The first time Herb Breen walked onto the field at Roosevelt High School in early February, he knew it was a long shot. Rugby in the barrio, he thought to himself, the notion seemed a fool's mission.
The boys standing before him that first practice were a motley crew, if ever he saw one. They were the children of migrant farmworkers, of broken homes headed by single parents who had come to the U.S. with hardly an education. More than half the team, he would soon learn, were barely hanging on in high school themselves.
A volunteer coach who works for a fruit-and-vegetable company, Breen knew that his players lived in some of the most beaten-down neighborhoods of Fresno. But he didn't understand, at least not then, just how beaten down they were.
These are neighborhoods where two out of every three Hispanic boys who begin middle school never finish high school, teachers say. It's a place torn apart by gangs and ravaged by some of the most concentrated poverty in the country.
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Breen didn't know their names, but he suspected that most of them had never seen a rugby match, much less played in one. As he stood before them, they eyed him warily, a middle-aged gringo with a mop of curly gray hair and a matching beard who looked as wide as he was tall.
He eyed them back, and smiled.
There was Diego Moctezuma, a gifted freshman athlete who walked six miles to and from Roosevelt every day. All the boys, Breen would learn, confronted hard choices: Moctezuma's was whether to play rugby or use his extra time to help his parents in the fields. He decided to do both.
There was Juan Partida, whose mom was sick with cancer and counted on her 15-year-old son to be her caregiver. He'd feed her, make sure his little sisters were safe and then furiously pedal his Mongoose bicycle to make it to practice.
There was Jeremy Gonzales, who kept dropping the ball and getting chewed out by Breen, until the coach learned that Gonzales couldn't see the ball coming. His eyesight was poor, and his parents couldn't afford to buy him contact lenses.
There was Juan Alaniz, who lives in a 750-square-foot house in Calwa with six family members. The neighborhood is so shot with violence that he spends as many waking hours as he can at school -- moving from classroom to weight room to playing field.
And there was, for a time, a freshman named Nicholas "Nico" Quiroz, a tiny, fearless kid who would play his heart out in the pouring rain in the third match of the season. Two nights later, on a darkened street where he was playing midnight graffiti artist, he would be found dead from a knife wound in the chest.
He became one more victim in an open fight among teenage tagger gangs in the neighborhoods of southeast Fresno.
It would be too easy, too trite, to say that out of that tragedy a team was born and a season reclaimed. But that's exactly how the boys and their coach now see it.
There was no school bus to take them to matches; no cheerleaders to cheer them on; no uniforms until midseason. The first rugby balls they played with had been given to them by the boys from Bullard High.
They were a "bunch of Mexican kids from the 'hood," they said with pride, led by a stubby Irishman who broke out his lucky Celtic kilt on game day. Some matches, they barely had the required 15 players to take the field. It was a field without a scoreboard. Oftentimes, they didn't know who was winning or losing. That's how much the game of rugby confounded them.
But it was a season that none of them will ever forget.
"I did not believe rugby could ever be as fulfilling as a coach as it was as a player," Breen said. "But it was amazing to watch those kids play.
"Don't get me wrong. There were obstacles galore. Just to get them through a full week are challenges that would boggle most minds. I grew up in Detroit, thought I saw tough neighborhoods. But these kids, they've seen what no kids should see."
Junior Alec Bailey said, "I won't forget it because of the guys. It's like you can't forget it -- every little thing. There was a brightness to the team. Playfulness and a lot of fun. Everyone clicked in like brothers."
An unfamiliar game
Rugby isn't an official high school sport but rather a "club sport." Coaches don't work on campus but instead show up after a full day practicing law or selling pharmaceuticals or, in the case of Breen, developing business plans for FreshKo Produce outside Fresno.
Breen, 57, first stumbled into the world of rugby as a student reporter at the University of Cincinnati in the mid-1970s. He wrote an article about a match, and two weeks later found himself playing in one against the University of Kentucky. "It just grabbed me," he said.
Breen, who stills travels the state playing in an adult league, always believed that rugby could find a niche in the sport-crazed Valley. He and a group of buddies, all of them former rugby players, had been talking for years about starting a high school league. They finally formed a nonprofit, the Central California Rugby Foundation, named Breen as president and kicked off their first season last year.
Roosevelt, where soccer is king, didn't field a rugby squad the first season. This year, the league decided to add San Joaquin Memorial, and that's where Breen thought he was headed to coach. At the last minute, though, Memorial threw its energies into a new wrestling program. Breen found himself redirected to Roosevelt.
