As the physical education teacher at I.S. 392, where he began in the school’s second year, 2005, Mr. Grozav attended a professional development workshop featuring Play Rugby USA. Curious, he studied the game, introduced flag rugby into gym classes and then, during the 2007-8 school year, started the school’s coeducational rugby team. (All the school-age teams play flag rugby, with no tackling.)
Only 10 children showed up on the first day of practice (you need seven players to field a team, and at least a dozen to play a full game). So Mr. Grozav recruited actively; attendance increased after each practice. By the end of the season, I.S. 392 had a coeducational team 40 strong. It also had its first Rugby Cup championship, which the team successfully defended the following two years.
In 2012, Mr. Grozav split the squad between boys and girls to accommodate more players, with the girls taking the all-girls cup in their first year and again last year, while the boys have continued to compete for the cup on their own.
“They are good kids and good athletes,” Mr. Grozav said with pride. “Well behaved and self-motivated. They listen well, and they know the game.”
The success of the program is no doubt in part the result of Mr. Grozav’s coaching, but it also reflects a larger culture that permeates the school.
I.S. 392 is housed in a modern four-story building that features a glass facade and a fenced-in schoolyard. Since the building’s opening in 2004, I.S. 392 (also known as the School for the Gifted and Talented) has differentiated itself from the grammar school in its building, Public School 156, by maroon uniforms and classrooms on the top floor off a long hallway heavily adorned with exemplary schoolwork, academic awards and artistic accomplishment. The I.S. 392 trophy case is stuffed with prizes for both rugby and track and field.
The sixth, seventh and eighth graders are accepted from the local school district through a selective admissions process. Almost all of the nearly 300 students qualify for discounted or free lunch. The rigorous academic standards produce students who attend the city’s most selective high schools. Within the classroom and beyond, students are bombarded with enrichment programs, like residencies for writing and dance, theater trips, international travel, mentoring programs, art contests and summer study programs at Princeton.
“Many of our students cross challenging pathways to get here each day, but once here, it is a haven,” Principal Ingrid Joseph said. “We allow them to reach for things they may not normally be exposed to, to express themselves in any way they choose.”
Unlikely as it may seem, rugby has emerged as a vital outlet and a proven path. Issa Sylla, who starred for Mr. Grozav’s original teams and was valedictorian in 2009, is a sophomore at Dartmouth College on an academic scholarship, and he continues to play rugby there.
“I cannot put into words how much impact the school and rugby has had on my life,” Mr. Sylla said recently. “In a neighborhood that did not — and still does not — have the best reputation, the school was like a shelter from everything else. If it were not for the teachers who cared and the great education I received, I certainly would not be where I am right now.”
Many other players have used rugby as an avenue beyond Brownsville, playing for club teams and attending summer camps around the country under the auspices of Play Rugby USA.
One of the players who has taken full advantage of all the rugby opportunities afforded through I.S. 392 is a coiled and slender seventh grader named Isaiah Anthony, this year’s team captain. Isaiah was having a fantastic Rugby Cup tournament on Randalls Island, using elusive jukes and blinding speed to help his team to the finals. The girls were upset in the quarterfinals by Junior High School 185 out of Queens in a disappointing loss. After some words of consolation and encouragement from Coach Grozav, the girls quickly regrouped to cheer on the boys, who faced another established Brooklyn team, Middle School 282 of Park Slope.
The championship game entered its final minute with the score tied 3-3. After a series of perfectly executed passes, the ball ended up in the hands of Isaiah, who deftly eluded two defenders and sprinted to the goal line, where he tapped the ball down seconds before the final horn sounded. The I.S. 392 sidelines exploded, and the players, both boys and girls, the parents and Principal Joseph swarmed the field as Coach Grozav did a Romanian jig and unleashed his ponytail, soon to be doused by a cascade of water from a large cooler.
After the boys’ team and the coach posed for many pictures, all the representatives of I.S. 392 boarded their buses and returned to Brownsville to stock another Rugby Cup in the trophy case.
Published on The New York Times Post: Brownsville’s Unlikely Rugby Dynasty