By Ed Coghlan
Against a back drop of poverty in some Fresno, California neighborhoods, where 87% of residents are considered low income and more than half don’t graduate high school, a transformation is taking place.
At the center of the transformation is a middle-aged Midwesterner of Irish descent who has become a symbol of possibility to a group of mostly poor Latino high school kids. The unlikely vehicle of change is the sport of rugby.
Herb Breen loves rugby. Now in his early 60’s he still plays in Old Boys matches.
Don’t worry. This story isn’t about some aging jock.
This is about a man who is using the sport he loves to change lives — at Roosevelt High School in Fresno.
It didn’t start as a great social experiment.
“I was just looking for a chance to coach,” said Breen. “Roosevelt had never had a rugby program.”
When he started in 2011, Breen knew it was going to be an uphill battle. Most of the kids didn’t know anything about rugby. And he knew that Roosevelt’s demographics would also pose a challenge. The school’s boundaries include some of the poorest areas of Fresno.
As the Fresno Bee wrote in a great feature story on the program three years ago, these are neighborhoods where two out of every three Hispanic boys who begin middle school never finish high school. It’s a place torn apart by gangs and ravaged by some of the most concentrated poverty in the country.
And it’s in the classroom where Breen has a glittering record.
The youngsters that play for Breen graduate from Roosevelt. And when you are trying to change lives, the best way to do that is to keep them in school.
“One hundred percent graduation rate,” Breen says emphatically. “They learn to work hard and they learn to be successful.”
If a student is struggling in class, Breen makes sure they get extra help, sometimes at the expense of the team. He told of one student who had a night class that conflicted with practice.
“I told him not to worry,” Breen smiled. “I suspended him from the team in order for him to go to class. He wasn’t happy, but he passed the class.”
He was telling the story about one of his former players who was hired by Transamerica. The young man says he loves his job because, “I can wear a shirt and tie to work.”
Another one of his players was raised literally on the streets, a homeless child who is now serving in the U.S. Navy.
And the mother of one of his players told him that her son had learned to be responsible thanks to Breen. That son is now going onto college.
Roosevelt is in its fourth season of rugby under Breen, and the program has been successful on the field too. Although a Division IV among D I schools, Roosevelt has been able to field competitive sides despite having teams made up of largely underclassmen. Roosevelt grads have gone on to play at both the college and senior side levels.
And the program is showing continuity, the kind that builds real tradition. Four former players are joining Breen on the sideline for the 2014 season.
Breen, who has a full time sales job in the food business, runs the program largely out of his own pocket and with some donations from others. He wouldn’t say, but friends of his point out that he’s probably spending up to $10,000 a year of his own money in order to keep the program going. That doesn’t count the expense of uniforms and other equipment that wear out from time to time.
But he doesn’t complain.
“I have an opportunity to affect real change in people’s lives,” said Breen. “That is a privilege that is too important to give up.”
If you’re thinking they ought to make a movie about this story, well they’re trying. Breen has signed with a Los Angeles group that is beginning to circulate the story around to interested parties.
In the meantime, this man with the gruff exterior and heart of gold will continue to do what he does. Coach rugby and change lives.
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I knew him when he was breaking in at a couple of Los Angeles TV stati
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