Cristian Rodriguez found the game in Hawaiian Gardens, California through a program called Alternatives to Gang Membership

America

Cristian Rodriguez grew up in Hawaiian Gardens, a tough little city near Los Angeles. He and his friends were your average rough-and-tumble boys, in his words pretty attracted to tackling life in general. Their city had a problem with gangs, so as one way to stay off the streets after school, kids played football. Then they heard about rugby union.

We saw that in rugby you dont really need pads or anything, Rodriguez says now, from Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Missouri. You just go out there and play.

Rodriguezs high-school played rugby under an initiative called Alternatives to Gang Membership, run by Ernie Vargas, an oval-ball missionary of a kind found around America, from Los Angeles on the west coast to Memphis in the middle and New York away in the east.

We used to watch the older kids play, Rodriguez said. A lot of the older kids from when we were 14 years old, like the Under-19s, they were all pretty big and aggressive guys who we all looked up to. We would see how they played and we all wanted to start playing. Thats kind of what attracted us, all the aggression. It was new.

Now, Rodriguez is something of an old hand. A slight but swift strike runner, at 21 he has won three USA Rugby college sevens titles, the last in Arizona last Sunday, and one Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship, a coveted honour he and his team-mates will defend at the Talen Energy Stadium near Philadelphia this weekend, broadcast by ESPN. He has also been to the Olympic training centre in Chula Vista, California, for a sevens camp and has played full-back for the 15-a-side U20 national team.

Rodriguez has said elsewhere he was never at much risk of joining a gang himself, but nonetheless his rugby life could not have happened without Vargas.

Ernie moved to Hawaiian Gardens in the 70s, Rodriguez says. I think he was 11 years old. It was a different time back then, obviously. A lot of old roads and chickens dens.

He ended up going to Cal State LA where luckily enough he played football. Football coaches and players ended up leading him to a rugby club close to it, so he started playing there. And then he moved to college again out in Oklahoma and came back once or twice and realised more and more of his friends were passing away due to either drugs or gang violence. He realised that there was nobody in the neighbourhood that was doing what he now does.

So he went to the city and let them know, Hey, I can do this for you, which is keep people out of gangs, prevent them from dying, and thats all I want to do. So he started doing that.

Rodriguez
Rodriguez plays sevens during his days in Hawaiian Gardens. Photograph: Alternatives to Gang Management

He didnt start rugby until 2008, [when] he realized the kids need another outlet and rugby was a good choice because it lets them let out some anger and aggression.

Hawaiian Gardens rugby has developed more or less on pace with the rest of the US, over a decade which has produced a toehold in schools, colleges and clubs. Vargass teams play a similar schedule to similar operations, running out on rough fields against other LA and LA county teams and once you hit playoffs you can play the Orange county teams and the San Diego teams and you just go into the playoffs from there.

And from there, Rodriguez found Lindenwood. Or, more accurately, Lindenwood found him. He had never considered rugby a passport to college but then came a call from a friend who needed me to play in San Diego on a Friday.

I had no problem missing school, he says, with a laugh at the minor irony, so I went and I played. Luckily enough for me the head coach for Lindenwood at the time was there the high school All-American coach was there, and a couple other coaches were there. I actually turned their heads a little bit just playing that one game and I got offered a scholarship from that game. So thats when I went with it.

Lindenwood is one of few college programmes to have varsity status, to have become fully funded. Rodriguez received close to a full-ride scholarship and has lived the game for four years around a degree in recreation sport and tourism management. Looking ahead, he says hell play more sevens and is interested in Major League Rugby, the pro competition finishing its second season which has a team in San Diego and will add Los Angeles in 2021.

Rodriguez
Rodriguez seen after a game against Army, a sevens rugby power. Photograph: Penn Mutual

His first step, however, will take him back to Hawaiian Gardens.

Ernie Vargas, he wants me to take over his job. Ive been working for him for the past five years as his assistant, so thats the goal.

He talks enthusiastically of ATGM work, from teaching to training, mentoring children 10 and up.

Two years ago, he says, I started putting in a proposal for a teen center. Were looking to get that this summer, where kids will be able to come to the facility and do homework, play games. Well run all our programmes out of there.

When I was part of the programme we just had to be adaptable, play in dirt and on nasty, run-down fields. But as of maybe five years ago, they built a new sports complex. Its part of the middle school I went to and the city gets to use it a lot. Its pretty nice now, we can run all our programs on that field.

On a green field in Chester, Pennsylvania this weekend, Lindenwood will need to get past Virginia Tech, Clemson and Temple in pool play before Cal Berkeley, Army, Navy, UCLA and more seek to knock them from their throne. For Rodriguez it is one last collegiate challenge before many more back home.

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