On the first day of practice Abdul ran in socks so as not to ruin his only pair of shoes. From the side of the playground, a group of kids smoking cigarettes heckled Ali, who had never run a lap before. It was 95 degrees under the Memphis sun, and the 30 kids I’d just met were looking at me for an explanation as to why I was wearing short shorts and kicking around a ball that looked like a watermelon.

On the first day of rugby practice only one player had ever heard the word rugby before.

That day I saw Darrien double over in the middle of a drill because he’d only had a bag of chips to eat all day. I heard Brygton had been suspended for gang affiliations and learned Jacari didn’t have a home. And yet, in the midst of the profound realization of the odds stacked against my kids, despite the dropped passes and disorganized drills, what began in that public park has endured and come to define us.

huddle-practiceThat daring group of kids has since grown into Memphis Inner City Rugby, a nonprofit organization with a mission to expand academic and athletic opportunity in underserved communities. Since I cofounded the organization with fellow Teach for America Corps member Shane Young in 2012, we’ve started the first four inner city rugby teams in Memphis. We have built bridges from neighborhoods where up to 90 percent of students can’t afford a $3 school lunch to high-achieving suburban schools that have long participated in rugby. Through distributing our weekly academic trackers, we identify areas in which our kids are struggling and target academic interventions during our weekly Rugby College Prep mentoring sessions. This additional structure—coupled with the transformative discipline, dedication, and imperative for respect that characterize one of the world’s most demanding sports—has resulted in a 100-percent acceptance rate to college or the military. Ninety percent of our student athletes show academic improvement. Thanks to the overwhelming support of people around the country, we are able to cover all student expenses, including college camps, all-star teams, and tournaments. Last summer, we celebrated our own Donovan Norphlet signing a full rugby scholarship to Life University, one of the most successful D1 programs in the country.

Above all else, my experiences in Memphis affirm a simple notion: things that are most daunting are the very things that contain within them the most power to transform us.

big-groupSince I arrived in Memphis, I have been forced to concede that there are deeply embedded, institutionalized, and insidious problems in our country—problems far too tenacious to solve in a lifetime. The infinite need can be paralyzing, and it can prevent us from taking even small steps forward. Especially in light of recent events tied to racial inequality, it’s easy to perceive our nation as having lost its way and perhaps its ability to find it again. Yet when I’m feeling helpless in the face of the odds, I think about how Cody went an entire season without making a tackle before stopping a runner in his tracks on the try-line. I think about how Jacari went for two weeks without a square meal, sleeping in a room without furniture and still made it to Tennessee State University. And I think about Calvin, who went from gang affiliations and vandalism to D1 college recruitment letters and A’s on his report card. Above all else, my experiences in Memphis affirm a simple notion: things that are most daunting are the very things that contain within them the most power to transform us. Even if you drop the ball nine out of 10 times, with work you’ll only drop the ball eight times. That is a victory too often overlooked—and one worth celebrating.

Memphis is a far cry from Mayflower Hill. Yet, whatever we’ve achieved at MICR began with an idea that arose from, and defines, the Colby experience: our education endows us with the ability—and the responsibility—to go boldly into the world, design a future rooted in our passions, and strive to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice. From phone calls with old friends, to Colby Magazine articles about how graduates apply their education around the globe, my alma mater constantly fuels my desire to pay forward the immense privileges I’ve been afforded.

During our first fundraiser, nearly four years ago, a huge box of cleats showed up at my door in Memphis. They’d come from a former teammate at Colby. I hadn’t talked to him recently, nor solicited him for a donation. But no explanation was needed—not for me, or anyone who has called Colby home.

For more about Memphis Inner City Rugby go to memphisinnercityrugby.com