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When the Eagles hoisted the cup at USA Sevens earlier this month, it was the first time they’d won a tournament on home soil and just the second time they’d won a World Series title anywhere. As the clock ticked over to show all zeroes in that 28-0 win over Argentina in the final, another potential first was unfolding – for maybe the first time ever, four African-American Eagles were on the field at the same time.
It’s a difficult record to verify. Rosters for every match ever, men and women, sevens and fifteens, aren’t readily and publicly available.
“That’s the first time,” snapped Carlin Isles before the historical suggestion could be completely made. Not that he noticed, or anything.
“I noticed, for sure,” said Isles. “It’s a great feeling – four brothers on the same team on the field at the same time, you’ve never had that in USA Rugby history ever, so for me it’s a great feeling to have some more color out there.”
Several people have been polled, including national team coaches, and no one has been able to provide a previous example of four or more African-American Eagles on the field together, though the women's 15s Eagles probably have put four out there before. Nonetheless, when Malon Al-Jiboori, Perry Baker, Carlin Isles and Kevon Williams were on the field together at Sam Boyd Stadium, it was almost certainly the first time an Eagles team fielded a majority African-American side, regardless of gender or code.
It doesn’t take a census to conclude rugby is a sport played predominantly by white people in America. Though statistics would be beneficial in supporting the idea that’s changing.
“It would be nice to get some more color out here and change the game a little bit more, so you have rugby teams in African-American communities, because the rugby community brings out the best in everybody,” said Williams, who immediately following the final, while still on the field, got out of his jersey and into an Omega Psi Phi shirt.
Having just played an instrumental role in a momentous occasion, on the forefront of Williams’ mind was representing his black fraternity, that of Langston Hughes, Michael Jordan and Jesse Jackson.
“I saw a tweet when we were in Hamilton, and it said our whole backline is brothers, and I thought, man this game is definitely evolving and getting more people out to come play,” added Baker, who grew up in the South.
“When I first started playing, people would say you’re the only colored kid that’s played, and now that’s changing. Everyone’s like, ‘colored kids don’t play the game in the States,’ but we do, and it’s the greatest game ever to play and be a part of.”
If indeed the needle is moving, it’s thanks in part to programs like Memphis Inner City Rugby, Inner City Education Foundation Rugby, Play Rugby USA and others. And thanks in part to the aforementioned Eagles, who provide the example for young people of color to aspire to. If the feedback Baker, Isles and others get is any indication, their example is one being followed more and more.
“They ask me about how can I get into the sport, and they want to watch videos and be inspired,” said Isles of the young African-American kids he meets doing appearances, camps and clinics.
“A lot of them from a young age always talk about football and basketball, but seeing them think about rugby, me being able to give them advice and insight saying, ‘hey, if I can do it, you guys can do it as well,’ it’s just another outlet for you to be able to showcase your gift and do something that’s different, but also be special and make an impact.”
The world seems all too fond of referring to America as rugby’s sleeping giant, constantly wary of the fact that if the USA’s best athletes ever took up the sport, the rest of the world would be on notice. What they really mean is, when African-American athletes take up the sport…
Of the four on the field in Las Vegas, Al-Jiboori is the outlier. He played rugby in high school, winning multiple state championships with an unfairly talented Union (Okla.) team that’s seen two other members of the same graduating class get senior national team call-ups – Lorenzo Thomas and Chance Wenglewski.
Al-Jiboori’s older brother, Michael, was a standout for Union, Oklahoma University and the Denver Barbarians and Stampede. The younger brother, Tyren, currently plays for Union and might be the best of the bunch. He played for Team USA in the Youth Olympic qualifiers in Las Vegas.
The others came to the game late. Williams didn’t pick it up until 22. Same with Isles. Baker, the reigning World Rugby 7s Player of the Year, didn’t start playing in earnest until his mid-20s. Phaidra Knight, who recently became just the second American to be inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, didn’t start playing until grad school. While most in America are obsessed with getting kids playing at younger and younger ages, it’s been proven time and again elite athletes from a certain demographic can overcome the experience gap and become world class.
Just as resounding as the sheer presence of four black players on the field at once in Las Vegas were the positions they had to play to make it happen. All too often, the fast, black kid gets stuck at wing, where his or her athleticism can be exploited while their skills are left undeveloped.
Williams was almost exclusively a wing until he got to the national team. Baker has always been a wing. Same with Isles. In order to get them all on the field, head coach Mike Friday had to slide Baker to center and Williams to flyhalf – a combination that might not have seen the light of day if not for a rash of injuries.
But it wasn’t as though this was a fly-by-night development. Inside the private confines of the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., Friday has quietly been trying to turn Isles into a halfback for years. Williams was almost immediately deemed by Friday too slow to unseat Baker or Isles on the wing and made to become a halfback. Since taking over the team, the coach has pondered possible combinations that might get Isles and Baker on the field together.
“Especially for those faster guys, we’re more versatile than people think. We don’t showcase it a lot, but we are, and I think coach is going to show that a lot more as well,” Isles said.
“I love it. They’re trusting me and giving me a chance to [play center] in training,” added Baker. “With Carlin and me on the field at the same time, what are you going to do? Are you going to bracket me? Are you going to bracket him? We’re just trying to have fun and play.”
No one can argue with Baker on the last bit – he and Isles almost always appear to be having the time of their lives while playing. Perhaps that, as much as anything else, will help move the needle.