Bringing Rugby to the Bronx

Physical education teacher Mike Rosario ’98 started a rugby team at a Bronx public school. In addition to winning trophies, he's changing lives and building community one player at a time.

mike rosarioIn the Fordham Heights section of the Bronx where street basketball and playground football reign supreme, Mike Rosario ’98 is changing the name of the game — to rugby. 

Rosario is the physical education teacher and rugby coach at PS/MS 279. Just five years ago, his title didn’t include the latter. 

It wasn’t until he attended a Department of Education workshop in 2007 that he discovered the game, which is played widely throughout Great Britain, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Tired of flag football and in need of something fresh to keep his kids interested, active and off the streets, the Bronx native gave flag rugby a shot. 

“Ten minutes later, I was drenched in sweat,” he laughs, remembering the nonstop workout. 

Partnering with Play Rugby USA, an organization started by professional rugby player Mark Griffin, PS/MS 279 became the first school in the Bronx to implement the program. 

At first, no one even knew what it was. In rugby, you score tries instead of touchdowns; you play on a pitch, not a court, Rosario explained to his students. Once the middle-schoolers tried it, they were hooked. 

Every year since then, the rugby program at PS/MS 279 has grown. This year, Rosario is anticipating a group of about 75 kids broken down into four teams that will compete at tournaments throughout the city. 

“It’s going to be huge,” he says, noting that younger kids who are now in sixth grade have heard about the program. “If I could take 100 kids I would.” 

It’s this type of attitude that makes Rosario’s job a labor of love. He recalls one spring morning at 6 a.m. when he single-handedly shepherded 58 students on two trains and a bus to Brooklyn for a rugby tournament. His teams won four out the six trophies that day, carrying them proudly all the way back to 181st Street and Walton Avenue on the subway. 

Equal Opportunity

What makes Rosario’s wins so unique is the fact that his teams are almost always comprised of more girls than boys. In fact, 14 of his girls played in last year’s New York City Rugby Cup — two of whom were on the team that won the championship, beating several all-male teams with big, sixfoot starters. Two were also awarded with Spirit of Rugby (MVP) awards. 

“If you have the patience, it doesn’t matter how fast or strong you are,” he says, explaining that once a player’s flag is pulled, he or she has three steps to take or three seconds to pass the ball. 

“With the training I received from Manhattan College, Title IX was always in the back of my mind,” Rosario says. “Equal opportunity for everybody.” 

“I am proud to say that Mike is a Manhattan College graduate,” adds Shawn Ladda, Ph.D., chair of the Physical Education and Human Performance department at the College and a national activist for Title IX, which requires equal athletic opportunities for women and men. “He is inclusive with his students regardless of background or gender. His female students have led the way with his school rugby team in city competitions.” 

Making an Impact

But for Rosario, it’s not the wins he’s counting. It’s the lives he’s changing. 

For Rosario, it’s not the wins he’s counting. It’s the lives he’s changing. 

Like that of Alondra Sanchez, a pre-diabetic student who lost 20 pounds in three months playing rugby; or Rahsaan Graves, who was failing out of school before joining the team, and came back the following year with a 92 percent average. 

To follow their progress, Rosario requires them to bring a “tracking sheet” to their classes to ensure they are showing up, doing their homework and acting responsibly and respectfully. 

“They have to behave so, in turn, all the other kids behave,” he says. “It changes the whole community.” 

Last year, Rosario and his physical education staff at PS/MS 279 — fellow alums Clifford Jéan ’99 and Michael Otero ’05 — were honored with the College’s Physical Education and Human Performance Distinguished Service Awards for their innovative work at the school. 

“Mike’s work as a teacher, coach and counselor show his deep commitment to improving the fitness and wellbeing of children,” says William Merriman, Ph.D., dean of the School of Education and Health, who appointed Rosario to the School’s Board of Education Consulters. 

“The rugby part is easy,” Rosario adds — and after 21 trophies, you have to believe him. “I don’t expect to win the cup. If they do well, they do well. But I talk to the kids about life."

By Julie Benns