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Editor's note: The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship is owned and operated by United World Sports, which shares a parent company with RugbyToday. The opinions in this article are mine.
Is it really going to be on TV? Are they really going to let us play in the stadium? Those are the questions Rocco Mauer remembers he and his Bowling Green teammates asking each other before the inaugural Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship back in 2010.
Indeed, they did get on TV, and the stands at Columbus Crew Stadium were all but empty for that first tournament, the only one played outside Philadelphia. Still, when Mauer, now a firefighter in suburban Cleveland and a father of two, gets together with his old teammates, most of whom are a little rounder these many years separated from the pitch, the conversation always veers to one topic.
“Thretton Palamo, Nate Ebner, Danny Barrett, we played with all these guys. Whenever I meet up with the boys, say it’s down at the bar on alumni weekend or whatever, it’s the first thing that’s always brought up. And the shirt that’s up at the bar we always meet at is usually the CRC jersey, because that’s what we talk about. That’s the pinnacle of it all,” Mauer recalls.
“All the championships we played in the Midwest, select sides, it’s all fun. But when you’re talking about testing yourselves against the best, the highest level – for all these guys who have gone on to honest careers and families – the one thing we always talk about was the first one, because that was the peak of it all.”
10 years on, Mauer’s words have never rung truer. In the last few tournaments, I’ve gotten to see friends in the coaching community experience the CRC for the first time. Guys who’ve played and coached in the Varsity Cup, D1A, Super League, PRO, MLR, national teams, age-grade national teams and USA Rugby championships in both 15s and 7s.
Their feedback matches the expressions on the faces of hundreds of players who play in their first CRC every June. Peaking through their steely competitive facades is awe at the pomp and circumstance, the pageantry. The recognition that it's different.
Friday night, 56 teams wearing a version of their Sunday best strolled into an impressive venue and broke bread together, like rugby teams are meant to. They heard from the Emperor of 7s himself, Emil Signes. They heard from the person who makes it all possible, Penn Mutual CEO Eileen McDonnell. Upstairs, coaches, administrators, alumni and VIPs shared cocktails and stories.
After the party, as captains were mid-photo-shoot with sponsors and dignitaries, I grabbed a couple of banners and headed toward the cargo van before I was stopped by a player, the one whose likeness was on said banner. She asked if she could take a picture with it. I obliged, of course, and went on my merry way collecting other things.
As I shut the door to the packed van to leave at the end of the night, I noticed that particular banner didn’t make it in. Where else in grassroots rugby, besides the CRC, are you presented the opportunity to accidentally walk off with a life-sized printout of yourself? She took her shot, and she scored. Good for her.
The Wisconsin men wore Hawaiian shirts to dinner. The Navy women their dress whites. Indiana’s coaching staff wore candy-cane striped blazers, playing off the famed look of the Hoosier basketball team. This is as close as college rugby comes to The U strolling into the ‘87 Fiesta Bowl reception in fatigues.
The atmosphere around the hotel bar is the closest thing college rugby has to the lobby of the Final Four, where coaches from all over meet to plot and network, even those not coaching on the weekend.
Led by Kutztown’s supporters, the parking lot and the outside fields are about the closest college rugby gets to capturing that autumn Saturday tailgate.
Pat Quinn is deep into his battle with ALS. The Iona rugby and athletics hall of famer no longer enjoys the use of his limbs. He dictates words to the computer attached to his electric wheelchair with his eyes, and the machine speaks for him. That’s how he texts life lessons and words of encouragement to the current Iona players, his guys, and that’s how he communicated to me that he just had to be at the CRC to watch them take the big stage. That he did, from the suites to the sideline.
The CRC is all about experiences. Whether it’s the experience of the St. Bonaventure fans, who appeared to have the time of their lives toting around massive cardboard heads of the Bonnies’ coaching staff. Or that of the ball boy who was the recipient of Lorenzo Thomas’ championship medal after being cat-called from the stands all weekend by spirited coeds pleading for a souvenir. Or even that of the Dombroski family, who see the memory of their son Mark, lost tragically while on tour with St. Joe’s, live on through the MVP award. The experiences are what count. They’re what last.
So does the legacy of the competition. Before the CRC, Mauer was an unknown. He was the fast kid on the wing for the Falcons in 15s. Before that first CRC, college 7s didn’t exist, and neither did a platform for those hoping to play in the Olympics someday. Mauer capitalized on that platform, leading the tournament in tries while also leading the Falcons to the Bowl title. The performance would springboard him to the 7s national team and Bronze at the Pan-Am Games.
The laundry list of players and coaches who’ve passed through the CRC en route to international careers is long, but there’s always the question of causation versus correlation. Would Blaine Scully have become Blaine Scully without the CRC? Most likely. But Mauer wouldn’t have. Neither would Kevon Williams.
No one knew of Williams before he played for the Denver Barbarians, making deep runs into USA Rugby’s club 7s championships and playing for Denver Elite in a smattering of tournaments. Without the platform of the NSCRO championships at the CRC, which Williams twice won with New Mexico Highlands, he never gets to the Barbos. No Barbos, no telling who plays flyhalf when Folau Niua breaks his leg.
If Miles Craigwell never catches the CRC on TV, he may never play rugby. If Carlin Isles never sees Craigwell’s rugby story on YouTube, he may never play the game. In 20 years, who knows how many young people would have never picked up the game if not for Isles?
The true impact the tournament has on the national teams and the growth of the sport is tough to measure. But what’s safe to say is the CRC is the greatest rugby experience most will ever have, from the players, to the referees and coaches, and even the parents in the stands.