PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A local rugby team with a mission to condemn racism is hoping to share its goal with teams across the country this summer.
The Oregon Sharks Rugby team was founded in 2017 with a clear objective in mind.
“James actually approached me after a game with this idea and was like, let’s get people of color, athletes of color more representation in a pretty both white-centric sport and a pretty white state. I mean, I heard it. I loved it. I’m like yeah, I’m in,” said coach Drae Charles, describing the moment when coach James Tyson presented the idea to him.
Tyson presented the idea to Charles after a rugby game. Tyson had been coaching the team Charles was playing against that day. Prior to the game, he’d seen what Charles had been doing for Eugene’s rugby community and knew he wanted to partner with him in creating a new team.
Tyson says he wanted to show that people from diverse backgrounds can accomplish great things when they come together.
“We’ve been pretty aggressive in trying to recruit persons of color and to make a statement about hey look, it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” he said.
Now the team includes players from all ends of the Willamette Valley, from Roseburg to Portland, and also includes some players from other states.
Part of Tyson’s inspiration for making the sport more equitable stems from his own experience playing rugby in South Africa in the early 1990s. He was there when Nelson Mandela was still in custody and during the time when the apartheid system was coming to an end.
“At the time, it was illegal for players that played above the third division to play with persons of color and that was a tragedy in my eyes,” Tyson said.
In the four years since it was founded, the Oregon Sharks rugby team has made dreams come true for many players. They’ve had players signed onto Major League Rugby teams or recruited to play rugby at Division 1 universities.
Trever Kahunahana says that’s his goal. He wants to play at the professional level and follow in the footsteps of his former teammate, Dominic Akina, who now plays for the Austin Gilgronis.
Kahunahana moved to Oregon from Hawaii to attend Western Oregon University. He planned to play football for the Wolves, but didn’t make the team. He was still going to school, but the pandemic put him in a financial bind and he had to drop out. He says if it weren’t for the Sharks, he would have already moved back to Hawaii.
“If it wasn’t for Coach James, I probably wouldn’t be here due to the pandemic,” he said. “Coach James offered these opportunities to get me in front of the right people to showcase my talent.”
Kahunahana says he’s very close with his family in Hawaii, but the Sharks have become a sort of second family in Oregon.
“These boys here, meeting with them, they kind of kept my head in the right place, motivating me,” he said. “I’m going in the right direction. I’m doing something with my life and I’m not wasting these years and that’s what this family here did for me.”
Another player on the team, George Smith, agrees the team feels more like a family. He says every practice they get closer and that last year, when practices were canceled due to the pandemic, it was hard to be away from his teammates.
Smith, a Black man, says the team’s mission to make rugby a more diverse sport was one of the reasons he joined the team.
“A lot of people love what we’re doing,” he said. “Our team, as you see, is really diverse and we love it. We have people from the islands to the mainland to people across the country.”
Smith says he also has dreams of becoming a professional rugby player so he can help provide for his family.
Charles and Tyson say their team gives people who otherwise wouldn’t have the financial means to play club-level rugby the chance to do so, but that requires a lot of fundraising.
“We try to cover the cost if we can ourselves,” Charles said. “I know James has put quite a bit of his own pocket into this, which is awesome, but also, I mean, it’s a lot to ask of anybody.”
This year, the team is hoping to raise $20,000 to cover the cost of traveling to two major tournaments. The first tournament is the Midnight Suns Sevens in Anchorage, Alaska, which starts June 11. The second is the RugbyTown 7s tournament in Glendale, Colo. starting Aug. 24.
For the RugbyTown 7s tournament, the Sharks will be partnering with a rugby institute in South Africa for a cultural exchange program. They’ll be flying athletes in and will play as a combined team, with about half the players from the Sharks and half the players from South Africa.
Tyson sees this as an opportunity for his players to understand rugby and racism outside the United States and for them to be leaders in working to diversify the sport. Charles says he hopes other teams at the tournament will take note of how the Sharks value diversity and how instrumental it is to their success.
Tyson says his goal is to leave every place the team visits this year a little bit better than they left it and both Tyson and Charles have their sights set on victory.
“The more we win, the more these players are getting some attention that they duly deserve and hopefully that gets them to where they want to be, wherever that is,” Charles said.
So far, the Sharks have raised about $7,000. They say anyone interested in donating to the team can do so on their website. The sharks are also planning to host a car was as part of their fundraising efforts. Details for that event will be posted on their Facebook page.