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They all have it. Like a class openside flanker launches a shoulder into a meaty hip, grappling the ball carrier to the ground only to spring up instantly, readying for another go with no regard for oxygen supply, trailblazers, pioneers and people compelled to do what no one has before, are driven by a supernatural tenacity.
Phil Knight struggled to secure loans and flirted with going out of business for years birthing Nike. Before famous victories in Trenton and Yorktown, George Washington lost Long Island, Kip’s Bay and White Plains. It’s as though compulsive, unconscious, maximum effort in the face of failure is, above even talent, a genetic marker for greatness.
Jon Prusmack had it. He had it as a young man, when hopes of an appointment to West Point or Annapolis never materialized after high school, leading him to pursue gridiron glory at hallowed Notre Dame. When a leg injury stunted that dream, Prusmack set the sights of his compulsive effort on the original target, earning admission to the United States Naval Academy.
He aimed the same unbridled ambition toward selling bootleg hot dogs in the dorms to fellow midshipmen, ending his time in Annapolis. Still, Prusmack charged forward. He’d be voted most valuable player of NYU’s final football team in 1966, graduating with degrees in art and mathematics.
Jon Prusmack used it to build wealth as an inventor. His Deployable Hospital Systems, the company which would explode to do more than $150 million annually, took over a decade to ignite. He launched it in 1986 and opened an office four years later, but the company toiled. To keep it afloat, he depleted savings, sold off property and filed for dozens of patents.
Once he had a product, DRASH, a deployable rapid assembly surgery hospital, he struggled to sell it. He knew militaries needed what he was making, but he couldn’t get to the decision makers. He was forced to close the office.
Still, he sprung from the turf and returned to the fray. The breakthrough came in 1995, when he sent a shelter to Panama on spec with some Marines. They bought it, sales increased, and Prusmack’s invention became standard-issue for the Army, Marines and NATO.
Jon exhibited it even in death. Since 2001, he’s attacked cancer with the same creativity and dogged determination he deployed as an entrepreneur. Multiple stem-cell transplants did the trick for 15 years, but the cancer came back. This time, doctors told him it was untreatable.
In 2017, he found a treatment anyhow, participating in a clinical trial for a new type of therapy. Once more unto the breach.
It worked, at first, and Prusmack was given a relatively clean bill of health, for a while. But every flanker makes his final tackle.
In 2005, USA Rugby couldn’t pay its bills. It needed a lifeline, not unlike recent times. The national governing body couldn’t afford to run the USA 7s, a new stop on the World Series, any longer. It had lost heaps of money on the first two tournaments and, with more liabilities than assets, needed to liquidate.
Prusmack, a longtime grassroots rugby man with years of volunteer refereeing and coaching service and now a booming business, rode in on a white steed to buy the tournament, helping save USA Rugby from bankruptcy. He structured the deal so the union would get hundreds of thousands of dollars annually forever, whether or not he broke even. He assumed all the risk, delivering a world-class tournament that would be a beacon for the sport in America.
Most years, he didn’t break even. Still, Prusmack invested millions, moving the tournament from L.A. to San Diego. There, it was played at the home of the Padres, marking the first major international rugby event played on a baseball diamond. Prusmack was about a dozen years ahead of his time, as the Rugby World Cup 7s was played in a baseball stadium in July, the Eagles are slated to play their second test on a diamond next year, and three Major League Rugby franchises will be operating out of baseball parks in 2019.
In 2010, he moved the tournament to Las Vegas, where American rugby found its promised land. Under Prusmack, tournament attendance more than quadrupled, ballooning to over than 80,000 in 2017. The USA Sevens went from a fledgling event with potential to the Super Bowl of American rugby.
It broke the network television barrier for rugby, too, landing on ABC in 2010 and NBC’s family of networks through 2017. For years, Prusmack scratched zeroes on checks to put hundreds of hours of rugby on national television, exposing the sport to millions of potential new fans.
Last year, ESPN, the Worldwide Leader, bought the rights to not just the USA Sevens, but the entire World Series. Thanks to Jon Prusmack, rugby went from being on television only sporadically and sparingly, to buying time for a decade, to being deemed valuable enough by major networks to garner a rights fee. He almost singlehandedly forged rugby the path to a new revenue stream in America.