Principal Bryan Wells agreed to let the team use the football field as long as the boys didn't mind starting at 5 p.m. He would do what he could to find the money for uniforms and a school bus to take them to matches.
"We knew it was going to be difficult," Breen said. "What we didn't understand fully was that none of them had transportation. Honestly, they had no money for anything. We had to buy mouth guards and socks and send them home with bottled water and bananas and nutrition bars. Because there were a lot of hungry mouths to feed in their families, there wasn't a lot of dinner left by the time they got home."
Breen knew he had to play catch-up. The other teams, led by Buchanan and defending champ Bullard, had been practicing since November. It meant that Breen had to teach them the game, condition them and watch them play in a live scrimmage -- all in the same week in early February.
It was a crash course, he said. The roster was ever-changing. Three kids would quit and two more would replace them. Every Monday, he was staring at new faces.
Breen prowled the sidelines and wasn't afraid to jump right in, joining the mass of bodies that formed a scrum to demonstrate proper technique or how to tackle with the shoulders and not simply the arms. Even though he could shout with the best of them, Breen preferred sarcasm. His touch was deft.
"Alec," he shouted at a player who was attempting to bring down another but whiffed. "Fantastic arm tackle. Now go take a lap!"
Breen had the good fortune of a dedicated crew of assistant coaches -- J.R. Oviedo, a lawyer; Ben Clay, a produce salesman; Rob Tookian, a lawyer turned medical imaging businessman. And luckily, they had some raw talent to work with.
An unlikely team
Moctezuma, the hard-nosed freshman who packed 170 muscled pounds on a short frame, was showing promise as a flanker. He had been looking to find a sport, he said, to release the pressures in his life. His farm worker parents had moved the family from North Carolina two years ago, and their drives to and from the fields meant that Moctezuma and his two older siblings had to find their own way to and from school.
They awoke at 6 a.m., grabbed a piece of fruit and began their walk to Roosevelt, a one-hour trek under two highway overpasses and through the graffiti-stricken streets that belong to the Bulldog gang.
Moctezuma had joined the wrestling team but because the practices ran late -- and it was unsafe to walk home in the dark -- he had to quit. "In rugby, the coaches offered to drive me home," he said. If he had to miss an occasional practice to help his dad and mom in the orchards, Breen understood. The labor contractor paid by the box, and Diego filled more boxes than his father. All the money he earned went to the family.
Breen loved that Moctezuma never went half-speed in practice, but his bone-jarring tackles were starting to anger his teammates. Moctezuma knew no other way: "I start tackling, and they get mad, like 'What are you doing?' I thought it was just tackling."
The boys selected Jack Medina, a junior with a big purple mohawk, as captain. He was one of the few kids from a two-parent household. His mother was about to graduate from Fresno City College as the Dean's Medal winner. Medina played multiple instruments, the guitar his best. "Whatever instrument you give me, I can play it," he said. Breen had him playing tight head prop, something like a tackle in football, anchoring the three-person front row during the scrums.
Juan Alaniz was manning the front row, too. Even though he was half Jack's size, giving away more than 100 pounds to the opposing prop, Alaniz could move bodies. "You have to be big where I live," he said.
"I know the other coaches are going to look at him and think I'm crazy to have such an undersized kid playing prop," Breen said, "but he's a real force."
Archie Lee Parks, the only African-American on the team, could flat out fly. Not only was he fast, but he had "a motor that never stopped running," Breen said. He was playing fly half, the equivalent of a halfback in football, and was a skilled tackler on defense. Breen was counting on Parks and Alec Bailey to be his scorers.
Luis Bedoy, a big kid with a big personality who attended rival Sunnyside High School, had emerged as fullback and kicker. Bedoy had come up with a chant -- "We're family out here!" -- and shared it with Medina. The captain liked it so much -- the notion that once you hit the field, you left behind school rivalries, neighborhood rivalries, tagger crew rivalries -- that it became the team motto.
Their first tests
Before they knew it, the season-opener against an excellent team from San Luis Obispo was upon them. They made the three-hour ride to the Central Coast on a bus paid for by Breen and the rugby foundation. For some, it was their first trip out of the Valley; others had never seen the big waves of the Pacific.
Breen wasn't sure how, but his players managed to hang with a superior team, losing 22-15. He could sense that something jelled that day, and on the way home, without letting the boys know, he told the bus driver to head to the ocean.
"I was so excited about the way they played that I talked the bus driver into stopping at Pismo," Breen said. "So the kids can walk on the beach."
