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Houston is a burgeoning rugby town. With the Sabercats set to kickoff the inaugural Major League Rugby season Saturday on the back of a very promising slate of friendlies, and a fourth tier-one test in six years on tap for the summer, that seems obvious. But it hasn’t always.
If you grew up in the Houston rugby community Sabercats center Conor Mills did, it doesn’t seem real. There are a number of Houston natives on the Sabercats roster, but when the starting fifteen is named for the season opener against NOLA Gold Saturday at Dyer Stadium, Mills is the only one likely to be included. But it wasn’t long ago Mills considered retiring from competitive rugby, because the club scene in Houston was so bleak.
Mills, the son of rugby-playing father Brett, grew up in the game. Brett started The Woodlands youth program, and Conor started playing in it at the age of seven. He’d go on to play at St. Thomas High School, winning back-to-back state titles, and at Texas A&M, guiding the Aggies through some of their best years in recent history. Brett would coach each of those programs, too.
Along the way, Conor was beamed into the age-grade national team system, playing for the U17s back when that was a thing, then the U18s and U20s. With the Junior All Americans, Mills traveled to Georgia to play in the Junior World Trophy, alongside current Eagles Madison Hughes and Will Magie.
Upon graduating from A&M, Mills moved back to Houston, got himself a big boy job and started into his club career, bouncing from The Woodlands’ D2 team to HARC’s D1 and eventually the upstart D3 Lonestar.
“I had been used to being in a structured environment my whole career,” said Mills. “My dad warned me going into men’s it’s not going to be the same setup, and I found that out very quickly, and that’s why I almost hung it up and thought about just playing socially and not investing anymore personal time into it.”
Mills had done everything he was supposed to do – play for a successful high school team, participate in every step of the age-grade pathway for which he was selected, play a good standard in college. Yet, here he was with no obvious next step, and no less-obvious ones anywhere near him. In that regard, Mills’ story isn’t entirely unique. Plenty of age-grade vets disappear after graduating from school. But unlike most, Mills’ story appears destined for a happy ending.
The semblance of good news started with murmurs – a new professional league was forming and Houston would have a team. Mills, an account manager for a company that services forklifts, first heard the rumor from his former high school coach who would end up investing in the Sabercats.
“He had kind of dropped little hints here and there with me and my dad. I was like, I hope it comes, but I had seen different iterations of rugby in the United States over the years, so I wasn’t holding my breath,” said Mills. “Then it all kind of at once popped up and they were signing guys and holding tryouts, so it was kind of out of nowhere, to be honest.”
Osea Kolinisau, captain of Olympic champion Fiji. A handful of seasoned overseas pros. A smattering of capped Eagles. These were the guys Houston was signing. Mills had been the cock of the walk in Houston for some time, but these players had already reached a level in their career Mills hadn’t.
“I was nervous at first, and I don’t get nervous very often. But some of the signings they brought on, I was like these are some big-time guys,” recalled Mills. “Honestly, it was my family who encouraged me to just give it one more shot.”
That final shot hit its target, as not only did Mills make the team, he became a fixture in the midfield during the Sabercats’ 16-game preseason. Houston racked up a 12-2-2 record, including a 2-0-2 run against fellow MLR teams.
"It’s kind of been a whirlwind, but that’s what I’ve dreamed of doing since I was little, playing professional rugby, so it’s an awesome experience," Mills said.
Maybe more impressive than the Sabercats' on-the-field success is that they sold out a minor league baseball stadium with more than 5,000 fans showing up to their home opener. Over nine preseason home games, an average of more than 2,700 people came to watch the Sabercats. Several come from within the Houston rugby community who know Mills and his family. They’re guys Brett coached or Conor played with or against.
“I see them at the games all the time, usually a little bit liquored up, but they’re ecstatic about it. That’s the really cool thing, seeing all the guys you played with supporting you in that capacity. Everyone I’ve talked to, it’s a really big deal to them down here, which is cool to see,” said Mills. “Even people I didn’t play rugby with who I went to high school with are cheering about it. I’m seeing people I haven’t seen in 10-12 years out at games. Word is definitely getting around. It’s cool.”
The man cheering the hardest for Mills, though, is his father. He’s also the center’s toughest critic. Has been since Conor picked up that ball at seven years old.
“He’ll always be coach and a dad,” said Connor. “Anytime I get too high, he’ll bring me down back to Earth, and anytime I get too low, he’ll bring me up. I have a great relationship with him, and it’s really cool to see him happy.”
For most Americans, baseball is the game for fathers and sons, as highlighted in Field of Dreams, which made famous the line, "If you build it, they will come". But for the Millses, rugby has always been the tie that binds. The Sabercats have built professional rugby in Houston, and now it's up to fathers all over the city to come, bring their sons, and share in Houston's newest professional sport, shaping countless more seven-year-olds' dreams into an oval.