Rugby becomes more than a game

The Rugby Alumni Union

It’s common knowledge that rugby is one of the world’s toughest and grittiest contact sports. At Wheaton, it’s also synonymous with one of the most close-knit groups on campus.

Founded in 1998, the Men’s Rugby Club now has about 30 members who play the game throughout the school year. The club is both a competitive athletic team and a student-run group, which means the players themselves are responsible for everything from planning logistics and buying equipment to hiring coaches.

Scott St. Onge ’99, one of the club’s co-founders, said the group evolved out of a Sunday night pickup football game—to this day, most players have no rugby experience before Wheaton. It quickly became a core part of his college experience.

“It was such an important piece of my education at Wheaton,” said St. Onge. “It’s a story I’ve heard at least a dozen times when I have returned,” he added.

With that in mind, in 2006 St. Onge and a group of fellow alumni spearheaded the creation of the Rugby Alumni Union, which keeps former players in touch with the current team as well as each other.

“People lose track of good friends after college. The relationships formed through rugby were some of the closest ones—so we didn’t want that to happen,” said Andrew Lounder ’05, the club’s 2004–2005 president and current Rugby Alumni Union chairman.

The Rugby Alumni Union grew out of the club’s first-ever alumni game, which was organized by Lounder in 2005 and marked the first time many former players had seen each other since their Wheaton days. Even more came back the following year. The game is now an annual tradition.

St. Onge was impressed with what he saw on his return. “The club was on such strong footing—stronger than anybody would have ever imagined,” he said. “As the alumni gathered afterward”—at the local hangout Sporty’s, of course—”we had a long and enthusiastic conversation about what more our group could offer.” They hit upon the idea of creating an endowment to support the club, and before long they were led into the ambitious cause by T. Patrick Bardsley ’99.

A shortage of funds had long hampered the team. Since rugby is technically a club, not an official sport, its funding comes from the student activity fee—the proceeds of which are split among dozens of organizations. Individual players had to cover hotels, gasoline, flags and other costs out of pocket.

Led by St. Onge—an experienced fundraiser who currently works as a consultant in Washington, D.C.—and guided by Vice President of College Advancement Mary Casey, a group of former players spent the next three and a half years reaching out to their fellow alumni. A whopping 85 percent of them agreed to contribute. Last May, the Rugby Alumni Union formally established a $100,000 endowment for the Men’s Rugby Club.

But the union is about much more than money. The group has about 75 active members and meets formally at least twice a year. In addition to the alumni game—which has drawn former players from as far away as South America and Europe—a group of alumni and current students play together each year in a winter rugby tournament in New Hampshire.

The union’s reach extends beyond the playing field, too. Members post job opportunities on the union’s e-mail listserv and help out when someone moves to a new city. (St. Onge, who was elected National Wheaton Fund co-chair at Homecoming last fall, and Lounder, who is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park, live just a few blocks away from each other in D.C. They credit their strong friendship to the union.) And planning has already begun for a group trip to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where rugby will be an official sport.

“Rugby, to me, is less about the physical sport—it’s the camaraderie; it’s the friendship,” St. Onge said. “That to me is what’s important.”

Photo by Nicki Pardo