This weekend if you ask New Yorkers what is the biggest sporting event going on they will say the Subway Series with all of its playoff ramifications, but if you ask the Petri family of Brooklyn they will probably agree with millions outside of Gotham that the biggest event…actually the second-biggest event on a global scale at any time…is actually starting in the UK. It is Rugby World Cup, and New York’s ties to American success in the scrum are pretty impressive.
They start at Xavier High School in Manhattan, which has one of the nation’s oldest high school rugby program, and as the sport has grown in recent years in the U.S., is become to rugby on the college level and the professional level what legendary DeMatha High School in Maryland was to basketball or Massillon High School in Ohio was to college football, the cradle of great play, innovation and growth.
The USA Eagles, who are entering the tournament ranked 15th, will again be well represented by Xavier alums “Famous Shamus” Kelly, who starred at Cal, and Mike Petri, who went on to play at Penn State, along with head coach Mike Tolkin, who helped create the program at the school over 30 years ago. Of the three, Petri, who grew up in Bay Ridge and whose mom works at nearby Xaverian High School, might epitomize the story of what we think of when we hear about a global sport reaching new heights in the U.S.
You see, while many of the world’s best players, including half of the U.S. team, have rugby as a profession, Petri remains a teacher at Xavier, and had to get permission from the headmaster to play in World Cup. Filling the staffing hole with a substitute might seem like a no-brainer, but with rugby still not at the professional level in The States, having that fulltime job back home still pays the bills. The school for its part is very supportive of the work its alumni are doing to grow the game, and will be tuning in, probably between innings of Mets-Yankees this weekend.
“The kids at Xavier are excited for me,” Petri told the Daily News this week. “They’ve been sending me emails wishing me luck. It’s inspirational for the kids you work with to be so excited about what you do.”
The son of a former football player at Villanova, Petri has been able to parlay his love for sport and teaching into other endeavors as well. American International Group (AIG), the New York-based insurance conglomerate and sponsor of the vaunted All Blacks of New Zealand, chose Petri as their American face of the sport, creating a promotional campaign around him and also helping underwrite a children’s book, “R is For Rugby,” which teaches small kids about grammar and his beloved sport. Petri said he was inspired to write the book while he and his wife Lauren, a personal trainer, were expecting their daughter Evie, now 21 months old.
“It was a great project and we think will help get more young people to enjoy the game at an early age,” he added.
There has been much talk of a league, especially one in the ultra-fast version of Sevens (which will be part of the Olympics in Rio next summer for both men’s and women’s contests, and the U.S. has qualified both teams), coming of age in the United States, and Petri is hoping it happens before his playing days end. But for now, he is happy teaching, coaching, and most importantly playing, on the biggest stage for the game he loves this weekend, even if many back home will be looking to a diamond or a gridiron this weekend.