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This article first appeared at www.pennmutual.com/rugby
By: Psalm Wooching as told to Mandy Antoniacci
It just started trending.
I wanted to say thank you. Share my decision. Tell my fans, friends, family everyone along the way who supported me about my new journey in life. That’s all I wanted to do, in 140 characters or less.
I never thought I would be telling the entire world.
One tweet and every media outlet was suddenly in my voicemail box. They wanted to talk. They wanted to understand. They wanted an answer to the one question running through everyone’s minds.
How the hell could you give up a shot at the NFL to play rugby?
To them - to anyone really – saying, no thank you, to the American dream is unfathomable. But to me, well…my dreams are just… different.
Psalm learned about rugby at a young age in Hawaii
I am an island kid.
I grew up on the big island of Hawaii. My dad is Samoan. And true to Samoan culture, he played rugby his entire life. He was a utility player and loved the game.
I wasn’t into sports that much growing up. I was more of an outdoorsy kid – running around on the island and running on the beach.
My family was part of a missionary group called Island Breeze. We were always on the move, traveling the globe to preach the good word. One day, our gospel took us to New Zealand - where I touched my first rugby ball. To Kiwis, rugby is like a religion. To me, it was like a kid tasting sugar for the first time.
I learned about rugby at a very young age. And in Hawaii, the sport started getting big. Even though I wasn’t into sports, people would say that I had the frame for it, so I thought, “Hey, why not? Let’s try this out”.
So there I was – a high school freshman, playing my first game with the club team, Kona Bulls. I had my first practice and just two weeks later, my first game.
I’ll never forget that feeling the first time I got the ball.
I was playing wing. I was on the blind side, and I got the ball right off a scrum. I-took-off. Everything around me faded to black. Like a racehorse wearing blinders, I couldn’t see a thing. I just kept running down the field. After awhile, I looked back. I dusted everyone. And I loved it.
I loved running the ball. I loved tackling. I loved getting hit. It was a love affair.
And I wanted more.
Our Kona Bulls team would go on to win three championships. And I got to go to New Zealand again. This time, playing against some of the top High Schools.
As I grew, my rugby game excelled. But my size and skills made me a prime target for the high school football coach, “Hey, you’ve got to come check this out. You have to come play,” he would say. That’s when I turned the corner and rugby became more of a secondary sport. I never disbanded my first love though, despite my coach’s concerns that I would get hurt.
People and coaches have the impression that rugby is way more injury-prone than football. For me, and if you ask anyone who plays both sports, football is just a much more dangerous sport than rugby, because you take the head out of contact. With football, there is that aspect where you think you’re almost God-like. You have all of these pads on, and you think you can go more than you actually can. So people come flying in with their heads, shoulder-charging, and thinking pads make them invincible. And they’re not. That’s what causes more injuries.
My coaches were a bit concerned that I played both sports. But at the same time, most players did where I lived. It was our culture. It was a way to keep your body in contact shape for the next season. So like most athletes around me, I did too.
But at the end of my junior year, things changed.
I started to get a lot of attention from Division 1 schools. While I excelled in rugby and lots of people were talking to me about that too, football provided a free education and just a more secure future in the states due to the lack of rugby attention. You see, I had the opportunity to be the first to graduate and get a degree on both sides of my family. In the Samoan culture, you are supposed to provide for your parents and give back as a thank you for raising you up until that point. That is the mentality of an island kid. It was bred in me.
I had to work hard to get off the rock as we say in the island. But I did it…I committed to the University of Washington.
At this point, rugby was just out of the picture - no thought of it. It was just me and this road block at UW I had to get over to continue my journey to the NFL. That's how athletes think of it when you play at a D1 school. My whole class would say, “three years and I’m out. Do my time, get any easy degree, if you even finish, and I’m out.” That was the mindset. And I was amped up.
That’s what college coaches do to you.
My Campus Secret
Like most players, I came in like I was the big dog already. I quickly developed a reputation as a hotheaded kid who liked to fight. That’s just how things are in my isolated community in Hawaii. That’s how we settle our differences. I brought that with me. But I got humbled. Fast.
