By Andrew Kruse Ross with Kay Halbrook
Ahman Green is no stranger to finding success on the field. The former NFL running back made his mark over 12 seasons, carrying the football more than 2,000 times, accumulating more than 9,000 yards on the ground while finding the end zone 60 times (he also added another 14 tallies as a receiver). He holds a franchise record for the Packers in rushing attempts in a season (355), career yards (8,208), yards in a season (1,883) and yards in a game (218); stats for which he was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in July 2014.
While the shelf life of a professional running back is often short-lived, Ahman Green is still running strong. Today he continues to suit up in the green and gold, but this time as a rugger for the Green Bay Ball Strikers, the area’s newest professional team and now, just as before, his competition have their hands full trying to slow him down.
A longtime rugby fan, Green grew up watching the sport on television in Los Angeles and admits the sport’s similarities to football appeal to him. “It’s almost the same,” says Green, “as they are both contact sports. No helmet, no shoulder pads, running and tackling is the same … only difference is having to put on the equipment for football.”
Ever the competitor, Green readily accepts the challenge inherent in taking on a new sport, especially those of another contact sport.
“’I’ve always tried to stay active and learn physical things and try to get good at it,” says Green. “It’s the same reason I like to play football: simple, hit people. I like the feel of hitting people the right way. It’s like hitting a home run.”
Although admitting to having an appreciation for the big hits inherent in both sports, Green feels that rugby culture along with the enforcement of the game’s rules leave rugby an all-around safer contact sport than American football. “Rugby teaches a safe way to play contact sports,” says Green. “It’s a more gentlemanly environment than pro football. If you don’t play the safe way, you get penalized … in rugby safe practice is enforced.”
Part of this enforcement involves the issuing of red cards by referees. Much like in soccer, a player that is issued a red card during play for an infraction is sent off the field while his/her team is forced to play without being able to replace the offending player — effectively leaving the penalized player’s team left playing shorthanded. Those unfamiliar with sports that issue such cards need only imagine an American football team attempting to win a game while missing an offensive lineman, safety or linebacker and the impact becomes clear.
Green admits that the NFL is likely to penalize bad hitters with a fine, but mentions that any suspension comes after gameplay, limiting the impact of the punishment.
Green has taken on a full set of responsibilities, not only as a rugby player, but also as an ambassador for a sport that falls under the radar of most sports fans. Rugby is traditionally played in two formats known as 7s and 15s (each representing the number of players per side respectively). Currently the upstart Ball Strikers are a 7s team seeking to qualify for the 7s Nationals in Indiana, but Green and Head Coach Pita Katobalavu are working hard to have the club fielding a 15s team in 2015, as well as fielding women’s teams.
To do so, the duo will need to generate excitement around the team in an area rich with athletic history. “We are bringing the legacy of the Packers, the pride of Green Bay to another sport,” says Green who readily accepts his role as a spokesperson for the sport.
Green notes that the training required for rugby differs from that of football. His workouts today include much more cardio than they once did to accommodate the continuous action of rugby play. To see the future of the club grow, Green knows that training will be the key.
In order for the Ball Strikers to field four teams in the upcoming year, Green is hosting camps at D1, a sports training facility in Green Bay co-owned by Green. D1 is also where the current Ball Strikers train. Green anticipates that the camps will be made available to youth and high school ages to educate them on the basics of rugby, but also provide strength and conditioning training to develop players at the college and national team levels.
It may come as a surprise that America has a storied if not, oft forgotten rugby history. American ruggers took Olympic gold in 1920 and 1924 beating France in both contests. In the ’24 Olympics, the American side upset the French in Paris before a crowd of 50,000 spectators. Shortly after the victory in 1924, the International Olympic Committee removed rugby from the games, effectively stalling the popularity of the sport in America.
Rugby saw a renaissance during the 1960s and ‘70s, prompting four regional rugby organizations to gather in Chicago in 1975 to form the United States of America Rugby Football Union (now known as USA Rugby). In January of 1976, the organization fielded its first men’s national team. On Jan. 1, 1987 the organization became a member of the International Rugby Board (the sport’s global governing body). Despite the resurgence, Men’s USA Rugby has not matched the performances of those early Olympic Teams (arguably, the USA Women’s Teams have had a better international showing), but that may soon change. During the 2009-2010 season, the men’s 7s squad cracked the top 10 (their highest ranking to date) during the IRB 7s World Series.
Also in 2009, the IOC voted to include rugby in the 2016 Olympics and on the field for the USA Eagles: Ahman Green. While the layperson may appreciate the brief history lesson on America’s rugby situation, Green doesn’t require one; he knows the history and wants to see America back on top. “My whole reason to get involved was to see if I could get on the team to help them win a gold medal, or at least get in medal contention. USA used to be the best, and now we aren’t a top team.”
The path leading to Green’s involvement with the national squad is an unusual one, with both MTV and Twitter playing a role in bringing Green to the attention of America’s rugby elite. It is back in 2009, as a guest star for an MTV reality series that Green’s advancement toward the Olympics began.
Green got a chance to meet and work with female rugby player Phaedra Knight,while filming an episode of “True Life.” Knight was attempting to train a female freshman from Pulaski that wanted to be a rugby player. His closeness with Knight led to a connection with Al Caravelli, Head Coach of the US. Rugby Team, (2006 – 2012). Caravelli would send Green film and workout videos to prepare him for the crossover into rugby.
Then, in Aug. of 2013, one of Green’s Twitter followers asked him if he was still interested in playing rugby, to which Green said that he was. USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville saw the tweet and the two men exchanged emails. Green would then fly to San Diego on two occasions to train at the USA Rugby facilities and was eventually asked to be part of the Olympic squad going to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
The road to Rio runs through Green Bay, or at least it does for Green, as it is here, back in Green Bay as a Ball Striker that he will hone his skills in preparation for 2016, all the while fighting to bring rugby to new audiences and see his new green and gold team laying the groundwork to be Green Bay’s next great team.
To catch Ahman Green and the Ball Strikers in action, follow their schedule by liking the team on Facebook (Green Bay Ball Strikers Rugby Club) or by checking their website at greenbayballstrikers.com.
Men and women interested in playing rugby can contact Coach Katobalavu at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information on D1 at D1greenbay.com ν