Warthogs on the Loose

These youth rugby players have coaches who promote character, confidence, and teamwork on and off the field.


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Photo by Ariel Nava

The outlook was grim for Felipe Lopez as a teenager growing up in the Fruitvale District. He was sleeping in the closet of his family’s crowded two-bedroom apartment, his grades were dismal and, with his parents’ combined income less than $30,000 annually, college seemed a distant and impossible dream.

Then, along came the Warthogs.

“The Warthogs changed my life,” said Lopez, now 23, a recent graduate of Chico State University with a full-time job as a construction manager. “If it wasn’t for the Warthogs, I wouldn’t have known what’s out there. I’d be working for minimum wage. The Warthogs changed everything for me.”

He’s not talking about the warthogs at the Oakland Zoo. The city’s other Warthogs are a youth rugby team, a collection of 40 or so high school-aged boys primarily from East Oakland who gather five days a week to play what’s essentially football without pads. And they’re good—even though the team lacks the resources of richer, suburban teams, numerous Warthog alumni have gone on to play for the Under-20 All American Team and international semi-pro rugby. Some have even gone to play in the mecca of rugby, New Zealand, land of the Haka dance and the fearsome All Blacks (about 70 percent of the Warthogs are Pacific Islanders).

But, as team President Ryan Burke points out, the stat he’s most proud of is the team’s 100 percent high-school graduation rate. Many Warthogs go on to college, no small feat considering that many live in poverty, their parents are often working several jobs to make ends meet, and most players face the challenges of growing up in rough neighborhoods.

But for Burke and the coaches, that’s what makes the team special.

“These kids are our brothers. We look out for them, not just during the season but all year long,” said Burke, a Jefferson Award winner and commercial construction manager. “They know we love them.”

Burke, a former college rugby player, co-founded the Warthogs 11 years ago as a way to stay active in the sport that he says saved him from a particularly pugilistic adolescence.

“I grew up fighting a lot,” he said. “I never walked away from a fight. In rugby, you’re out there smashing each other, but it’s just a match. At the end, you shake hands, the host team feeds the visitors, and we sing rugby songs together. It’s a great lesson for life, and it really helped me.”

Photo by Ariel Nava

Coach Yasha Ghaffarzadeh.

Ryan and his coaches don’t just teach rugby; they take the players on college visits (which few would be able to afford otherwise), provide financial literacy classes, and organize community service projects, such as feeding the homeless. The coaches also require players to show their report cards and maintain at least a C average. In 2012, Burke canceled a playoff game because a few of the players didn’t submit their report cards.

“We really try to focus on character, confidence, teamwork … We talk to the kids outside of practice, teach them to put selfishness aside,” said Coach Yasha Ghaffarzadeh. “We try to create a family atmosphere.”

It worked for Lopez. Like many teenagers, he was a little unfocused before joining the Warthogs as an eighth grader. He had rarely traveled, and playing with the Warthogs meant visiting schools around the region, meeting other players and seeing what lies beyond International Boulevard.

“I saw the coaches as mentors,” he said. “They went through a lot of trouble for us. And I just fell in love with the sport. It was like going to war with your friends and family and then celebrating every week. It was just an awesome experience.”

Lopez continued to play rugby at Chico State, and now plans to join an adult team and help out with the Warthogs.

“Without the Warthogs, I’d have been lost,” he said.

To provide uniforms, equipment and tournament fees for its players, the Warthogs subsist on grants and donations from the public.

Learn more at www.OaklandWarthogsRFC.com.

 

Published online on Jan. 23, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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