By MICHAEL FIELD - Fairfax Media | Sunday, 23 November 2008
America's All Blacks
It was a long bus trip back from a weekend camp for the two rugby teams aboard: one white, the other African-American. They stopped at a convenience store and one of the black kids looked at the newspaper rack to see a report on the murder of his best friend.
Audio: Hyde's rugby
Audio: Girl's rugby
Audio: Racism in rugby
Video: The NY Times documentary
A fat white biker came through the door.
"What the fuck are these crows doing in here?" he barked out.
Tal Bayer, teacher and rugby missionary, says he is no brawler but if somebody wanted a fight "I didn't mind finishing them."
His inclination was to head-butt the guy but Bayer had devoted his life to teaching rugby values and didn't want to suddenly losing them in front of his team because of some idiot.
The boys, he told the biker, were his team and he walked out.
"At that moment I knew I grew up."
And the boy reading the paper, that was Patrick "PJ" Komongnan and rugby was changing his troubled life.
This week the story of Hyde Leadership Public Charter School, has been on front pages as the first US all-African-American high school rugby team. Buried in the text is the extraordinary story of the New Zealand connection.
Bayer, 38, discovered rugby as a military brat when his father was posted to England. In the US he began a career in business but tossed it in to teach at Hyde, then opening on T Street, north east of Capitol Hill in Washington DC.
"Sometimes I come to class with a black eye or a split lip, and that sure gets the kids asking questions, like, ‘have you been mugged?'" Bayer said in an interview.
It was a rugby injury, he'd reply.
About all the students knew of rugby was that it was a white man's game. Bayer told them about the All Blacks. They misunderstood and Bayer admits using the confusion.
He showed them a scratchy video - "a copy of a copy of a copy" - of Jonah Lomu charging down the wing in the 1995 World Cup semi, crushing Englishmen left and right.
They were sold and Hyde is now the first US all-African-American high school rugby team.
Five years ago, as Bayer puts it, "three white guys in suits" showed up at Hyde.
They'd crossed from the glamorous side of DC: they were from the New Zealand Embassy.
They were looking for a ground to host a new rugby competition, the Ambassador's Shield pitting embassy selected expatriates against a Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union team.
John Woods was then ambassador.
"Just accidentally we discovered there was this high school in DC which had a rugby programme and a field ... a field that was pretty run down but it was a rugby field," Woods said.
"It is a tough tough environment."
Renting the ground began a relationship between Hyde "The Pride" and the Embassy that has turned into a deep friendship with the shield match raising US$10,000-$15,000 a year for the school.
The school administration liked rugby as its cheaper than gridiron and produces fewer injuries.
Some families have taken some convincing as 15-year-old scrumhalf Salim Lancaster puts it.
"They thought I was crazy when they said I was playing rugby. Their eyes got big and they said are you crazy? Now I have played it and I just can't stop....
"Rugby is a fun sport. Everyone comes together, joins as a family, that's what I like about rugby.... We all play as a team, its not a one man sport and if you play as team you win games."
At first Hyde's rugby was a bit like rugby's origins.
"It was a mess, no passing, just a lot of wrestling, mauling and mayhem as we tried not to knock ourselves out...."
Washington's Metro Area Varsity Rugby Conference involves mainly private white schools. Hyde joined.
"That first year was a rough one," Bayer says.
"We lost 12 games and must have had 800-900 points scored against us."
PJ was a really tough kid who had been tossed out of schools and once had been handcuffed and led out.
He threw broken glass on the rugby ground and when confronted he said he did not care as no one could ever tackle him.
He was made to pick up the glass and then show his skill.
"He ran over my kids, he ran through them, around them. We couldn't stop him. So at the end I said, ‘tomorrow you're going to play rugby with us.'"
Last year PJ played for the US Eagles at the Wellington Sevens and the tough kid's story isn't yet over.
Much of the school knows death up close. One of their props was shot in the head and killed. PJ's friend was murdered.
One day there was a body on the school grounds. Bayer, who says he knows a bit about life, found it hard to take. The students thought little of it.
"That was, to me, when I really began to understand how different it is here....
"I bet if I asked the question, ‘how many of you know somebody directly in your family, or a very close friend, that has been killed?' You're probably going to get 80 to 90 per cent of kids here who will raise their hands."
Hyde's rugby motto is "Step Aside for the Pride". That's pride of lions and reflects a big part of Hyde's programme of family renewal.
