by Christian Sheckler
Two years ago, Joey Hamby hit rock bottom. But rugby turned his life around.
Hamby, now a freshman at Grace, was raised Catholic but never took Christianity to heart during his upbringing. Through his high school years the Avon, Ind., native played football and led a freewheeling lifestyle of drugs, drinking and sex.
Although he made a half-hearted effort to keep his vices secret, Hamby’s mistakes began to catch up with him.
“I was trying to be the bad kid who was pretending to be good, and I was getting found out,” he said.
Hamby’s penchant for hard-hitting sports drew him to rugby after seeing videos on YouTube, and he started an official club at Avon High School in the fall of 2008.
“All I wanted to do back then was hurt people, and rugby was a good way to do that,” Hamby said.
But God had more than just a chance to hurt people in store for Hamby that fall. A local youth pastor, Tom Graef, volunteered to coach the new rugby club, and he and his son began inviting Hamby to attend church with them.
First, though, Hamby got a wake-up call. “I had two girls pregnant, and I had nowhere to go,” he said. “I was broken.”
Finally, on October 15, Hamby took Graef up on the offer.
“Going to church that day, I was actually at the end of my rope,” Hamby recalled of the day he accepted Christ. “I was thinking, ‘Whatever this God thing is, I need it and I need it now.’”
This fall, with three years of experience—including a stint with a semi-pro team in Detroit—under his belt, Hamby came to Grace with a rugby club atop his list of priorities. Problem was, nobody else at Grace had played a lick of rugby—except for Asher Bontreger.
Bontreger, a junior, has played two years of college soccer but he played his first game of pickup rugby just a year ago. Before that, his knowledge of the sport was limited to the bits and pieces he caught on TV, but he quickly felt drawn to the sport.
“I decided if soccer ever ends for me, I want to play rugby,” said Bontreger, who, along with Hamby, recently won funding from the Student Senate to found Grace’s first rugby club.
The $1,000 awarded by the Student Senate for the club’s first year will go largely toward travel and equipment expenses. According to Bontreger, the investment in dur- able rugby jerseys will prove well worth the price tag.
“T-shirts won’t last,” Bontreger said in a nod to the rough-and-tumble nature of the sport.
Bontreger said 25 men attendede an official callout meeting Wednesday for anyone interested in playing.
Most of the potential recruits have little or no rugby experience, but Bontreger remains optimistic. “We have a lot of guys that have a lot of heart,” he said. “We’re pretty happy to start humbly until we get things going.”
Later this fall, when the squad takes to Beta Field for some practice in preparation for the spring season, Hamby will assume a coaching role. Players will have to learn terms like “rucking,” which is not a swear word but rather a form of tackling, and “scrum,” the pile-up of bodies often associated with rugby.
“The game’s really easy to learn but takes a long time to master,” Hamby said.
But more important than the nuts-and-bolts rules of the game, rugby also includes a unique social aspect.
“After the game, you sit and meet and greet with the other team,” Hamby said. “Sometimes you kick it with the other team for about three hours.”
Usually, that social time centers on alcohol. A common phrase describes the typical rugby club as “a drinking team with a rugby problem,” Hamby said.
But the club’s co-founders hope to use the social aspect of the sport as an opportunity for ministry.
“My old school has a team, and they need the love of Jesus,” said Bontreger, who attended St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., before transferring to Grace.
Grace’s club will play teams from Christian colleges, such as Anderson University, as well as state schools like Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
“We want to be salt and light wherever we go, whether we’re playing among other believers or going to a secular school like St. Joseph’s or IPFW,” Bontreger said.
Given his past, Hamby understands the ministry opportunity as well as anyone. He notes with a touch of pride that the club he founded in Avon now boasts about 75 members, but he keeps things in perspective.
“It’s better to have one person come to Christ than 75 people joining a rugby club,” Hamby said.
He speaks from experience.
This article originally appeared in The Sounding Board.