A CUP professor has taught the sport to nearly 700 kids since 1995.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Many are among the riskiest of society's at-risk children, coming from broken, single-parent or barely held-together homes. Trouble often is only a phone call or a knock on the door away, and the person they turn to for support may not always be a parent or a trusted adult.
Yet there they are several times a week, running, laughing and exerting themselves on hardscrabble playgrounds as coarse and rough as some of their neighborhoods or, incongruously, at a suburban ministadium as lush as those used by professional teams.
What unites them is a very nontraditional sport, seemingly out of place in the inner city.
Call this at-risk rugby -- a sport born two centuries ago of English blue bloods that now is helping disadvantaged city kids learn not only a fun-to-play quirky game but also respect for their teammates, their coaches and, in many cases, themselves.
"Rugby has a real tradition of respect," said Sean Madden, a California University of Pennsylvania history professor who has taught the sport to nearly 700 Pittsburgh-area youngsters since 1995. "All the kids must learn the rules: School matters, there's no profanity, no hassling of other players. You never address the referee, the coach [to complain]. And the kids buy into it -- once they're into it, they start correcting each other."
Pittsburgh's rugby program is run by the elite-level Harlequins club team for girls and boys ages 8-14 in the Homewood, Stowe Township-McKees Rocks, Garfield, Hazelwood and Braddock neighborhoods, and many go on to play at the three local high schools with rugby teams.
The Harlequins are mostly former college athletes in their late 20s who play at the top, non-professional American tier of the sport. But to play, they must donate their time to the youth program, and all 70-plus players do.
At first, many of the youngsters they're attempting to tutor are disinterested in a sport many have never seen before -- "We've got to recruit our butts off," Madden said -- but, once they try it, they often get hooked and can't wait to play more.
The sport combines the running and athleticism of soccer with the physicality of football -- though that's toned down for the younger age groups -- and the teamwork of basketball. It allows players with modest abilities to compete with the superbly skilled -- in a rugby scrum, where all players on a team link arms in an attempt to control the ball, luck and timing can be as important as pure talent.
"The kids like the freshness of it," Madden said. "In baseball, everybody in the neighborhood immediately knows the good players and the bad players. In rugby, our kids get to play as much as they want. Every kid gets to run, pass, throw, kick and catch, and nobody sits on the bench."
Brandon Briscoe, 9, began playing on the team in April, after learning about it from his cousin.
"I like football a little bit, but I like rugby better. I think rugby's better because you always play with your friends and you get to meet other people and you get medals," Briscoe said.
The youngsters also like playing games at the $1.4 million stadium in suburban Indiana Township, Founders Field, that is considered the finest rugby pitch in the United States. After raising the first $30,000 for the stadium among themselves, the Harlequins lobbied corporations, foundations and other groups for the money, promising the youth teams would always be given first preference on playing dates.
And it's the kids who most concern Madden, who copes daily with multiple rewards and setbacks. When a former player who's made it to college comes back to watch a game, it's very satisfying. At other times, such as when police arrived this month during practice to arrest a 14-year-old on a charge not related to his rugby team involvement, it can be hugely frustrating.
"It's fun beyond belief -- when it clicks," Madden said. "Some of the kids are at risk, some have a lot going for them. For the coaches, you're trying to feel like you make a difference, but you can get fried. We're not Mother Teresa. We're a mentoring organization that's trying to build camaraderie and sportsmanship."