Davon Dixon was 13, growing up in Garfield and just trying to stay out of trouble when he saw a flier for a youth rugby program.
He thought rugby would be “just like football without pads” and help him stay in shape during the off-season of his favorite sport. But it soon became clear rugby would be a game-changer in Dixon’s life.
“Growing up, trouble was easy to find, but rugby helped me maintain a level of integrity,” Dixon, 23, of Penn Hills, says. “It taught me how to be a gentleman.”
Dixon is still involved in the program today, though now he’s the one teaching the rules of the game. The Pittsburgh Harlequins Rugby Football Association, founded in 1995 as a nonprofit youth-mentoring organization, provides free community programs to disadvantaged youth and teen groups throughout Allegheny County.
The goal is to instill values that team athletics can provide, including confidence, leadership and integrity. The Harlequins youth programs focus on four areas with high concentrations of at-risk youth: Garfield, Homewood, Hazelwood and Braddock. Teams from the four communities practice and compete for 10 weeks in the spring and summer.
“Rugby is incredibly accessible at the entry level,” Sean Madden, a coach-mentor from Swissvale, says. “Everybody gets to run with the ball; everybody gets to pass the ball. You’re not a lineman or linebacker or a pitcher or a catcher. It’s fun, fast and loud. There also is an interesting code of behavior with rugby. It’s a code of respect for your team and for each other.”
The program is for boys ages 8 to 14. On average, 35 to 40 kids participate each year.
Dixon remembers being one of those participants and finding the experience “eye-opening.” The game helped him stay focused on his goals of pursuing athletics and a college education later in life, he says.
“It helped me stay in shape and kept my eyes on the prize, which was staying out of trouble by any means necessary,” Dixon says.
The most important thing it taught him, he says, is accountability.
“When you are out there playing and you make a mistake, that’s on you,” Dixon says. “It is a team sport, but you have to make good decisions, and when you make a bad one, you learn it’s best to take responsibility.”
Dixon did go on to participate in sports at the college level until a knee injury sidelined his football participation. He still played rugby, and today, he is one semester away from graduating from East Stroudsburg University with a degree in communications. He is a new father to Davon Jr. and still plays in the Pittsburgh Harlequins adult league. Passing on the positive message of sports is an invaluable benefit of the youth program, he says.
“Being able to talk to a young player and teach them a skill they’ll be able to take with them for the rest of their lives, you hope they will pass that information along and teach someone else,” he says.
Dr. Peter Shaw, clinical director of oncology at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and a rugby association board member, says while using the sport as a mentoring opportunity is unique in the United States, in countries such as the United Kingdom, South Africa and New Zealand, rugby “borders on a religion, and clubs are backed by entire towns and communities.”
“In my younger playing days, I never laced up my boots for the Harlequins, but it is easy to get behind a program whose only goal is to help children who have the deck stacked against them do what they want in life,” Shaw says.
The organization is always looking for new members and anyone able to help out. No experience is necessary. As Madden says, the most important rule when it comes to mentoring is, “Show up.”
“Volunteering is all about fit,” he says. “If it appeals to you and you want to work with kids, we will teach you the rugby part.”
The payoff is well worth any time spent on the field, Madden says.
“Sometimes, you wonder if it matters,” Madden says. “Then, a 13-year-old will come up to you and remind you that it does. That’s what Davon’s story is to me.”
More information on the program, visit pittsburghharlequins.org.
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.