By Aubrie Davis
The UK-born sport of rugby (from which American football is derived) first gained popularity in the United States in the mid-19th century. Its growth collapsed in the early 1900s., however, and it did not re-emerge until the ’60s. In 1975, the United States of America Rugby Football Union was established, and today the U.S. competes on an international level, earning its current place at No. 16 in the International Rugby Board World Rankings. While the U.S. has not yet broken into the top 10, the sport continues to grow.
Beyond its popularity at a professional level, rugby is played recreationally and competitively at many colleges and universities across the nation. While Life University is best known for its Doctor of Chiropractic degree program, it has recently been recognized as home to one of the most renowned collegiate rugby programs in the world. The University’s rugby program was established in 1980 as one of only two varsity rugby programs in the U.S. Since then, the Life University Running Eagles have been competing on both a collegiate and club level.
The success of LIFE’s rugby program has not gone unrecognized. Many people are being drawn to LIFE not only because of its chiropractic school, but because of its esteemed rugby program. Both Life University teams are at the forefront—its Super League team is No. 2 in the country, and the College Premier Division team is No. 4—and rugby Head Coach Dan Payne says that multiple student-athletes have earned individual all-American honors and are now representing the school as members of the U.S. national team. “We are passionately committed to continue to represent Life University on the national and international stage with our rugby student-athletes,” says Payne. “The potential for future exposure, combined with the exponential growth rates of the game in our country are very, very strong and exciting.”
As Director of Rugby at LIFE, Payne is the brains behind the University’s rugby program. He is responsible for both the Super League and College Premier Division teams, and in just two years Payne has defined LIFE rugby as one of the leading programs in the country. In 2010, Payne lead the teams to a 32-1 record, and both teams made it to the semi-finals in the national championship tournament. Payne is partly to credit for the University’s rugby success, and is one reason why many players are attracted to Life University.
Before coming to LIFE, Payne was a competitive wrestler. He competed on a collegiate and international level through his mid-20s, until he decided he would play rugby. It didn’t take long for Payne to become a well-known rugby player—he played for one of the top men’s rugby clubs in San Diego and also for the U.S. national team. “Representing your country is always the greatest honor and memory,” says Payne. “I was fortunate to be able to finish my playing career in the World Cup playing against the eventual champions for that year, South Africa. That might be my greatest personal memory.” Today, Payne assists with the U.S. national team, and this June, Payne accompanied the team in a tournament in the United Kingdom. Three LIFE rugby players traveled with him as part of the national team.
When Payne decided to give up playing the sport and become a coach instead, he looked for positions at the collegiate level. He says that since he was in graduate school, he had always hoped to be involved in coaching. “I am very lucky in the fact that some of my most positive male role models growing up were my athletic coaches—from high school through college I was always really fortunate to have the sort of structure and discipline provided by my coaches that is needed at those stages,” says Payne. “You might not recognize the benefits you’re receiving at that moment, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate and respect the guidance I’ve received from a variety of coaches along my life path.”
Payne’s dreams came true when he was offered a position at San Diego State University, serving as head coach from 2006 to 2009. When the opportunity at LIFE came calling, Payne left San Diego for Marietta. He has been director of rugby and head coach of both teams since spring of 2009.
Payne admits that all of his accomplishments, both on the field and on the sidelines, are due in part to Chiropractic. “I used Chiropractic as an athlete at all levels,” says Payne. “However, in addition to using Chiropractic throughout my competitive athletic career, the indirect benefit I receive from Chiropractic and the energy associated with the ethos that surrounds our campus is immeasurable. Chiropractic’s vitalistic philosophy is the basis for our entire University.” For this reason, Payne says he encourages his players to embrace a vitalistic lifestyle. “Honestly, my goal is to continue to build an environment that will help grow the recognition of our great University throughout the country,” says Payne. “Rugby is the vehicle we use to spread the principles of vitalistic living, the benefits of Chiropractic, elite sports science research and all of the many disciplines of study our student-athletes pursue.”
