There is a book by Michael MacCambridge called “America’s Game,” which chronicles the NFL’s rise in the latter half of the 20th century. The most fascinating aspect of the more than 500 page book is how the NFL’s survival in the United States, now seemingly predestined, was in question less than 70 years ago. A small group of driven, business minded men believed in the sport that they loved and it has quickly evolved into a Gladiators-in-Rome level spectacle that generates over $5 Billion a year in revenue.
At Moakley Field in South Boston, a group of Rugby players in their 20s are creating a foundation for the future success of professional Rugby in the United States. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Boston 13s of the American National Rugby League.
Mikhael Shammas, the Founder and President of the Boston Thirteens R.L.F.C., Inc., is a man with a truly entrepreneurial spirit. Mik is a 28-year-old graduate student at Harvard University with a focus on International Management. From the United Kingdom, he fell in love with Rugby as a teenager, played for the Lebanese national team, and owned a team called the Wolves in Beirut. The 13s are not just a hobby for Mik, he has serious aspirations. Mik states; "The Boston 13s R.L.F.C., Inc. is more than just a mundane sporting entity; both to myself, its management, our team, and all fans. It represents a true desideratum: something longed and wanted. Through the team, I rightfully intend to inspire the empyreal values of leadership, commitment, camaraderie and consciousness; and therein spread these further afield throughout New England, as a whole, and then throughout North America itself."
The 13s consist of a diverse mixture of local and foreign players. George Aroyan is an Australian who is of Lebanese descent and played semi-professionally in Australia. Smart and cerebral, George is one of the vocal leaders of the team. Aroyan has great speed and the ability to break tackles despite his diminutive size.
At around 6’2" tall and 260 pounds Setefano Su’a Leotele Talavave (his teammates call him Sully) is a physical marvel. Coupled with his immense size Sully also has tremendous pace and great moves. He played on the U-18 National Team in Australia and has world class skill.
Jon Mixon and Michael Bozza are both from Billerica, Massachusetts. Bozza, the 13s Captain, played rugby at UMass Amherst after being a standout lacrosse and hockey player in high school. Mixon plays like a man possessed and goes out on the field looking to initiate physical contact.
The local players are especially conscious of portraying themselves as role models to the children around the area, and are looking to advance the sport while focusing on having an impact beyond the field. "We plan on starting a youth league in the area we grew up in." said Ben McHugh, who is a member of the 13s and a Business Development Officer for the team, as well as a Chelmsford native. "If we keep kids off the streets and teach them discipline", McHugh continued, "then we are giving back to where we grew up."
The 13s joined the ANRL in 2009 and had immediate success, making it to the semifinals in their inaugural season. With 11 teams, including clubs in New York (the defending champions), Connecticut, Washington DC, and Jacksonville, the league is growing rapidly.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the league is the fact that traveling is not an after thought. You need to have love for something if you are willing to fly to Jacksonville, or drive to DC, to get it. This hunger is visible in all aspects of the 13s. Instead of complacently accepting their place as a niche sport in a country that does not understand anything beyond what they are used to (read: football, basketball, baseball, and hockey), all members of the team are driven to be remembered as pioneers. Everything, be it marketing or public relations, is at a grassroots level right now. The focus for the 13s is to grow rugby in the United States, but they realize that it will be through their hard work that future generations will prosper. As McHugh said, "It is the American Dream."
Rugby is a nuanced sport that requires all around athleticism; all faults are exposed. A large portion of the game is played in the open field with constant laterals and features word class athletes with an affinity for lowering their heads and breaking tackles. Like anything on the rise, the 13s success is predicated on individuals giving something different a chance. It is a rare time when you can see something at its purest level, especially modern day competitive sports. The 13s are not driven by money or fame, but by a will to share something they love with the masses; appreciate that.
The Boston 13s R.L.F.C., Inc will have three home games at Moakley Stadium this summer. They have recruited a dance team and are predicted to compete for the league championship.