There were four rugby national championships available from the collegiate to professional level this spring. Life University reached the finals of all four championships and won two of them. This is quite an accomplishment, especially when you consider that no other rugby program has ever attempted this.
In the subsequent pages, you can read all about the successes of our teams and the details of each event. LIFE took on all comers and enjoyed an incredible run. But what does all this have to do with Chiropractic?
As we’ve reported previously, at last year’s Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC), a nationally televised event, the NBC announcers said, “Life University is known for two things: rugby and Chiropractic.” And just before LIFE took the field for the final game at this year’s CRC, the LIFE website crashed due to a 6,500 percent spike in traffic to the home page. Everyone wanted to know about that little school in Atlanta that is doing great things.
That wasn’t the only comment made during the telecast. On several occasions, after a big hit, or when talking about fatigue, the announcers would make a comment about how Chiropractic was helping the LIFE players with their performance. Life University also had two advertisements air during the NBC broadcast, meaning that more than 2 million people received two messages about Chiropractic.
As our multiple rugby teams made their way across the country to compete in all these events, there was a noticeable increase in the number of opposing teams who now employ a team chiropractor (many of them Life University graduates). This means players and coaches are recognizing the benefit of Chiropractic to enhance performance. How many players will now become lifetime patients and advocates for Chiropractic? The chiropractic message spreads one person at a time. Rugby is one more way that the message is being spread, and Life University is leading the way.
Life University is getting international attention through rugby, which means Chiropractic is getting international attention through rugby.
In the fall of 2010, after much planning and operational details, Life University launched a full undergraduate rugby team. Up until that point, LIFE had only a club team made up mostly of graduate and chiropractic students. An undergraduate team has much stricter rules and regulations for eligibility and compliance. An undergraduate team plays against large and prestigious universities 10 or even 20 times the size of LIFE. Did Life University know what it was getting itself into? The better question would have been, did the other universities know what was coming?
In 2011, the undergraduate team lost one regular season game, and then lost in the national quarterfinals. In fact, they got thumped by rugby powerhouse Cal-Berkeley. While setbacks such as that might serve as a mental block, head coach Dan Payne saw it as an opportunity for his players. In its first year, LIFE had competed on the big stage and made it to the elite eight in the country. But, they were not elite yet. The bar had been set by Cal, and that was the benchmark that launched the mantra of “continuous improvement.”
Continuous improvement was repeated numerous times that summer and into the following season. Colton Cariaga, the team captain since the beginning, says, “Of course our goal has always been to win a national championship, but winning is not a product; it’s a process.” Prophetic words from the All-American from Charlotte, N.C., considering that most of the team’s wins during the past three years have been blowout victories. According to Cariaga, “We will have games where we won by 80 points, but we were sloppy and made a ton of mistakes. Likewise, we may be in a close, highly competitive contest, but we execute and gut it out … that’s the type of performance we can be proud of and build on.”
When the team is winning by 80 points, it can be difficult to motivate the boys to train harder and increase the level of intensity during the off-season. For Coach Payne, the motivation was easy, as all he had to do was remind the players of the loss to Cal the previous year.
In 2012, the team went undefeated during the regular season, and made a run all the way to the national semifinals, before losing a close game to eventual champion Brigham Young University. Through the mantra of continuous improvement, the gap had been closed. Now it was time to get over that proverbial hump and truly compete for the national championship.
Thanks in large part to a strong core of seniors, as well as some experienced underclassmen, LIFE entered the 2013 season on a mission. Ranked No. 1 or No. 2 all season long, the team trained hard, believed in one another, and made a run to the national championship game in Greensboro, N.C., on May 18 against St. Mary’s College of California.
In a hard-fought match, including a torrential downpour for much of the second half, LIFE was right in its element—grinding out the field position and wearing down the opponent with superior conditioning. When the final whistle blew, LIFE had won the game 16–14. Senior Joe Cowley was named MVP of the game, accounting for 11 of LIFE’s 16 points, and providing the spark that saw LIFE overcome a 14–3 halftime deficit.
In just three years, Life University’s undergraduate rugby team went from non-existent to national champions in the highest level of college rugby in the United States. It is a testament to the hard work, commitment and dedication of our student-athletes, as well as the chiropractic care, training and conditioning provided by our coaches, trainers and staff. Special thanks go to the seniors, Colton Cariaga, Joe Cowley, Cam Dolan, Gerson Blaise, Mike Mastermaker and Andrew McNeil, for their leadership and example.
The original rugby team at Life University began playing in 1980. It was formed by a group of chiropractic students who went to then-President Dr. Sid Williams and asked for the University’s support in the venture. Slowly but surely, interest in the team grew, along with the continued support of the University. Soon, the team was traveling far and wide to take on all comers.
