Playing Lake Highlands High School football means living the dream. Team members are neighborhood stars engaging in competitive play under the tutelage of a capable coaching staff. They perform at a top notch stadium with amenities and enjoy the whole gamut of support, with neighbors, community businesses cheerleaders, band, drill teams and dancers rallying them on come game night.
But, wake up call: According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only about one in 17 high school players goes on to play college football, and only about eight in 10,000 high school football players go pro — not great odds for those desiring extended athletic careers. So what do retired LHHS football players do when those Friday Night Lights have dimmed, but the fire for competition, camaraderie and face-in-the-dirt fun still burns?
Some have discovered that an age-old game played with an oddly shaped ball fits the bill. Playwright Oscar Wilde once said, “Rugby is a good occasion for keeping 30 bullies far from the center of the city.” Though he does fancy a good shoving match on the field, 1989 Lake Highlands grad Ted Hill is no bully. You’re likely to find him most days sporting a suit and tie while working, quite cordially, with his clients at the insurance company founded by him and his father, Ray. After playing football since the third grade, Hill played four years in high school and one more at a small college. When he transferred to Baylor University, he put the game aside, but immediately felt a loss.
“I started looking for that competitive feeling again,” Hill says.
A Baylor classmate, Brent Burton, helped him find it. Burton worked at the university gym monitoring field equipment. One day, a group of students came in asking to check out a half-dozen footballs — that piqued his curiosity, and he found out the gang was starting up a rugby team.
“Brent called me up and asked me if I wanted to try out with him,” Hill says. “I said ‘sure’.”
Hill has been involved in the rough-and-tumble sport ever since — at Baylor and then for the Dallas Rugby Football Club where he later went into operations. Today, he and a handful of other LHHS alums are part of the Harlequins Rugby Club.
Harlequins player Blake Rodgers, who graduated from LHHS in 2004, started dabbling in the sport during his junior year of college. It might seem the transition between rugby and football would come naturally.
“That really wasn’t the case for me,” Rodgers says. “In rugby, you use totally different tackling styles than in football.”
But rugby is a game for any body type — small, tall, skinny or thick — you just have to be plucky, he says. He grew fond of rugby’s nuances, intense physicality and the feeling of camaraderie among those hometown boys who played the traditionally European sport. Rodgers continued to play both football and rugby until he finished college (also at Baylor), and thinks he’ll stick with the latter for the long haul.
If the terminology and required skills vary from sport to sport, some things don’t change. Even recreational-level rugby requires a high level of commitment. Dan Carson, starting quarterback and safety for the Wildcats from 2001 through 2003, says the transition from football to rugby came relatively easily for him and says his post on the ‘Quins’ is like a second job. Working in pharmaceuticals by day, he trains every other day and normally dedicates his entire weekend to games and tournaments.
“It’s not great for the girlfriend situation,” he says, and the others laugh knowingly.
Gathered at Lake Highlands Park on a blustery Sunday, the three former football players are at ease and jovial with one another. Although their graduation years and careers contrast, they are clearly bonded by their mutual love of this sport. They make it a point to mention another member of their unofficial Life-After-Football club, Justin Boyd, a LHHS grad who couldn’t join them because he is traveling with the USA Rugby team, which recently competed in the USA International Sevens, the largest international rugby event in America.
The former football players emerge from a series of tackles, trash-talking, grass-stain gathering, skull smashing and bursts-of-speed in such high spirits that it’s easy to see why the men’s magazine Esquire recently cited “play rugby” as No. 1 on its list of “75 Things Every Man Should Do Before He Dies”. (A caption under a photo of dirt- and blood-smeared men reads: “This the last intensely male, broadly human team sport.”)
Catch the next Harlequins game at 2 p.m. Saturday, Mar. 28 at Glencoe Park, Mockingbird near I-75. For more about Harlequins rugby and a full game schedule, visit quins.com.