooked.

“I was a
10th grader and I was like ‘I’m going to go to Dartmouth,’” Johnson
recalled. “I definitely didn’t look at Dartmouth until the rugby
aspect.”

Krohn’s idea has not come without some strain. There was
a lot of pushback when he decided he wanted to bring rugby to South Los
Angeles.

“It’s hard to believe it’s going to come to fruition,
but this was the plan, to spread rugby in an inner city area,” he said.
“Whenever you try to go outside of the box, you’ve always got push.

“It
was actually about getting the right people, people that are tough,
like Taylor, so it was actually the girls, really, (who) got it going at
first. The boys played but the girls were more ready to go outside of
the box, where the boys were like ‘We play football. We play basketball.
We don’t play rugby,’ and they just watched and then they seen how cool
it was getting and once we started traveling. The star of the football
team actually came from rugby and then he became the star of the
football team and they were like ‘Hey!’”

The pushback hasn’t
completely subsided. You don’t hear young African Americans growing up
saying they want to be professional rugby players. The NFL or NBA are
usually the choice. Those that have taking a stand for rugby and
announced their love for it are looked at in a different light. It’s not
a popular choice. 

“(My relatives and friends) want me to be a
football player more than rugby but it’s my life and I get to choose
what I want,” said Trotter, who also plays football and runs track at
View Park, an ICEF-member school. “Rugby is what opened my heart more
and wanted to make me strive for more.”

Trotter intends to attend college at either UCLA or UC Santa Barbara and play rugby.

Krohn believes some of his current players will have a shot at the
2016 Olympics with rugby being reinstated for the Rio de Janeiro Games,
including 14-year-old phenom Nia Tolliver.

Tolliver, who plays
at View Point Prep High, is a rugby prodigy according to her coach, who
says her aggression makes her a perfect fit in the sport.

“I
played basketball but I always fouled out because I’m really a contact
person,” Tolliver told Intersections South LA. “I’m big.”
 
It’s a
large goal for some of these athletes like Tolliver, but the ICEF rugby
program didn’t make it this far without Krohn having big dreams.

It’s a hot, winter day in South Los Angeles and chances are, yes, inner city youth are playing rugby.