And his encouragement seems to work. “Currently, we have 25 D.C. students and 15 pre-D.C. students across our 60 student-athletes,” says Payne. “So, it’s obvious Chiropractic is, and will remain, at the forefront with our student-athletes. It’s one of the many aspects that makes our University as amazingly special as it is.” Payne says that many of the graduate D.C.-student rugby players impart their wisdom and knowledge to the undergraduate players. “This is the primary reason so many of our undergrads might come in as exercise science, biology, undecided or any of the other majors offered, and within a short time, gravitate toward the pre-D.C. curriculum,” says Payne.
Payne says that it is important to understand the “simple, yet intricate” relationship between Chiropractic and rugby. “Any athlete is only as good as his mind and body—athletes always have a very strong understanding of this from a young age. To be at your best you have to understand, respect and appreciate this relationship.”
McMaster, who works and resides in Taupo, New Zealand, sent his son Aaron to LIFE nearly three years ago. Typically, students are attracted to the school because of its chiropractic education. But initially, that wasn’t true for the McMasters. The family was passionate about rugby, and Phil wanted his son to have the opportunity to continue playing overseas.
McMaster says he had always been aware of Life University. He first heard about the school while studying Chiropractic in South Carolina and also from playing rugby with LIFE players in the U.S. But it wasn’t until summer 2008 that McMaster considered what the University might offer his family. “While I was visiting my friends at LIFE in June of 2008, I became aware of their rugby scholarship program and mentioned it to Aaron when I arrived back in New Zealand,” says McMaster. He notes that Aaron, now 26, had already completed his undergraduate studies and received degrees in business and personal training, all while playing rugby. “Upon graduation, he was intending to go to the U.S. to play rugby and get a bit of an ‘overseas experience,’” says McMaster. LIFE seemed to offer the perfect opportunity for Aaron and, in August 2008, Aaron traveled to the U.S. to play rugby on scholarship at LIFE.
Upon arriving in the U.S. and at LIFE, Aaron continued studying business. “Getting a chiropractic education was not on the agenda at that stage,” says McMaster. “I must admit though, I thought it may only be a matter of time really [before he began pursuing a degree in Chiropractic]. Considering both his parents are chiropractors and having been under their care since birth, Chiropractic has been a huge part of Aaron’s life, and the chiropractic lifestyle has undoubtedly molded some of his values and attitudes.”
While he didn’t voice it to his son, McMaster believed studying Chiropractic would be beneficial. “I believe Chiropractic has influenced Aaron’s rugby playing and certainly would make him a better player,” says McMaster.
Through his experiences playing and coaching rugby, McMaster clearly understands the correlation between Chiropractic and sports in general. “Because Chiropractic is more a way of living than just a career to me, the life principles that are formed in Chiropractic over time were naturally reflected in my team coaching and management philosophies,” says McMaster. “Vitalistic principles may be applied to almost any situation, and team sports like rugby can benefit from a more integrated, whole approach to coaching. This is what I have always tried to do in any rugby coaching or management role that I have had.”
McMaster notes that he believes players from around the world will be attracted to LIFE as long as the rugby team continues to perform at the highest level possible in the U.S. and the University offers significant scholarship incentives. “Traditionally, players with reasonable talent from outside the U.S. have not been attracted to playing rugby in the southern states,” says Phil. “I believe the Chiropractic program at LIFE offers attractive opportunities for foreign students—more so than other academic programs that could be completed in their own countries—where they could also continue to play rugby at a higher level and intensity.”
Each year, LIFE grows in popularity. Not only is word of Life University’s chiropractic college spreading, but its rugby program is growing too. More and more rugby players from around the world are being drawn to LIFE because of its top-notch rugby sports program. Currently, the LIFE rugby program has attracted multiple players from countries such as South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Fiji. And of these players, many have come to embrace a vitalistic lifestyle—some have even chosen Chiropractic as a career path. And if the team continues to perform at a high level, the school will continue to attract students in the coming years-—students who will come for the sport, and hang around for the lifestyle.