When Mark Burke first introduced his students to rugby, there wasn’t a whole lot of interest.
“It took a while to get the kids interested in rugby since none had seen a rugby match in person or played before,” the D.C.-area Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD) athletic director and coach said.
However, when Burke saw neighboring charter school, Perry Street Prep (formerly Hyde School), playing rugby, he knew his students were capable.
Perry Street Prep Athletic Director and Coach Tal Bayer agreed. “MSSD is a wonderful school with a great bunch of kids that bring such a passion and zeal to sports and their school,” he said. MSSD and Perry Street Prep already competed in football, basketball and wrestling in what Bayer called a “hotly contested but friendly rivalry.”
“The opportunity to meet them on the rugby field has added to the rivalry but also provided the camaraderie that is so intrinsic to rugby in this country,” Bayer said.
Burke and Bayer partnered the two schools together to host a sevens rugby tournament in the spring of 2009 and they prepared the boys by hosting joint practices. The Perry Street Prep players were eager to teach the MSSD players the game. However, communication was an issue.
Learning rugby terminology was an added challenge for the players because there are not established American Sign Language (ASL) signs for the words. This presented the group with a unique linguistics opportunity. The players and coaches were able to create their own signs for rugby terminology in a way that made sense to them.
“Signs are made up through community,” Burke said. “As more players come through our rugby program, graduate and continue playing rugby in college or on the senior club level, the signs will continue to spread.”
The MSSD boys also looked to the Internet and YouTube for additional rugby information and demonstrations. With signs in place and help from Bayer and the Perry Street Prep students, MSSD picked up the game quickly. In fact, according to Bayer, they picked it up a little too quickly.
“Through interpreters, body language and demonstrations, and the passion of Mark and his players, it went very smoothly,” Bayer said, “Too smoothly because they beat us in their first sevens match several months later.
“Seeing that spark in their eyes when they played their first game, their fellow students coming out and cheering them on from the sideline and the excitement and celebration that ensued when they scored their first try was extremely rewarding, even though they scored against my team,” Bayer said.
The fast pace that the boys learned the game was a challenge for Burke.
“I had very limited experience in rugby, as I had only played for a few years for the Frederick Rugby Club after college,” Burke explained. “Our boys were picking up the game quickly and I did not know of any Deaf rugby players or coaches who could help me. I had to rely on coaching books, the Internet, YouTube and the USA Rugby website.”
But he has been supported by the entire rugby community along the way in addition to Bayer and Perry Street Prep.
“I was fortunate to have Roberto Santiago as an assistant coach who was a rugby guy, having played, coached and refereed,” Burke said. “As an added bonus, he is fluent in ASL.”
Santiago joined the staff in the spring of 2012. “Having Roberto with us helped elevate my coaching knowledge, as I really learned a lot from him,” Burke said.
The MSSD boys have continued to improve and enjoy the game. Burke feels the group’s biggest accomplishment is that the program is still going strong four years later. MSSD has played both sevens and fifteens rugby against neighboring schools and club teams. Two recent graduates will be playing rugby at the Rochester Institute of Technology this fall. Other MSSD alumni will join the newly formed All Deaf Rugby Football Club.
While Burke, Bayer, and the players have had success growing the rugby program at MSSD, they are still trailblazers when it comes to Deaf rugby in the United States.
“Our kids are really proud, knowing that they are the only Deaf high school rugby club in the States,” Burke said. However, they want to continue growing Deaf rugby around the country and the world.
“With the growth of rugby we’re seeing in the States, I liken it to what I saw with soccer here 30 years ago,” Burke said. “The explosion of rugby sevens and the sport being in the 2016 Olympics will definitely help. I feel that more and more people in the Deaf community will eventually pick up the sport, but we need to keep developing players through our program.
“Rugby is a great sport, as it’s very engaging and the Deaf can excel due to the knack of having better vision or feel of the flow of the game.”
Burke encourages schools and athletic directors who are interested in establishing a Deaf rugby team to seek assistance from local rugby clubs. Bayer noted that the challenges aren’t much different than starting any other program in any other school or community.
“It is always a challenge convincing the administration that the kids will love it,” Bayer said. And like his students, most rugby players are willing help teach the game.
Bayer said one of the principle philosophies of Perry Street Prep is leaving something better than you found it. “When applied to rugby, this meant giving back and growing our game,” he said.
According to Burke, the MSSD players are thinking big.
“Some of our kids dream of putting on a USA Deaf National Team jersey and playing in the Deaf Rugby World Championship.”
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