CNN —  

What happens when you take inner-city teens from impoverished schools and throw them a rugby ball?

That is the question being answered by Memphis Inner City Rugby (MICR), a nonprofit started in 2012 with one ambitious goal: “to leverage the power of rugby for social change.”

“In the communities that we’re bringing rugby to, so many of the kids are lacking outlets in life and lacking pathways to opportunities,” explains Shane Young, co-founder of MICR.

One-hundred-sixty players fill the ranks of the boys’ and girls’ teams across six schools. With grit and guts, they have won both division and state championships, but their greatest victories happen off the field where they apply their sport’s hard-charging mindset to life.

Every MICR player attends mandatory study hall with the rest of their team. They work with teachers, coaches and mentors on classwork and college prep. Their commitment has led to the impressive statistic of a 100% college acceptance rate. MICR players have earned over $5 million in college scholarships.

In addition to the high academic standards, each player must demonstrate good behavior on and off the field.

“I used to be what people call a ‘trouble maker.’ And there’s like zero tolerance with the attitudes,” says former MICR rugby player Javonii Merritt. “So I learned to channel my anger into something productive.”

It’s not just the coaches keeping students in line. The teammates don’t shy away from calling each other out for bad grades or behavior that could get them benched.

“It’s like we are a family. Seniors that would never talk to me, because of this ball, now would,” explains MICR rugby player Samuel Johnson. “They want to see me do great and be a better person. So what they instilled in me, I instill in the other guys.”

Starting with a ball and a field

Shane Young and Devin O’Brien came to Memphis with Teach for America. The two teachers saw a unique opportunity to help their students outside of the classroom, and founded Memphis Inner City Rugby.

Shane Young  and Devin O'Brien started Memphis Inner City Rugby in 2012.
Memphis Inner City Rugby
Shane Young and Devin O'Brien started Memphis Inner City Rugby in 2012.

Many low-income schools in Memphis could not afford traditional sports programs because of the high cost of equipment and gear.

“With rugby all you need is a ball and a field” Young explains.

An information session for parents and students was billed as a “football interest meeting.” But the odd-shaped ball Shane held at the meeting was the first clue this was something different.

“They immediately had some questions about safety because there are not any pads, but they all looked at this I think as this opportunity. The parents saw it as something new for their kids,” Young said.

Getting the parents on board was one thing. But would these teenagers raised on football and basketball take to this foreign sport?

Some signed up to give it a try out of curiosity. Others were just happy for the chance to play a sport.

This first team formed at Power Center Academy, a public charter school located inside a strip mall on the south side of Memphis. They had to find grassy spots in local parks for practice and lost every game that first season. But the students were hooked.

Over the next few seasons, they learned how to scrum, ruck and maul, and Power Center Academy began to not only compete, but dominate.

In 2015 they won their western conference division, and became the first African-American high school rugby team to play in the state championships.

Power Center Academy alumni from that first team now play for colleges on athletic scholarships. This new path of opportunity is well-known in the halls of the school, and fuels a competitive drive on the field that is hard for the opposing teams from more wealthy private schools to match.

Home field advantage

The success of Memphis Inner City Rugby has attracted attention nationally and abroad, where it has been featured in sports columns and rugby blogs. A documentary about their program, called “The Rugby Boys of Memphis,” played at the Tribeca Film Festival and aired on ESPN. The local Memphis community is rallying behind their homegrown sport-stars. Habitat for Humanity volunteers are constructing the first official field for MICR, funded by the local Republic Services waste management company.

“This field will represent for us a tangible and permanent change we have made for the community,” says Young, “We are so excited at the opportunity to have a home field!”

But the biggest transformations are the ones made by the players.

Former troublemaker Javonii Merrit now hopes to be a future coach. She is attending Life University and is the first African-American female in Tennessee to receive a full athletic rugby scholarship.

“I am starting to realize that I am not just playing for myself. I am playing so that people can get to where I am and go where I’m going,” Merritt said. “It means I can begin to form opportunities for people who are in those situations just like me.”