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The Rugby Raiders

Scarsdale grads pick up new sport in college

Jim Maclean PHOTO

Nick Civetta carries the ball for Lazlom1927, a top pro rugby team in Italy.


Twenty-four-year-old Nick Civetta has two degrees in engineering, yet for the last nine months he found himself an even better job — he’s been playing professional rugby in Italy for Lazio 1927 in the top league in the country, Eccellenza. Civetta put a good salary and a bright future on hold in favor of a livable wage and a future full of bumps and bruises.

“I was a consulting engineer at a design firm and it was a good job,” Civetta said. “It paid better than rugby, but rugby was a big priority and I think that was pretty obvious to my bosses. It’s enough money to live every month, not saving much, but it’s exactly what I want to be doing, so the money isn’t really too much of an issue.”

The 2007 Scarsdale High School graduate played football and wrestled for the Raiders. When he went off to Notre Dame he realized he no longer had a sport to keep him in shape. He also missed the camaraderie of being part of a team. “I was just looking for casual college rugby,” he said. But his new hobby got serious very quickly.

As one of his coaches predicted just two weeks into his first winter of rugby training, with hard work Civetta would become a college All-American. He did that twice, making the Men’s Collegiate All-Americans Touring Squad junior and senior years.

“My coach was saying not just my ability to tackle, but willingness to tackle well, was the first indicator that I could be a good player,” Civetta said. “Beyond that, everyone plays with their hands, everyone gets their hands on the ball, so my ability to pass the ball well and ability to distribute the ball well was good, too.”

You can pick up rugby basics easily, but it takes years to learn all the intricacies and the rules. The biggest adjustment for Civetta in the sport that is growing rapidly in the United States was the running. It took him two years to get his cardiovascular strength where it needed to be to compete at a high level.

In college, rugby is a club sport, not an NCAA sport, but it is taken just as seriously on campuses across the country. Rugby didn’t come to Notre Dame until Civetta’s freshman year and the team went from newcomer to ranked 15 by his senior year, a truly impressive rise.

The 6-foot-9 Civetta graduated from Notre Dame in 2011 and went to Cal Berkeley to get his master’s. There he played club rugby.

“That’s when I realized I had a chance to play for the U.S.A., to actually get a cap with the Eagles,” Civetta said. “Studying for my master’s and playing was a pretty hellish schedule, but I was trying to push myself hard in both things. When I finished my master’s in 2012, I moved back to New York to start working and that’s when I got my first opportunity to try out for the U.S.A., the fall of 2012.”

That year Civetta was with the U.S.A.’s A team, which is actually the second team. He hopes to get the chance to try out for the U.S. team — the Eagles — this summer, building off his first year of professional rugby, following a year in which he was recovering from shoulder surgery for a torn labrum.

Civetta signed his Lazio 1927 contract in May of last year and immediately quit his job to get in playing shape for preseason in Italy, which began in August All of a sudden he’d be playing a nine-month season where he’d be training every day.

“The biggest thing for me is playing all the time,” Civetta said. “There’s nothing to do but train and become a better rugby player. Every day that’s my focus. In the states you can’t really do that — you’ve got to work, you’ve got to study, you’ve got to do something. Here I’m training nine times a week. You get better through repetition and games. If you’re playing in the U.S. in the club scene, you’re not going to get 30 high quality games in a year. You’ll get maybe 10. To have that many minutes of rugby to play and to get the opportunity to play every game has really developed me as a player. You have to play your best every weekend here.”

Living in Rome has been an amazing experience Civetta never imagined he would have. It was a unique door that rugby opened up for him.

“It’s really fantastic, a great place to live as a young man,” Civetta said. “The food is incredible. I don’t live in a really touristy area, so the food is great and it’s cheap. The people are nice, my teammates are great. Since my family is Italian, it’s good to reacquaint myself with the places that my family is from. I’ve had to learn Italian as well. The coaching is in Italian. That’s been the coolest part, getting a handle on a new language, the language of my ancestors.”

The season ends in a few weeks and Civetta’s contract will be up. He’s not sure what next year will bring, but he hopes to play in Europe again, ideally in France, where the better rugby and the better money can be found. Civetta will be back in Scarsdale this spring weighing his options and training.

“It was definitely a good decision coming to Italy,” Civetta said. “It’s a lot more fun than being an engineer. I didn’t plan any of this, but I can always come back to engineering — if I still have a brain.”

Civetta’s goal is lofty; he wants to play for the U.S.A. in the World Cup in 2015. “That’s really what motivated me to come over here,” he said. “I’m going to push to play at the highest level I can next year to prepare myself for the Rugby World Cup Qualifier Camps.”

This spring and summer, Civetta plans to work out again with New York Athletic Club’s elite team along with another Scarsdale grad, Sam Freihofner (SHS ’08), who picked up the sport late in his college career. “He could be really good,” Civetta said. “He could be an incredible player. He’s a hell of an athlete. I hope to get him to take it real seriously.”

Post-lacrosse standout

Freihofner played football and lacrosse at Scarsdale, and after transferring from Brigham Young to New England College, he excelled on the school’s men’s lacrosse team. With his NCAA eligibility up after the 2012 spring season, but with another semester of college to go due to his transfer, a friend encouraged Freihofner to try rugby. He immediately took to the sport, and even hung around for an extra extra semester to finish up one class to play for a full year.

“A lot of the people on my team were new to it since it was a lot of Americans,” Freihofner said. “It was never looked down upon to not know anything about the sport. We had a couple of internationals from New Zealand and they really were key in getting everyone going.”

