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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

USA Rugby's Youth and High School Director Kurt Weaver




USA Rugby Youth and High School Director Kurt Weaver is well-grounded in our game. As manager of our most precious commodity, our youth, Weaver is responsible for facets of development that pertain to those players not enrolled in college under the age of 19 years – boys, girls, and emerging men and women - a current census of near 400,000 from 450,000+ total players (well above 85% of the count of players registered nationwide).

Weaver was born in Pittsburgh, but raised in the town of Pickerington, Ohio, a suburb of the state capitol. Involved in sports from an early age, Kurt, “started out in soccer and (I) have played it my whole life.” Additionally he, “played golf on the Junior PGA tour, swam, ran cross country and track, played basketball, wrestled and finally started rugby my junior year of high school.” In addition to his rugby, Weaver yet, “plays soccer for fun and golfs when I can.” He has also taken up fly fishing of late, “and it has been an amazing learning experience. Few activities bring the life-long learning process like rugby, and fly fishing is certainly one of those.” Kurt is also increasing his linguistic range: “Passively, I am learning Spanish and French, and I try to read as much as possible.”
He continued rugby post high school at Bowling Green University and graduated from that austere institution with his major political science, then became involved in the structuring and implementation of political and issue campaigns. Weaver also functioned as a fundraiser for nearly a decade. Kurt also helped his brother Steven launch his business, thecandlelab.com, opening four candle shops in Columbus, an endeavor which he recalls as, “A wonderful education in retail America… an amazing enterprise and an experience I deeply value.” Look for a Candle Lab nearby in the future as the company has gone national and Colorado is one of its target growth areas.
The youth construct in America has emerged as rugby’s most vital and vibrant aspect. Weaver informs: “Nationally, we are broken down into 43 State Rugby Organizations (SROs). These are mostly single-state organizations (a few are two-state entities), that govern and grow the game in their backyards. We make available (to youth clubs, through SROs) nearly all startup resources in our armory: best practices, grants, ‘how-to guides’, and other formative necessities. They (SROs) are our local (and regional) conduits for coach and referee training, and educational upgrades as well. SROs provide structured leagues and championships within their domains, and they also enable representation to the national body for thoughts and ideas from our constantly expanding community.”
Director Weaver’s short term vision for our game is both comprehensive and ambitious: “I am working on maximizing the World Cup and Olympic excitement that is on our horizon. If we don’t engage every school athletic administrator, every YMCA, every Parks and Rec department and anywhere else where kids gather, we have wasted the opportunity. We (both USA Rugby and our local organizations and clubs) have to be ready with a website that is updated and one on which it is simple to find information. We have to have introductory materials that bring people to the game in a welcoming, uncomplicated manner. We have to be ready with non-contact leagues for all ages (including adults) for new people to try rugby. We have to normalize our eligibility, seasonality, location of fields, the way we register, and anything else we can do to make access to the game as easy possible. Our game is so great, but we (the rugby community) have to stop making it difficult for people to play, watch and participate!”
Partnerships
As USA Rugby Director of Youth and High School (nearly 400,000 young and rugby strong), Weaver is in charge of a staff that numbers in the single digits: “Mike Lovinguth is our Program Manager taking care of Rookie Rugby and Try on Rugby. Our administrator is Alicia Allen and (we have) a few interns.” And the open, likable Weaver is realistic, “… we can’t do it all from the national office, we need strong state organizations!”
Therefore he sees the worth in cogent, working relationships with state-based organs, the SROs. “Long term, my goal is to build 50 state organizations that have full-time staff governing and growing the game in every school, organization and community. This job cannot be done from the national office and strong state organizations are the future of our success. I never worry about pathways or developing elite players, because the USA knows how to do that better than anywhere else in the world. What the rugby community needs to focus on for the next 10 years is simply casting a wider net to the next million kids. If we do that, we win gold in the Olympics and the World Cup.” Lofty goals? Sure, but achievable one would think if our state and national bodies collaborate effectively for the good of the young player; the goal is not to establish a single person and promote that individual’s ego-enhancement protocol.
Transience and Transformation
Weaver monitors the scrum: Glendale Raptors v New York
Weaver is on the road, “two or three weeks a month.” His Directorship has required visits to, “48 states, many more than once, working with our local state organizations, clubs, leagues, schools, communities, governments and/or anyone else who will give us the time of day!”
Asked to crystallize his feelings on rugby and the rugby experience into one sentence, he distills his answer into a single word: “Transformative.” And he ruminates further, “… everyone I meet in this game has a story about how rugby changed their life for the better; I know very few other undertakings with that effect,” though he adds somewhat tongue-in-cheekily, “Puppies might be the only other one.”
Grass Roots
On the pitch at Ellis Park
It is imperative that people perceive rugby and the national body as engaging and open to new ideas, and Weaver is receptive to input with an ever-open communications line: “All individuals can contact me and my staff anytime, but (he suggests individuals) start with their state organizations as the best first step. State organizations will be able to provide answers to membership questions, information about policies or league rules, information on where to sign up for leagues, discipline issues, etc. Nearly everything that an individual,
or club, would need can be provided by the state organization first,” as a matter of procedure. He continues, “For input on national policies, we elect our national youth committee by vote of the state organization leaders. This committee develops all our national policies, sets our Youth & High School budget each year and generally gives me direction on our work.”
In order to best support the youth department at USA Rugby, Weaver encourages individuals to, “Start a pee-wee youth league in your local park. Too many people try to start an ‘academy’ or a High School team or something that is ten steps past where we need the work. If every parent who played this game simply started a 5 v 5 mini-flag league in their local park for their neighborhood kids, we (our population) would explode in just a few years. This can be a one-day league, or a four-week league that is one hour a night, one night a week. Start small and grow from there! Too many people are starting pretty far up the ladder and getting frustrated when they can’t recruit 100 kids.”
When it comes to USA Rugby in general and its current play? “The first thing is stop saying ‘USA Rugby should do <insert thing or idea here>’ or ‘Why isn’t USA Rugby doing <Insert thing>?’. That is the most dangerous statement I hear. Every person who picks up a ball is USA Rugby.
·         When you have an idea, do it!
·         When you think of something that should be done, do it!
We (USA Rugby) are here as a resource to help you meet your goals, but USA Rugby will never be a 300-person organization with 100 million dollars to do your work for you!”
The power of one individual working consistently and coherently to bring a handful of novitiates into our game is absolutely priceless… and very much solution-oriented!
Fundraising by USA Rugby is in its infancy, yet it is making inroads. “This is a slow process,” reports Weaver, “but it is growing. We still need to train American rugby players that giving to the game is a good thing. I have been sitting in a room where members are confronting me about getting solicited by our fundraising team to support USAR, but in the same conversation it comes out that they run 5ks for charity, or donate to their university each year or some other organization (or spend $100+ at a gridiron game! – ed.). Rugby is worth your financial contribution, but rugby needs to make that case and provide results… we must show success both on the field and administratively,” he concludes.