He took snapshots of them trying to push each other into the water. He saw some of them let go for the first time. "That made us more of a team," Bailey said. "It brought us closer together. We were more connected with each other."
They had a bye on week 2. This gave them a chance to catch up on fundamentals and learn the more obscure parts of the game.
Week 3, Roosevelt hosted its first match of the season, only it was being played on the far north end of town, at Todd Beamer Park. With no school bus, Breen had to pack the players into a van taxi. Those who didn't fit piled into cars belonging to the coaches.
Buchanan knew how to play rugby. Roosevelt, still struggling to learn the game, was nowhere near in shape. Buchanan had fans. Hardly any parents showed up to cheer on the Rough Riders. The final score was a depressing 62-12.
Breen left the field that night thinking he wasn't being fair. He was holding his players to expectations that -- given the homes they came from, the struggles they endured -- weren't realistic. Todd Beamer Park wasn't simply a half-hour drive from Roosevelt. It was a world away. No graffiti. No poverty. No gangs.
"Maybe I was asking too much of them," he said. "They were a bunch of poor kids who had never played rugby. Maybe I was putting them in a situation they couldn't possibly succeed in."
Breen packed up his rugby gear that Saturday and drove to Stanford University for a rugby match. There was nothing like the middle of a scrum to clear the head. On the drive home, he came to this thought: He wasn't being too tough on the boys. He hadn't been demanding enough. The last thing they needed was to be coddled out of pity.
The following Monday, he gathered the boys on the small bleachers at the side of the field: "Do you like the circumstances you're living in?"
"Come on, Coach," one of them replied. "You know the answer."
"No, seriously. Do you like living where you live? Do you like your neighbors?"
"No," they shouted.
"OK. The school district looks at you guys and says, 'Hey, these kids have all these challenges. Our expectations can't be that high.' Well, I'm not going to do that to you. What does it take to be successful? You have to show up every day. You have to work harder than the next guy. You have to dig deeper."
A flash of inspiration
Breen was looking for someone to step up. He didn't expect that someone to be little Nico Quiroz, a freshman who had joined the team in week 4. Quiroz, a talented artist, was caught between continuation school and regular school, moving from one relative's house to another. He was now living with his mother's ex-boyfriend, one of the few stable adults in his life.
At first, Breen was afraid to put him on the field. Quiroz stood only 5 feet tall and weighed 120 pounds. How would he ever survive the rough and tumble of practice, much less of a game?
"But the kid was fearless," Breen said. "That first practice, he was flying everywhere, making tackles."
Smiling, unflappable, Quiroz was an instant hit with his teammates. After practice, Breen approached Quiroz: "Well, Nico, what do you think?"
"Coach," he said, the smile never leaving his face. "They made this game for me."
That Friday night at Todd Beamer Park, Roosevelt was playing Clovis. Breen had no reason to start the smallest player on his team, but the player in front of Quiroz had come up lame during warm-ups.
"Nico, Carter's hurt," Breen said. "You're gonna have to start."
"I'm OK with that, Coach," Quiroz said. "I'm fine. I'll do fine."
From the moment he stepped onto the field in the pouring rain, Quiroz seemed to be possessed of a strange abandon. Roosevelt was overmatched, it was clear, but Quiroz, almost single-handedly, was keeping the Rough Riders in the match.
"He's zigging and zagging, and guys are just missing him," Breen said. "Honestly, he's controlling the tempo. He's helping us not get blown out by just how much he is controlling the ball."
It was late in the game. Clovis had marched deep into Roosevelt territory when one of the Cougars' massive props broke free with the ball. He was the biggest kid on the field, more than 270 pounds, and the only thing standing between him and the try zone (end zone) was Quiroz, the smallest kid on the field. Some of the players closed their eyes, not wanting to see the collision. Breen said he prayed that Quiroz would get lucky and maybe trip up the massive prop by diving and catching a leg.
But Quiroz squared up, butt out, head up and, in the most perfect form, threw his whole body into the huge kid. It was hard to believe, but he lifted the prop in the air and drove him straight into the ground.
"Did you see that?" shouted assistant coach Ben Clay.
"I'm not sure what I saw," Breen said, incredulous.
Quiroz came out for a few minutes, thinking he might have broken his jaw, but he finished the match on the field. Clovis had beaten Roosevelt 22-0. Afterward, Breen did something he had not done in the previous weeks. He decided not to wait until Monday to name the player of the match. He decided right there, in the car on the way back home, to award the "Rider Nation" hat to Nico Quiroz.