The team won its Northeast qualifier in the fall of 2012 and was ranked No. 1 in the country. Freihofner, the second leading scorer in the Northeast Region that fall, wanted to play in nationals in the spring. He took his final class and worked for one of the rugby coaches, who owned a flooring company, so he could play at nationals in Colorado.

“It was difficult doing manual labor all day, coming home for 10 minutes and running right to practice and then having the same guy in charge, but it was fun,” Freihofner said. “I got into it. I was obviously so dead tired at first, but then my body got used to the bending over. It was hard and I really liked it and I’m glad I took the time to do it.”

At nationals in the spring of 2013, NEC placed third in the division. In the semifinals the team lost by one point to Duke. What Freihofner learned this week is that one of the members of the opposing team was fellow Scarsdale grad Arthur Whyte (class of ’10), who is now a senior at Duke.

“We were playing all these teams with schools three times the size of ours and we won the consolation and got third,” Freihofner said. “Then we did the sevens tourney in Philadelphia after that and I got injured.”

Freihofner had no experience with rugby going in and said it’s nothing like any other sport.

“The more you learn about rugby, the more you learn it’s entirely different,” he said. “I really enjoyed it a lot. It was a little hard at first. It’s the small rules that every game has. With football you know it your whole life. I’ve always like physicality, so that wasn’t much of a problem.”

Mr. President

Whyte, a public policy major and economics minor, is the president of the Duke Rugby Football Club. In addition to his love for the sport, leading the club has been a tremendous opportunity for the senior, who has one more semester of college left.

“I think it’s extremely valuable experience,” Whyte said. “It gives me a little power, but it gives me a lot of responsibility. I have to be on top of my game, I have to be extremely organized. I have to make sure that I know what’s going on at all times with the team. I’m caring about everyone on the team and making sure everyone is satisfied and getting what they want out of the club and the sport. It’s good preparation for the real world.”

Whyte was on the track and field team at Duke — he was an elite jumper and sprinter at Scarsdale — but found the time commitment too much in college. A Duke schoolmate from England got him to try rugby two years ago and last fall he was the team’s leading scorer.

“Rugby really gave me the competitive side of sports without the extravagant time commitment that track involved,” Whyte said. “It was really interesting. I didn't even know the sport was in the U.S. The first time I saw it, it looked so crazy to me, so different from anything I’ve ever seen. But I got out there and it felt really good. They guys were all nice and really accepting of new members of all skill levels, especially in the U.S. It seemed like a sport I could get into and I could thrive at.” There is a notion that rugby is a violent, dangerous, barbaric game. And that’s completely true.

“Honestly it’s more brutal than people think,” Whyte said. “I can’t believe how brutal it is. I’ve been lucky to avoid a lot of injuries. I broke a rib in the fall and I was out three or four weeks. There’s at least a concussion every one or two games and kids are always injured, but the sport is a ton of fun.”

What stands out for Whyte beyond the game itself is the community aspect of rugby. Not only are people willing to teach and embrace newcomers, but opponents will give each other advice after games.

“The culture of rugby is a true brotherhood,” Whyte said. “You meet a rugby player from anywhere around the world and they will give you somewhere to live, a house for the night, they will take you out, buy you dinner, buy you drinks, anything. The rugby culture is something I’ve never encountered before. It’s something that I could not have expected, but something I’ve found and come to love about rugby. It’s a brute’s game played by gentlemen. On the field you’re a brute, you’re absolutely wild, you’re trying to kill the other guy. Off the field everyone is cordial and polite.”

Last year at nationals Duke took silver in its division, an experience Whyte said he will never forget. The team went up a division this year, a big adjustment.

“I think we’re going to have a lot of fun this semester,” Whyte said. “That’s one of the focuses when it comes to rugby, at least at Duke, is enjoying ourselves. We go out there and have a good time. We compete and sometimes we lose, sometimes we win. The most important thing is to enjoy what we’re doing on the field, that we’re doing something worthwhile. I want to leave this team in a better place than I found it.”

Brains and Braun

Another former Raider playing in college is Jack Braun (class of ’12), who picked up wrestling as a high school sophomore and was nearly a Section 1 champion. He has had a similar rise through the college rugby ranks, having zero knowledge of the game when he arrived at Dartmouth two falls ago.

“I wrestled in high school and they didn’t have wrestling here, so I said, ‘What the heck, I’ll try rugby,’” Braun said. “I came out and a bunch of other guys from my class were there and it just felt like being on the wrestling team again, just a really good team culture. And the sport is physical.”

In November, Dartmouth was third at the college sevens nationals. Braun was part of that competing team and he wants to continue playing at a high level.

“My first goal is to make it to the national sevens team that we’ll be fielding in Philadelphia in early June,” Braun said. “Dartmouth had back-to-back national titles in 2011 and 2012 and we have a very good team this year, so it’s going to be competitive to make my spot. I went to nationals in the fall, so I’d like to make it to this one as well. That’s where my focus is now.”

Braun described Dartmouth as a “high-powered program.” The coaching is stellar and rugby has its own clubhouse and fields.

“Even though it’s a club sport, it’s definitely treated like a varsity sport here, with practice as demanding as any varsity sport and definitely the same type of support and facilities,” Braun said.

Like Whyte did at Duke, Braun would like to earn a leadership position with his club as an upperclassman, in addition to improving his skills.

“I didn’t realize how many schools have rugby,” Braun said. “I think once you get to college it’s a bigger part of campus sports. It’s not varsity and because it’s not native to the U.S. there are not a lot of people recruited, so it leaves a big gap for interested sporty guys who want to find something to do. It’s growing in the country and becoming a lot more popular.”

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April 25, 2014