The projects of Jersey City may seem like the last place you’d find a U-19’s rugby team. With its high crime rate, even the best-intentioned young men are constantly at risk, simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is changing however, thanks to Police Sargent Frank Williams of the Jersey City Police Athletic League (JCPAL). Williams has long been dedicated to providing the youth of his city with sport-related gateways out of poverty and his most recent addition is no different in the form of the JCPAL Honey Badgers, a combined 15’s and Sevens rugby union team.

Rugby is a sport that is basically unknown to many of Jersey City’s youth, especially for those living in the inner city and this is precisely why it caught William’s attention. He wanted to expose the kids to something far outside their comfort zone, and to give them inspiration that would echo far beyond the sport itself. His goal was, and continues to be, not just to create great ruggers, but rather talented and influential professionals. Though this might seem unorthodox, he has been pioneering this approach for some time now and it works.  

Williams first discovered the potential of using sports as a springboard to a brighter future for his boys long before the creation of the rugby team itself. His first experience with non-traditional sports came when he formed a wrestling team for JCPAL, something that public schools in Jersey City had never been involved in. Because of the lack of available competitors in the inner city itself, Williams was forced to look further afield and arrange competitions in the suburbs. It was during the JCPAL’s first tournament there that he became aware of the true power of what he was doing.

 As Williams himself says, “The kids came back with their coach, and I asked them on Monday ‘how did you guys do?’ and they told us how they did, but all they could keep talking about was that they had seen all these houses that had pools in their backyards.”

 This conversation made Williams realize that exposing the boys in his program to life outside the suburbs was far more important than he had previously realized because it gave them a new sense that anything was attainable if they put enough effort in. Encouraged by this first success he began to look for sports that would by necessity take him and his team out of the city and give them the chance to see a world of endless possibilities.

“The exposure had just has great an effect as the sport itself. They see Mercedes Benz and BMW’s in the parking lot and I can take that and use it to piggyback the idea ‘yeh, that’s a doctor, that’s a lawyer, that’s a CEO… You want to do that, you have to go to school, you need to finish high school and go to college.’ It gets them along the mindset of it’s just not going through 12 grades and then youre done and you stay in the city and see nothing else.”

It was not long before he found rugby. Williams had been raised in American football but both he and his kids instantly fell in love with the game, and the unique qualities that have drawn in so many before them. In particular, the responsibility the team has to decide on its own plays and strategy mid-game instead of being constantly supersized by a coach has been a massive confidence boost for the Honey Badgers.

When asked about how he attracts young men to the program and who it best serves, Williams is quick to dismiss the idea that JCPAL is designed to cater to “bad kids.” Instead he says that any young person living in the projects faces the possibility of falling in with crime, and that many are not given the support they need to effectively keep them away from trouble. “There are millions and millions of dollars spent on the bad kids, between juvie hall and special camps etc. and they spend next to zero on the good kids. When you do the math, there are more good kids walking the street than bad kids.” Because of this, JCPAL focuses its energies on those who stay away from crime, and the “knuckleheads” who might get involved with unlawful activity but are not yet full-blown criminals.

Williams understands this distinction more than most, having grown up in the projects himself. As a young man he saw the temptation of crime on a daily basis but managed to travel in another direction, mostly because of the sports coaches who saw his potential and gave him a helping hand. Now he has dedicated himself to doing the same for others and it seems to be paying off, if his kids are anything to go by.

 

Since introducing his boys to rugby Williams has seen an amazing amount of growth from his young players, both mentally and physically. Many have taken to the sport with true passion and made it their own, to the point that one of his most promising recruits may soon be scouted for a place on a European professional team after graduating. Their studies too have improved, in part because Williams demands a strict code of ethics and etiquette that players must use towards all the adults in their life if they hope to make the team on game day.

In all, the Honey Badgers are going from strength to strength. Williams has attracted as many as 140 boys to the program, many of these in his 5 to 14’s touch league and feels that this is just the beginning. Already this year his His U-19’s had the opportunity to play their first real tournament at this years CRC’s and, even after suffering all day playing in the Philadelphia heat, they had the heart to run a clinic for local high school students. Williams says that when all is said and done, it is the texts he regularly receives from the families that really makes all his hard work and dedication seem worthwhile as they tell of happier, more confident young men forever changed by a sport that a few years ago even their coach had known nothing about.

Williams himself has many hopes for the future, from securing enough funding for five inner- city rugby teams across Jersey City, to simply having a team photo taken knee deep in the Atlantic after the Cape Fear Tournament in North Carolina this July as some of his boys have never had the opportunity to visit a beach. Whatever happens though, he feels that the future of rugby is assured, and that in ten years time an average youth in the inner-city will walk along the street carrying a rugby ball under one arm and be as accepted as another coming the other way with a basketball.

 

 

-Thomas Remp