Author: Casey Ryan, C’95
Today, I’m going to take a more personal direction on my entry. Ten years ago I started Philadelphia’s gay (but inclusive) rugby club – the Philadelphia Gryphons
An opportunity to start an amateur team from scratch was starting me in the face and I jumped in full of passion. Looking back, I realize that working at Penn and launching a team worked mutually to teach me a lot.
It was January 24, 2003 and I was supposed to meet a friend out that night but they had to cancel when a flat tire ruined his plans. Luckily for me, I had made it out to the bar before getting the call. (I might be a social, friendly person, but I actually hate those moments when I’m solo in social places. Yes, somehow, eventually, I start to chat with someone or someone chats with me, but those minutes beforehand are painful).
In the middle of those painful minutes, I noticed a dozen men in a variety of rugby jerseys, drinking, chatting and being gregarious. Wanting to overcome that wee bit of anxiety that I was feeling, I asked one of the jerseyed men, “Is this all about rugby? I noticed your jerseys.” I was directed to a fellow with a sign in sheet. That man, Lars, explained that the Washington Renegades and New York Gotham Knights had planned to come to Philadelphia to encourage the formation of a gay rugby team. Later, I eventually found out that one of the reasons they were creating excitement for gay rugby was to honor their memory of their teammate, Mark Bingham, who died in United Flight 83 on September 11, 2001. He lived a bicoastal life and had found so much enjoyment in playing for the San Francisco Fog, that he helped New York start its team.
I was excited. I never played football since my parents thought that it was too violent. So as a 30-year old, I could make my own decisions, right? Yet, I was aware of rugby as the most popular sport in Irish and British culture due to my own background as an Irish-American. Plus, I had played soccer and missed the camaraderie on being on a team sport. This was what could fill a need that I didn’t know I had until I wrote my name down on the contact list that night.
Within the week after the initial sign up, I received an e-mail from Lars putting all of us interested folks in touch with each other. Replies started to fly out, “It was great to meet all of you” and “I can’t wait to start to play.” I knew time was of the essence. Penn’s adopted adage aut inveniam viam aut faciam (we will find a way or make one) rang through my head; if I wanted to play rugby and I needed to make a team…I sent out a reply all e-mail inviting all to meet at Fadó to talk rugby.
That e-mail got some great responses and one of who was a Wharton PhD candidate, Sam C., W’97, GEN’01, G’03, GRW’04, to be accurate, who traveled between New York and Philadelphia who offered to be captain for the first year until the team got on its feet. As our newly elected captain, he invited John McMullen, who had coached Penn’s Men Rugby Club in 2000, to serve as our team’s first and current coach.
Named President by acclamation, I saw our first goal for the team as recruitment; there are 15 players on a side in a rugby match and to successfully scrimmage we were going to need at least 30 men. Like our Regional Clubs, the Gryphons held membership drives – going to the places where our target audience would be, reaching out to them and explaining the excitement of rugby. Soon after we launched those efforts, Joe Cruz, C’97, CGS’04, GEX’12, Phil Cochetti, C’06, Chris Hatfield, CGS’02, and Dave Weinstein, G’09, joined our team. In six-month’s time, we were able to play our first match and that solidified us as a cohesive group. Behind the scenes, the club worked to join the Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union (EPRU), our local branch of USA Rugby – the governing body for rugby in the States. To prepare for recognition by the EPRU, I took a crash course in 501(c)(3) and (c )(7) status and drafting by-laws from my fellow rugby-players whose day jobs were that of lawyer to help me draft our documents. I use this invaluable information from this exercise to help support my Regional Club volunteers to this day.
By 2004, we had recruited a strong team, including a new Penn player, Joe S., L’04, we had tax exempt status to help earn funds, and we set out to play in the Bingham Cup in London, the biennial international, non-professional, gay rugby tournament started in 2002. This was the vulcanizing events for our young team, traveling to rugby’s birth country to play in the spirit of friendship, sportsmanship and inclusiveness and subsequently winning the Bingham Bowl (quite literately a bowl from the cupboard of the Esher Rugby Club’s Clubhouse.) It was simply amazing.
The team continued on. I stepped down from the Presidency after an amazing two years. (Another post-graduation Penn thing I’ve learned, term limits for volunteers are a good thing.) Yet I was still engaged with the board. I would volunteer for events and continue to play. Yet there comes a time when life asks you to move on and I last played my last match in March 2008. I decided to retire from the team that I was thrilled to see come to fruition; work and family obligations were pulling me away from the game and team I loved. I managed to stay in touch and go to our home pitch in Southwest Philadelphia to watch a match when the Gryphons were playing at home and I wasn’t working the weekend for Penn.
I always felt a warm reception when I was able to make it to these matches. Some original players still played and would wave hi when they saw me during their warm ups. I had befriended some of the newer folks and they would welcome me over to the team’s camp to watch the match with the club. I still was a Gryphon.
However, I wasn’t going to be allowed to remain a passive member of the club. At the beginning of this year, the current President, Phil Cochetti, reached out to me and dove straight to the point, “I have a big favor to ask and I can’t let you say no.”
“Okay, Phil,” I said, bracing myself.
“I need to ask you to chair our Anniversary Committee. You started this team 10 years and we need to celebrate this milestone. Plus with all your work in Alumni Relations, you are the only person I can think of to do with me and two other volunteers.”
If anything, Phil is very adept in using brevity to be extremely persuasive, so he had himself a chair. The 10th Anniversary Party is happening at the end of this month. Over the last four months, I have been relying on my skills in outreach that my class reunion committee volunteers used in order reengage our former players and to encourage them to meet the current team. The committee has been e-mailing, calling, Face-booking, texting and tweeting to reconnect all members of the team. I stole a page from Classes and Reunions’ suggestion book and spearheaded an Alumni Day at our Spring season home opening, which served as a pre-reunion event for our Anniversary.
Due to my days as a staff writer in Wharton External Affairs, I have been inspired to write equally persuasive joint letters from Phil and me to our players, supports and alumni.
“So this Anniversary gala will be a celebration of the work and dedication of the team over the last ten years from our beginnings to our future which you are an integral part of – we will highlight our history, thank our outstanding volunteers and celebrate the devotion of our current players – all of this will culminate in an official public announcement about what will be a once-in-a-lifetime event for team. We want you there to join in this excitement.
We call our former players and supporters alumni and invite them to remain active in the day to day life of the team. Like at Penn – probably because so many of us when to Penn – being a Gryphons is a lifelong relationship with the Club as being a Penn Alumnus starts when you enter campus as a freshman.
In returning back to the club, I have met our newest generation of Gryphons – a group of gentlemen committed to our LGBTA community – where the A standing for our straight allies – and playing rugby to the best of their abilities. In our ranks are several Penn students and a recent alumnus, Femi Fadugba, G’12, Tony Solitro, GR’14, Eddie Goodwin, GR’14, Eric Wong, GR’16 and Hank Bink, GR’16. The Gryphons are seasoned and new to the sport, gay and straight, team players and former solo sports enthusiasts. They are the embodiment of that martial quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”
This is a great reward for all of us involved. For me, personally, I thank the mutual benefit of work and my extracurricular life where I can share skills I hone, the knowledge I learn and the relationships I build between the two so simply. To paraphrase Mr. Franklin, that lesson (that I’ve been taught) is indeed the great aim of my post-Penn learning.