Now, you can find domestic collegiate, professional and international rugby on national television several times a year. Since Prusmack began investing in rugby, the best way to watch a match has gone from borderline-legal YouTube links days after the contest to live network television. When it comes to rugby on TV, Prusmack was the rising tide that lifted all boats.
As the USA 7s became sustainable, he didn’t hoard the earnings. He redistributed them throughout the game, donating more than $1 million for Army’s Warrior Field and Navy’s Prusmack Rugby Complex. When the time-honored tradition of the Collegiate All-Americans going overseas was threatened by more of USA Rugby’s financial woes in 2009, he saw to it they went on tour. When the Eagles needed jerseys, he stepped up.
Jon’s interests and talents varied. At Notre Dame, he studied architecture. At the Naval Academy, he was on track to become an engineer. Degrees in art and mathematics from NYU. He earned master’s degrees in both industrial design and business administration. For years, he worked successfully as a graphic designer.
Just as his academic pursuits crossed over many fields, so did his professional endeavors. Though USA 7s would go on to be his crowning achievement in rugby, his first contribution was in media. He founded “Scrumdown” in 1968, a glossy-covered magazine that’d make it four issues before he pulled the plug.
In 1974, in true Prusmack fashion, he tried again, this time with a cheaper newspaper format. He hired magazine vet and fellow rugby man Ed Hagerty as editor, the publication was rebranded RUGBY Magazine, and it served as the community’s bible, telephone book, classifieds and encyclopedia for 36 years before transitioning exclusively to digital in 2011, eventually becoming Rugby Today.
The creation of American rugby journalism and its contribution to the fabric of the community landed both Prusmack and Hagerty in the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame in 2013.
Prusmack was the first American to author a book on rugby in 1979 with Rugby: A Guide for Players, Coaches, and Spectators, and he was one of the founding members of the New York Athletic Club’s storied side, serving as an early coach for the club that would eventually spawn many Eagles and claim multiple national championships.
The accomplished painter’s masterstroke, though, may well be the Collegiate Rugby Championship. Like he saw a market for yet-to-be invented quick-assembly shelters before anyone else, he saw the opportunity to create one for domestic 7s. He acted quickly, launching the inaugural tournament only eight months after 7s was voted into the 2016 Olympics back in 2009. Before the CRC, college 7s only existed as a rare, boozy pastime between slightly more serious 15s endeavors.
Prusmack’s creation spawned an entirely new category, as teams trained and played Olympic rugby in earnest for the first time ever. The CRC would lend legitimacy to the sport in the landscape of intercollegiate athletics and join USA Sevens in the fight for eyeballs, as it’s been nationally televised since inception. The first year in Ohio, though, the stands were empty. Prusmack had swung for the fences and missed mightily. Strike one prompted a move to Philadelphia.
Situated on the bank of the Delaware River, crossed by Washington 242 years ago to surprise Hessian mercenaries and take Trenton, Talen Energy Stadium provided a fitting backdrop as Prusmack, boot on the bow, led rugby into the American consciousness. From thin air and humble beginnings, the CRC has grown to attract nearly 30,000 fans annually, provided a breeding ground for future Eagles, and inspired ambition in American rugby.
It also attracted arguably the biggest domestic corporate sponsor the sport’s ever known in Penn Mutual. Since becoming the event's title sponsor in 2013, the 171-year-old life insurance company has supported numerous grassroots rugby organizations and initiatives, putting a rocket launcher on its exposure to a key demographic, college graduates.
Like the indomitable flanker, Prusmack carried American rugby through the hard yards. Phase after phase, he charged toward the gainline, occasionally falling short, but most profoundly, shattering it from time to time, gaining ground on the ever-moving goal line of growing the game.
He gave us rugby on television, rugby in stadiums, world-class rugby on American soil, domestic Olympic rugby, every year. He gave generations of ruggers a spotlight, a place for their stories of triumph and endeavor to be told, all while he was humbly reluctant to share his own. He gave and gave and gave.
It wasn’t always easy. Turns out, when you’re willing and able to invest millions toward doing something bold, something new, something groundbreaking, there’s no shortage of people unwilling or incapable of doing the same with very strong, entitled opinions on exactly how you spend yours.
Pioneers take the arrows while paving the way for those who come after. Prusmack certainly took more than his share for the expansion of rugby in America, and the true mark of the man is that, through the hail of enemy fire, he kept coming. Until the very end.