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The best freshman flyhalf in the country might be from Washington D.C. He might have been a High School All American from a notable program. He might be a little small and a little skinny. And his name might not be Ben Cima.
Jihad Khabir quietly helped American International College to a 7-1 fall season. The Yellowjackets went undefeated in East Coast play, claiming the program’s first conference title. They lost a friendly to Kutztown, but ended the season on a high note by beating Bowling Green in a 46-40 instant classic at the American Collegiate Rugby Championship Bowl Series in Charlotte, N.C.
In that game, Khabir was particularly impressive, scoring one try and setting up several others. He routinely sliced through the Falcon defense, and on more than one occasion pulled off an improbable offload. No surprise, then, that Khabir’s a big Fiji fan.
“When I first started watching rugby, it was like the eighth grade. I was watching clips online and I saw William Ryder,” said Khabir. “The way he just stepped through the defense and manipulated people and his overall play, I loved watching William Ryder and Fiji.”
Khabir, a product of the famed Hyde, now Pride, program in inner city D.C., started his first game at wing. He wasn’t supposed to start at all, but the front line winger didn’t show up that day. In the B-side game afterward, he played flyhalf and was a revelation. His coach, Tal Bayer, now an assistant at Wheeling Jesuit, took notice.
“He told me, ‘You got something special at the position, and you ought to continue playing it,’” recalled Khabir. “Towards the end of the season I came up and started at flyhalf, and since then I started every game.”
He also started at quarterback all four years for Hyde’s football team. Khabir had a bit of a storybook prep athletic career – star quarterback, starting flyhalf. He helped Hyde win the High School Rugby Challenge at the Collegiate Rugby Championship inside PPL Park and played in Las Vegas with the 7s High School All Americans. But when he would get into high performance setups, they’d pull the No. 10 jersey off him and stick him on the wing.
The temptation to do so is understandable – he’s lightning quick and has finishing speed. He’s not a big guy. He didn’t grow up in England, South Africa, Samoa or Argentina. But, when he got to AIC, he was a flyhalf from day one.
“The great part is he can still be an athlete,” said AIC coach Josh Macy. “A lot of times we picture the flyhalf as just a catch-and-pass guy or just a cerebral player. But the way we can manipulate the defense and create space for him, and watch him flip that switch from distributor to attacking player, is really fun to watch. And we can all almost see it coming a phase or two ahead of time, but the defense can’t, which is nice.”
An inescapable fact is that Khabir is also one of the few black flyhalves in the country. The best African-American players in college rugby, like Kingsley McGowan at St. Mary’s, Sonny Adjei at Davenport, Paris Hollis at Life and Khabir’s teammate Christian Adams, often play positions not traditionally considered decision-making positions.
“I talked about it actually last week with one of those players from the [Northeast] ODA,” said Khabir. “He was telling me, ‘There’s no minorities playing skill positions, so keep going and going.’ He was, like, I’m making a difference.”
Khabir’s not a perfect flyhalf. He doesn’t kick for goal or touch for the Yellowjackets. His defense is inconsistent. However, running and making people miss has always come easy, and he can distribute competently. Now, some of the evasive nuances of playing 10 are starting to click for the softspoken stepper.
“As the season went on I think I got better as being more of a flyhalf and not just a fast kid that can run,” he said. “Before, I was just the dude with the moves, and now I’m actually controlling the game. In North Carolina, our last game, I felt like I had a complete, overall great game. I controlled the field. I facilitated.”
“A lot of times he’ll kind of slow play it. It’s nice he has Adrian Ray right on the outside of him. He’s more than happy to feed the forwards in the midfield or set up Seth Halliman to play off the edge, and once he feels the defense is, I guess kind of ignoring him in a sense, then he starts to see gaps he kind of likes and then he may dance through a hole once or twice in the second half and make them pay for that,” said Macy.
“He’s actually a really deft kicker…He’s got a good arsenal of chip kicks and grubbers to put people through. Our first try against Bowling Green was started by Jihad grubbering a kick through to an organized chase. We’ve won a lot of turnovers in the air with him chipping the ball at an angle. We’ve scored tries from that position. It’s just another way he’s building his toolbox to be a great college player.”
Khabir is already a standout college player, but he wants more.
“At AIC my goal is to continue winning conference every year, growing the program as a whole, getting better competition and more people here, letting more people know about AIC,” said Khabir. “As an individual, my goal is to make the U20s and Collegiate All Americans and just keep growing as a player and a leader, and to ultimately make the Eagles team.”
Cima, a fellow D.C. product, is getting close to realizing some of Khabir’s goals, having made the U20s before and been invited to the selection camp for the Americas Rugby Championship alongside several capped Eagles in October. Gonzaga’s star and the bell cow for the HSAAs the last few years, Cima developed a bit of a rivalry with Khabir while playing against him in high school.
“It was a rivalry on the field, but off the field we’re friends. I love Ben. He’s a cool dude. I love playing against him, because I learn so much, especially kicking and how he controls the game. I love playing against him. He’s a great player,” said Khabir of Cima, who was often the guy starting at flyhalf for the HSAAs. Seeing Cima grab headlines has been a motivator for his counterpart.
“It puts a chip on my shoulder. Everyone knows Ben Cima, and he goes to Maryland and everyone knows him, but there’s another guy at AIC here doing the exact same thing, playing hard, playing tough, controlling the game, and no one gives me a shot, but I’m going to come up.”
On the other side of finals and winter break for Khabir and his Yellowjackets is the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship qualifier at the Las Vegas Invitational. AIC is returning to Las Vegas for the second-straight year. This time there’s an automatic bid to the CRC on the line. With a loaded roster, and the William Rider-esque skills of Khabir, AIC is going to be a tough out for anyone in Sin City.