Nine-year-old Ellis Palmer received the toss and built up a full head of steam. Much like the heroes he watches on the gridiron, he spun a nifty move to avoid contact from a defender, then sprinted from the pack, crossing the goal line to score.
Only Palmer wasn’t wearing a helmet and shoulder pads. In fact, he wasn’t even playing football. He was one of more than 30 kids—some from as far away as South Bend, Indiana—who came to Revere Park in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood to play rugby on a warm August afternoon.
The clinic, organized by the nonprofit Chicago Wapiti Rugby Football Club, followed a successful inaugural season last spring. “It started because we wanted our own kids to play,” says Al Geiser, one of the founders. “There are some teams in Illinois, but we didn’t want to spend every weekend driving all over the state. We thought, if we had a league, we could just stay here in Chicago and learn the sport.”
Of course, when it comes to rugby in America, their primary obstacle was overcoming misconceptions about the game.
First things first: The Wapiti plays noncontact youth rugby—known as rookie rugby—with seven players on a side, no tackling. Think two-hand touch football. There are no rucks, mauls, scrums or lineouts. You don’t even have to know what any of those words mean, except to understand that they involve excessive contact. “At this age, we just want all kids to get familiar with the ball and the movement of the game,” says cofounder Ray Karenas.
For the uninitiated, rugby is a cross between American football and soccer; the object is to advance the rugby ball across a goal line and touch it down (literally). Slightly bulkier than a football, the ball can only be passed backward, but the sport plays more like soccer, with no stopping between plays.
“I like rugby over soccer because at this age, kids don’t have the coordination with their feet,” Geiser says. “Here, they can use their hands, which they’re used to.”
The Wapiti, named for a North American elk, attracted more than 75 participants (ages 4–14) in its first season, which ran from March to June. Girls made up about 15 percent of the league, playing alongside boys the same age.
More impressively, 25 coaches were recruited to place the emphasis on teaching. They hold two-hour clinics, $5 per player, the third Sunday of every month outside the season, and local adult clubs such as the Chicago Lions help with coaching and offer demonstrations.
Ellis Palmer, the would-be Walter Payton, played in the first season and has attended most clinics. “It’s really fun,” he says. “You run a lot, and it’s fun to make people miss.”
The younger kids—close to a dozen four-, five- and six-year-olds showed up at the August clinic—spend most of the time learning to toss the ball while running around. During the season, the kids are organized by age (under seven, under nine, etc.), although coaches also use skill level to field competitive teams.
“They sure get a lot more exercise than in T-ball,” Karenas says with a laugh.