In my first year, I strained my hamstring. I was red-shirted. My morale was kicked. I've been telling everyone, my family, “I’m going to start this year, nothing is going to hold me back.” And here I was.
In the off-season, I was just down. There’s a big courtyard area in the quad in Washington swarming with students when the sun is out. I was walking around, trying to empty my head, looked up and saw a few guys throwing a rugby ball and was like, no way!
Slowly, ever so slowly, I walked by staring…walked by again…walked by again. Finally, I caved and said, “Hey, can I pass with you guys?” Trying to be discreet, I pretended not to know too much about the sport, “So, what, you guys play rugby? That’s cool.” I picked up the ball and passed it. They said, “Whoa, do you play? We play for the UW rugby club.”
What! There’s a rugby club?
Two days a week guys were practicing the game I love on the other side of campus. I left with a casual, “Maybe I’ll show up sometime.”
So in the off-season, I showed up – every week. It was awesome. I fell in love all over again. It enhanced my passion for sports more and more, every time I would play. But it was a grind. The practices were at nighttime. We would have two each day that ended at 9:30, and then I had to study for school after that. But that was the sacrifice I was willing to make to keep the sport in me that I loved.
Once I asked my coach (Coach Steve Sarkisian, now with the Falcons) if I can play on this rugby team. He said, “yeah, you can play. But you have to give me your scholarship.”
Ummm, no, I’m good.
Needless to say, I kept it on the down low.
Many times I had to take off my pads from our spring game, and run right from the locker room to the other field to play my rugby game. Luckily on a campus of over forty-six thousand students, I was able to blend in.
Come next football season; rugby gave me the confidence I needed.
I was what you would call a raw talent. I was just a kid from the island who loved to bang (that’s what we say). That’s all I knew − going out there and just smacking people. I didn’t have trainers like some of the other kids. I didn’t know the technical stuff. Rugby helped me with that. I got to apply things like speed and footwork into the natural playing of a game during the off-season, versus repetitious drills. It gave me such confidence. And just my nature of being Samoan, I started dominating people.
I went from a red-shirted freshman to a starting fullback. I created a new name for myself and was now the hard-working, blue-collar guy.
The Last Game
Leading up to my senior year, I was NFL all the way. I built such a big platform. My senior year was going to be my year. My chance to shine.
We were destroying teams. And I was dominating - defensive player of the nation one week, Pac-12 Player of the nation the next. We had one loss in the season and made it to the playoffs. And the entire time I was building a story in my head, that I might not play football ever again. While I wasn’t thinking about rugby, it was always like a little brother, nagging me, tugging at my shirt to play.
We won the Pac-12 Championship game. There were a few weeks between then and the bowl game. During that time, I made a decision - college is the place where I wanted to end my career.
I sat down and spoke with my family. I told them, this game would be my last. I just kept preaching that to myself, so I wouldn’t lose sight of my goal through distractions. God was telling me that I was bred to do something else.
The last game, I was chosen to be captain. I knew right then and there that this was going to be it. We played Alabama. It was tough. We were losing. I told Coach when Alabama gets the ball again and takes a knee I just want to be out there. He looked back at me confused. But I said, “Please Coach, I just want to be out there. I just want to be out there.” He didn’t say anything. And I didn’t need to say anything more. At that moment, I was revealed.
I took the field. Bama took a knee. As I walked off, my eyes filled with tears.
It was the last time I would walk off of a football field.
“la sili e le tai se agavaa.”
(Translation: “May the wind and the ocean guide your canoe.”)
That’s what I tell myself often. Especially when I get asked the question, “How could you give up the American dream?”
I get asked that question a lot.
My family, football, rugby − these things have guided my canoe in my everyday life. I know the American dream is to go out there and get rich. But my dream is to be rich in other ways. I love what I made. I love my decision.
I want to play rugby at the highest level. I want to travel. I want to support my family. It is what I am meant to do.
I read so many stories about people who should have done this or people who are afraid, or worry what the crowd is saying. I think of those blinders I developed as a kid when I was given a rugby ball and ran down the field for the first time, and smile.
It helps to silence the noise when you never saw the crowd in the first place.