Two days later, a Sunday near midnight, Quiroz stepped out into the 3300 block of McKenzie Avenue, paint can in hand. Unknown to his coaches and most of his teammates, he was the kid behind the moniker "Clif" that was spray-painted all over Third Street and McKenzie Avenue. Tagging solo that night, he didn't get far, maybe 40 or 50 yards from the house where he was living. Out of the darkness, someone with a knife hunted him down.
Fresno police still don't know what happened, if words were exchanged or a fight ensued. They only know that Quiroz was stabbed in the chest and somehow managed to stagger all the way home. He died a short while later in the emergency room.
Quiroz didn't have a criminal record, detectives said. His name didn't appear on any gang lists. The autopsy found no traces of alcohol, marijuana or hard drugs in his blood. Detectives believe that someone other than the killer witnessed his murder. But like so many other stabbings and shootings of young Hispanic males in southeast Fresno, no one is willing to talk.
His family said the last thing Nico did before leaving the house that night was lay out his rugby gear on his bed, clean and ready for Monday's practice.
Breen heard the news the next day while at the doctor's office. He rushed to school expecting to see his boys bowed in grief with school psychologists at the ready and TV news crews converged. He thought: A kid at Clovis West gets killed in a car accident and that's what happens, right? But there was no commotion, no scene. The boys weren't even crying, at least not on the outside.
Breen didn't know what to make of their reaction. It took him several days to comprehend that his kids couldn't afford to break down in the face of tragedy. There were too many tragedies.
"They weren't trying to be guarded or falsely macho," Breen said. "It was something more basic than that. 'Hey Coach,' they were saying, 'it's sad, but this happens all the time.' "
The Baptist church in Clovis filled with hundreds of mourners, including principal Wells, coach Breen and several of the boys. As the casket lay over the open grave at Belmont Memorial Park cemetery, a carload of taggers drove by in an Escalade, shouting and gesturing obscenities.
The boys marched forward with rugby that week, more heart than ever. Jack Medina, finding his voice as captain, gathered them in a huddle.
"Nico gave us everything he had, and we should do the same for each other because we don't know when the next day's going to come," Medina said, tearing up. "We don't know if we even have a next day."
"We're family out here," they chanted.
'This is for Nico'
That Friday, March 5, Clovis West took a five-point lead into halftime. With the clock winding down, the Rough Riders marched the length of the field, mauling, running over and dragging defenders on their way to the try zone.
"This is for Nico. This is for Nico," they shouted.
If there was a scoreboard, it would have read: Roosevelt 22, Clovis West 20. The Rough Riders finally had a win.
"We hit, and we hit again," Medina said. "We got hit, and we kept going. We wouldn't let anyone take us down. We ran that ball the way Nico would've ran that ball."
Breen couldn't believe it. "They just refused to lose. If that game would have gone on another five hours, the outcome still would have been the same."
Led by Moctezuma and Alaniz, Medina and Parks and Bedoy, they won three of their next four matches, beating San Luis Obispo 12-8, Clovis 21-15 and Clovis West a second time, 37-34.
A rematch with first-place Bullard would open the playoffs. Bullard had defeated Roosevelt 39-5 in the first go-around. The Rough Riders were eager to show how much they had improved. This time, they rode clear across town in a school bus. This time, they had new green uniforms that finally matched the school colors. This time, a contingent of parents and girlfriends came along.
The bus got there late. The Knights, in their slick, baby-blue Nike uniforms, were already on the field stretching. As the Rough Riders warmed up, Breen could see that Alaniz, still nursing an injury, wouldn't be able to play.
Breen put on his kilt, but the magic had left it.
Bullard, more refined and better skilled, dominated from the opening drop kick. Even so, the Rough Riders never stopped pushing, finally scoring as the clock wound down. They had lost 44-5, and when the two teams met at midfield and shook hands, the tears in the eyes of the Rough Riders didn't last long. They cried and then hugged and then wrestled Breen to the ground.
"I wish it wasn't over yet," Medina said. "I think it ended way too fast."
The boys took it as a sign of respect that they were invited to join all the regular athletic teams at the school's annual sports awards night in May. Only six of Breen's players were seniors. The rest of the squad, the best players among them, would be returning next year.
"It's going to be different," Breen told them. "We're going to get an early start. We're going to work harder in the weight room. We're going to work harder in conditioning. And we're going to get you tutors and make sure you stay on top of your studies."
Their eyes were no longer wary.
"Next year," he said. "I can't wait."