"We also consider our school, teams and classes families unto themselves. In addition, we are trying to instill a sense of pride into all of our students."
Hyde is an alternative to DC's troubled public school system. For some, Hyde is their last chance. Fifty percent of male African-Americans in Washington never graduate high school; 100 percent of Hyde's students go on to college.
Bayer says rugby was crucially different for its values; playing vigorously on the field and joining the opponents after to share.
"The kids used to get really wide-eyed when we'd tell them we were going to have a burger with the other team after the game."
Bayer likes the way rugby lets all the students get a run.
"All of them have an opportunity to run the ball, tackle and different things and they are not pigeon holed and stuck into being linemen in gridiron, or if they play basketball they might get cut because they are too short or fat. In rugby there is a position for every sized kid."
Two years ago a girl told Bayer they wanted rugby and he told her if she got enough signatures he'd find them a coach. Four hours later he had 45 names from a school of 110 girls.
Bayer found a coach; PJ.
"That was kind of cool, to see the alumni coming back and while he is still going through college."
Then there is that link with New Zealand, something Bayer says is "almost indescribable how important it has become to the programme."
As well as using money raised from the annual Shield game, the school has been able to meet the All Black Sevens, talk and swap shirts. They meet New Zealanders, Fijians, Samoans, Tongans and some odd Australians or two.
"It's awesome for them to learn more about the world."
It's not a one way thing. Hyde go to the Embassy's annual shield barbeque. A player's mother went with them last week and told Bayer that she was blown away by the experience.
He told her that he was proud to have taken the players there, for the impact they had on "the kiwis".
"You've got to understand how much of an impact these kids are having on the embassy folk," he said.
"These guys do much to dispel wrong notions of African-Americans."
Current Ambassador Roy Ferguson said it was a priceless opportunity for them, noting that this year Congress Democrat majority whip leader James E Clyburn and the entire board of US Rugby came along.
"(Clyburn) had never seen a game of rugby in his life but he was very impressed because he had heard through his staff what a difference this game and the discipline it had bought to the lives of these inner city guys," Ferguson said.
The congressmen spoke to the Hyde boys at the embassy.
"That was particularly moving. He basically said to these young guys, look you can be anything you want to be if you just set your mind on it in this country. ‘Look at me, I am the most senior African-American in Congress' and he has become a real friend of New Zealand."
Ferguson said it was hard to convey how tough an environment Hyde was in.
The cost of the shield function did raise questions about value for taxpayers, Ferguson said while noting the contacts and attention it was gaining.
"I think it conveys the sort of image of New Zealand that I feel comfortable with, a country that does care about other people and does want to do its bit to assist in what ever way it can."
Woods started the Shield in 1996, wanting to leverage off what he calls the most successful sports team in world sport history.
"Americans appreciate that...
"It is an opportunity to promote us, promote rugby for our own national self interest and to introduce those special characteristics to the United States."
They did not get Wellington's permission: "I am not sure where we cobbled the seed money from, we will draw a veil over it."
He was hard headed as well, wanting to use rugby for New Zealand's gain.
"You are always looking out for some competitive advantage that you've got as a country in the capital of the world's only super-power to advance your interests. This in a modest way, but I think a quite effective way, is one of them."
It would not have worked without Bayer.
"Somebody who devotes himself to that kind of endeavour is a great man."
Bayer's rugby heroes include Christian Cullen and Lomu. Students are a little more up to date.
"They love Tana Umaga, I think it's a hair thing."
Salim Lancaster likes Dan Carter and admires Joe Rokocoko.
Bayer thinks deeply over this; has rugby saved lives?
"It has definitely saved some kids in terms of their decisions where their lives make take them."
Without rugby, many students would have given up.
PJ was one.
"He has often said the only thing that has kept me in this building was the game."
Life and value began to make sense, in the frame work of being in the team.
"Rugby is merely a vehicle to teach them values...."
In a first, the New York Times put a rugby scrum picture on its print front-page over the headline "A rugby scrum, knocking down barriers".
The New York Times said the school loved the international atmosphere and quoted a school senior, Mathew Brown, providing the ultimate seal of approval, saying, "Those Samoans are ballers," he said of one New Zealand player of Samoan playing the shield.
"While diplomats and representatives from USA Rugby sipped cocktails and mingled, the Hyde players escaped the formalities and gathered outside," the Times' Will Bardenwerper wrote. "One of them found a rugby ball. Before long, he was teaching youngsters how to play on the moonlit lawn."