It’s 7:22 p.m. on a rainy Thursday in Riverside and the UCR Sports Complex sits in silence. On most days this would not be news, but on a Thursday evening in the middle of winter, this is a space traditionally occupied by the UCR men’s rugby club. Perhaps you’ve yet to hear of them, but if you’ve walked this path, the remarkably high level of grit and tenacity with which they practice has surely caught your attention.
Beneath that tough exterior, though, burns a passion for a sport that is as much — no wait, even more so — about compassion and camaraderie as it is about winning. And truthfully, while every sports team loves to tout their own group’s chemistry, few can compare to the bond UCR rugby has developed over the years.
Headed by their coach, David Guijarro — who joined as a player in 2009 and hasn’t left the club since — and captain, Damian Salazar — who has been involved since his first year at UCR — the club has managed to foster the growth of their team organically, uniting players from varying walks of life.
Salazar found rugby at a young age when he started a youth team alongside his older brother. Inside center Turner Bradshaw knew nothing of the sport before a successful recruiting effort that led him to the club. Fullback Asa Garrett is a South Central Los Angeles native who, after being deemed “too fat to play football” in middle school, found rugby and excelled. Nelson Gons is a third-year transfer from San Bernardino Valley College and formerly a self-described high school jock who discovered the club (and sport) all but 10 weeks ago.
Yet, despite the different paths they’ve taken to reach this point, they are all unified by a goal to succeed in a sport and, more importantly, to do so respectfully.
“It’s a very respectful game,” says Salazar. “Whatever happens on the field is left on the field and afterwards (teams)come together, have a good time and chat with each other.”
Bradshaw seconded this, reminiscing on the socials held between themselves and opponents that have become a staple throughout the season.
There is really no singular explanation for why such high esteem is so traversal over the competitive rugby landscape. However, it is fair to suggest that each athlete shares a bond fueled not only through sport but by a shared desire to alter society’s long-standing stigmas.
In a sports world where many misconstrue hastily conceived labels for actual analysis, rugby has become one of its greatest victims. No matter how you cut it, rugby remains a sport that — despite its gradual growth in popularity over the years — remains relatively obscure within the states and the rush to label it is only further accentuated because of this. The team has likely heard them all — “barbaric,” “hooligans,” “savages” and the like.
Yet, when I bring up this notion expecting a sense of irritation, I am met with a collective smirk to suggest that they revel in the idea of disproving these stereotypes. And, as it so happens, they’d be the first to tell you that rugby is a sport that is foremost founded on companionship.
Bradshaw was one to freely admit that he formerly viewed rugby through the pigeonhole of most outsiders, but quickly found there to be “a brotherhood and a bond … not just at UCR but between different teams too … we all have really similar attitudes and it’s all positive.”
So positive, in fact, that it is entirely plausible to suggest that rugby and its values serve as a microcosm of the good in society.
As Salazar told me, “There is no race in rugby.” He went on, “It’s a loving sport. Everybody is so united … you (meet) people from all over the world and they treat you as an equal.”
If there is anything akin to the manner in which this group plays it would be that of how a family would be expected to fight for their loved ones — each athlete nobly carrying the weight of their teammates on their shoulders. It is why each and every one of the players I spoke to relayed one central message about their team: “It’s a brotherhood.”
This familial environment has allowed for a space where newcomers, like Gons, can immediately feel at home and incidentally release from their stresses.
Gons, who also serves as the campus president of the College Democrats, professes he doesn’t “have to worry about (politics) when I’m out there … I get to toss the ball around and run with my boys … it’s like a break away from everything.”
Breaking away is precisely what this group has managed to do on multiple fronts, leaving competitors behind last season after finishing second overall in the Gold Coast Conference and going toe-to-toe with Division I opponents, despite being a Division II club with a comparatively smaller roster. Nevertheless, the team reflects on the year as a learning process with Salazar confessing that they “were a bit unprepared (heading into the UC tournament) last season.”
The team struggled with injuries to begin the year and had to incorporate new faces in the midst of it — circumstances which can be incredibly difficult in a sport where success is ever-so reliant on a team’s cohesiveness. Yet, according to Garrett, the team got by with “a lot of heart and energy that kept us in games.”
This season, though, they will look to put both their talent and heart together as coach Guijarro acknowledged that the team has goals of not only winning the division outright but of being promoted to Division I status come year’s end.
“We have a strong team right now and will have the strongest team by the end of the year,” asserts Guijarro. Yet, with a work ethic that is unparallelled, a brotherhood unshakable and a mental fortitude that’s been thoroughly battle-tested, part of me wonders if they aren’t already there. Granted, expectations are futile, but this team has an aura that suggests their recent achievements are just the precipice of what they will accomplish down the line. What is for certain is that they will reach that point just as they began — in unison.