It’s probably not too surprising that a Catholic order conceived in the aftermath of battle, one which has always seasoned its intellectual and spiritual fervor with a healthy respect for physical strength, has become the principal force behind the growth of American rugby.
So many Jesuit high schools and colleges are playing and succeeding at the rugged and increasingly popular sport that it seems as if the 477-year-old religious order, founded by a converted Spanish soldier, Ignatius of Loyola, has added rugby devotion to its vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
“The whole idea of what Ignatius inspired in Jesuits, a competitive spirit and the development of the whole person, is really alive in the sport,” said the Jesuit Father Bruce Bidinger, a counselor at St. Joseph’s University and the chaplain for its basketball team.
The traditional game, with 15 players on each side, and the hybrid “sevens” version, with seven players per side, of the sport are experiencing an American boom, nowhere more so than at the 80-plus Jesuit high schools and colleges from coast to coast.
While Boston College was the only Jesuit school competing in the 2011 USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championship, the rosters of the 15 other teams will be teeming with Jesuit high school products.
“I don’t have any definitive answers [as to why the links between rugby and Jesuits are so strong],” said Colin Curtin, a BC star who played scholastically at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia. “There doesn’t seem to be any reason why there are such great rugby programs and rugby cultures at these schools. But there is. The correlation is unbelievable.”
According to Curtin, plans are in the works for a 2012 Jesuit collegiate tournament featuring BC, Georgetown, Santa Clara, and Fairfield. Curtin said that in his senior year at St. Joe’s Prep, when the rugby team played in the national championships, “at least three or four of the other teams were from Jesuit schools.”
In a recent Rugby Magazine poll of the nation’s best high school rugby teams, five of the top 10 – and seven of the top 17 – were from Jesuit institutions in Sacramento, New York City, Dallas, New Orleans, and Washington.
Overall, there are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. Most, like St. Joe’s, Scranton, Georgetown, Santa Clara, and BC, have rugby teams. Almost all play at the club level since rugby is not an NCAA-approved varsity sport.
“Those [Jesuit] schools produce smart, tough players who are also good students,” said Alex Goff, the editor of Rugby Magazine.
Though Gonzaga of Washington was the top-rated team for much of 2011, this year’s high school championship was won by Jesuit High of Sacramento over Xavier of New York, the latter a Jesuit school in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
The Sacramento school has long been the primary feeder for the dynastic rugby program at Cal, which has won 26 national collegiate rugby titles. Seven players on the U.S. national team – Ray Lehner, Kirk Khasigian, Chris Miller, Kort Schubert, Lou Stanfill, Eric Fry, and Colin Hawley – played at both Jesuit and Cal.
The Jesuits, of course, being a religious order, have not overlooked the opportunities rugby offers for evangelizing.
“It’s like St. Ignatius said,” Father James Keane, a Jesuit with a passion for the sport, said of that possibility, “‘You go in their door. You bring them out ours.’”