Future Pursuits
2023 will see rugby’s Bicentennial and Weaver is cautiously optimistic of the US placement on the world stage at that time: “If we believe our own press and relax, because we have been told we are the fastest growing sport, we will be exactly where we are today. If we do not allow standards to be raised, we will be exactly where we are today. If we fight against policies or rules that make us better, we will be exactly where we are today. It is a dangerous time for us. Will we rest on our positive press? Or double down on our work and know this is the tip of what could be a massive iceberg of rugby growth?” These are the questions that the men and women of USA Rugby strive mightily to determine answers for and extrapolations of, so that our game does not lay back upon its spacious laurels, dissipate and diminish itself.
“If we do it right, we (will) have eclipsed baseball and football in participation numbers. We will not beat the NFL in popularity anytime soon, but that is not how I measure success. We can eclipse their numbers simply because we are more malleable. We have women’s rugby and non-contact rugby and 7s and 15s and beach rugby. We,” - that is Kurt, you, and I together! – “will find a way to get everyone involved and to fall in love with the game!”
Weaver also feels it is time to, “stop asking coaches to make policy and be decision makers within the organization. They should definitely have a voice, but coaches are built to care about their team and their competition, not the long term viability of a corporation or organization. We need to bring in expertise from outside our game and learn from mistakes of other sports. My best administrators in our state organizations never played the game. They are simply good at their jobs.”
Memories, another rugby side to Mr. Weaver, and Christmas!
When asked to state his best rugby memory thus far, Weaver is uncharacteristically nonplussed: “This (question) is a tough one. Each of my rugby lives has given me experiences that I cherish… making my first tackle in high school rugby was monumental to me… losing to Army in the sweet 16 in 2001, but being so proud of our team… seeing the light after hearing Jeff Arker talk about starting state organizations across the country at Nashville in 2006… a tearful hug from an exhausted U20 national team player after assistant- coaching them to victory over Canada in the Bahamas… receiving a letter from a mother about how we saved her daughter’s life by introducing her to rugby in 2013… and finally refereeing this year in historic Ellis Park in South Africa, and refereeing the USA v Harlequins in PPL Park at the end of August.

Like I said above, this is a transformative game and no one has felt that more than me. I have been blessed to be involved in it. The debt I owe to this game wakes me up every morning. It carries me through every frustrating meeting, or conference call, or late night call from a parent who just wants to be heard. It sends me to the gym when I have no motivation to go. It gives me the energy to teach one more class when I am out of gas. Every child we can bring to rugby is another future leader and contributor to this world…and we need more of those.”
Speaking of the administration of rugby law on the pitch, Mr. Weaver is also, in the words of Old Blue Director of Rugby and USA Rugby 2014 Men’s Coach of the Year, Steve Lewis, “the top referee in America. His rapport with players is estimable and he always makes himself available to coaches post-game,” for illumination and explanation, two critical aspects of the game that nurture respect and promote knowledge.
With Assistant Referees in Argentina
Weaver believes the most dire need of USA Rugby today is the management of its ever-increasing youth corps. If he were to be given any gift under the holiday menorah, it would be, “Rookie rugby leagues in every community. We forget that every other sport has ‘nerf years’ where kids play in the back yard with their friends. We need to give America some ‘nerf years’ with rugby, keeping the intro for every age simple and easy.”
With youth rugby management ongoing all week, and refereeing on the weekend, Weaver is yet able to keep things fresh and lively, “But it is the unfounded complaints, the entitled attitudes or the self-interested arguments that get old. Rugby has never turned stale for me and that is why I still go to practice. It is why I referee youth rugby as much as I can. It is why I sneak out and play a match now and again.” He suggests, “to anyone who is getting fed up with the administration (national, state, or local), go teach rookie rugby to a 5th grade physical education class. Nothing fills the emotional tank more, outside a nice long run with a try at its conclusion!”

With Weaver’s well-completed assignment of the Eagles v Harlequins match this past summer, he is on World Rugby’s radar to officiate international games. So, even though he has scaled the heights nationally, for Kurt Weaver, his (Eagle-filled) sky is still long and limitless. 

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