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Head coach John Mitchell has handed out 35 new caps in 2016, a remarkable amount by any measure. Those filling them have come from many places – 7s guys taking their first real crack at international 15s, recent college stars making the step up, and even some previously unearthed U.S.-qualified overseas professionals.
But for one of this year’s debutants, at least, the seminal accomplishment of pulling on his country’s jersey for a full international for the first time has been the culmination of years of toiling and grinding away from the spotlight.
Nick Civetta’s introduction-to-rugby story is familiar. When he arrived on Notre Dame’s campus, he had never played the game before, and some classmates talked him into giving it a whirl. It didn’t take long for the towering 6’8” figure to garner attention, and he was named an All-American in 2010 and 2011.
Upon graduating from Notre Dame with a degree in civil engineering, Civetta moved to Berkeley, Calif. and earned his Masters in geotechnical engineering from Cal. While in the Bay Area, he played Super League with San Francisco Golden Gate. Then he moved back to his native New York and played with the New York Athletic Club.
In 2012 his first shot at international senior rugby presented itself, as he was selected for the USA Selects and the Americas Rugby Championship. He played in two of three games, but wouldn’t get another call-up under then-head man Mike Tolkin.
Though he struggled for some time with injuries, a NYAC connection linked Civetta up with Lazio in Roma, Italy, a professional club in the country’s top domestic competition. With two degrees in hand from a pair of the world’s top universities, Civetta chose to move to another continent and live with meager means in the hopes of becoming an Eagle in lieu of cashing in on all that fancy education.
“Three tough years in Italy. I can’t really call them tough, because living in Italy is pretty fantastic. I met some great people, lived in some awesome cities,” Civetta told Rugby Today.
“If you love something, you do it. I was really lucky to have the opportunity to go play in Italy, and I jumped at it. Lived off basically nothing for two years over there and loved my experience.”
Civetta played professionally in 2013, but the phone didn’t ring. Same in 2014, but no call. Same in 2015.
56-cap Lou Stanfill, who like Civetta spent some time in Italy and bounced around elsewhere throughout his 20s trying to scratch out a living as a professional rugby player, once referred to the lifestyle as, ‘the struggle’. Civetta felt the struggle, too, and pondered quitting.
“Like every couple of weeks,” joked Civetta. “This past year in Florence, if the passport hadn’t come through I was ready to come back and maybe go to business school and start thinking about the future.”
With a European passport in hand and an agent he referred to as a ‘miracle worker’, Civetta was now more employable in some of the more lucrative leagues across the pond.
“Newcastle called and I jumped at it, because at the end of the day this is still what I love to do, and I want to be able to do it at the highest level possible,” he said.
The day after he landed at Newcastle, Civetta finally got the call he’d been waiting four years for, from USA Rugby high performance director Alex Magleby, who wanted to bring him in for the camp leading up to the Italy and Russia tests in June.
“It was a sort of an unfortunate circumstance – I had just arrived – so I wasn’t able to play those two games because I was just getting started with Newcastle.”
More grounded after a few months, Civetta was able to join the Eagles this November, and he played in the Maori friendly before finally earning that coveted first cap against Romania. He’s since returned to Newcastle, and he won’t be available for the final game of the USA's fall tour. He’s got the rest of this season and the next on his contract with the Falcons. After that, he hopes to sign another deal and play for the USA in the 2019 World Cup.
Having gotten his first table scrap of international rugby in 2012, Civetta was shunned to the kiddie table for four long years. Only last week did he get his rightful place in front of a teeming plate. Though it was often hard to put into perspective, Civetta now understands why he had to wait, and he seems grateful he did.
“I knew when I played USA A in 2012 I had a lot of work to do, and I didn’t put my hand up for selection. I wasn’t ready. Italy prepared me well. It allowed me to focus sort of without any distractions and just work on myself as a player and a person mentally,” he said.
“I think the three years, plus the months I’ve had at Newcastle, really sharpened me as a player and as an athlete, but also as a person and competitor. I think I’m ready now.”