Around the same time, Palmer College of Chiropractic had formed their own rugby club, and LIFE and Palmer would compete for bragging rights—kind of like our own little “Army/Navy Game.” Over the years, LIFE’s rugby club became better known, and began playing against the biggest and best amateur and semi-professional clubs. Once enough teams became interested, Division One was formed.
As Division One got rolling, about a dozen clubs became dominant, with LIFE being one of them. These clubs were so dominant that it became difficult for them to get games with the less-dominant clubs, because the contests were so lopsided. Soon a new league was formed among these elite teams called the Rugby Super League (RSL). This new creation had grand plans for a television contract and a growth matrix that would pave the way for the first professional rugby league in the United States.
Life University won the RSL in 2000, and continued playing in the league for several years. But as the fledgling league struggled to get a firm foothold, the elite teams began dropping out of the RSL and re-entering Division One. LIFE did the same thing and won the Division One in 2008. They rejoined the RSL in 2010.
The bottom line for Life University at the club level is that they wanted competitive games against the best rugby clubs the United States had to offer. When RSL disbanded completely in 2012, a new entity emerged and called itself the Elite Cup. In 2013, LIFE was invited to play in this new competition; however, they had already made the decision to play in Division One. Never one to shy away from a challenge, LIFE decided to play in both competitions for the 2013 season.
Earning a chiropractic degree from Life University is difficult enough with the course load, lab hours, exams and National Boards thrown in. Imagine piling four hours of practice per day on top of that, along with spending your weekends flying or taking a bus to New York, Dallas, New Orleans, Denver or Boston. That was pretty much what the Men’s Club team endured in 2013, but it made the rewards that much sweeter.
In the Elite Cup competition, LIFE played six regular season games, three at home and three away, versus Boston and two different clubs from New York. After a respectable record of 4–2 during the regular season, LIFE advanced to the four-team knock out stage, where they met up with New York Athletic Club (NYAC), the team that had beaten them in two close matches.
With the majority of the players healthy, combined with a unity that had emerged the week before, LIFE played with a sense of purpose and determination. Playing in New York, they went out and beat NYAC 41–17 in what was perhaps their most complete performance of the season. The win put them into the Elite Cup finals.
The following weekend, this time playing in the Division One tournament, LIFE traveled to Virginia Beach, Va., for the round of 16 and quarterfinals. Playing back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday, LIFE sent both New York Old Blue and Boston RFC packing as they advanced to the semifinals.
Switching their concentration back to the Elite Cup, LIFE traveled the next weekend to Glendale, Colo., to take on San Francisco Golden Gate (SFGG), the team that had beaten LIFE a few years earlier in the RSL finals. In a seesaw game, LIFE battled back and took the lead late in the game, only to surrender it again a few minutes later. As the clock was winding down, LIFE had possession and kept pounding away, trying to score the winning try, only to be thwarted by the stingy SFGG defense. Final score saw SFGG win 31–26.
With no rest for the weary, the team traveled home to Atlanta for a week of recuperation, only to turn around and head back to Glendale for the Division One semifinals and finals the following weekend. Another grueling schedule of back-to-back games saw LIFE outlast hometown favorites the Denver Barbarians in the semifinals to earn a spot in the finals.
In the Division One finals, LIFE took on Old Puget Sound Beach. Despite bruises, knocks and fatigue, and thanks to more than a few chiropractic adjustments, LIFE took advantage of their speed and versatility on offense and superior conditioning on defense to grind out a tough 27–26 victory over the boys from the Pacific Northwest. Life University’s A.J. MacGinty was named MVP of the finals.
There were no wild celebrations, as the team had to get back to Atlanta by the following morning for lab and lecture finals. The season was as grueling and taxing as anyone can imagine, and that’s before you add academics to the mix. The team played 17 games, won 14 of them, played for two national championships and won one of them. It is a credit to their players’ dedication and commitment, as well as the coaches, staff and team chiropractors that they were able to achieve this level of performance and maintain it for five months.
After a long and tiring rugby season on the campus of Life University, some of the undergraduate players had the opportunity to compete in the Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC). The CRC is kind of like a bowl game for college rugby players. It comes after the completion of the Division 1-A season, the format is different and it is shown live on network television.
The fourth annual CRC took place in Philadelphia on June 1−2. Twenty teams were invited to play in this special two-day tournament, with the winner on Sunday earning bragging rights for the next year. This is not your traditional rugby with 15 players per side and 80-minute games. The CRC is played in the 7s format, meaning seven players per team, and 14-minute games. The action is wide open, high-scoring and high-energy.
Sevens is a newer form of rugby that is fast becoming a favorite of fans because of the prolific action and scoring. Television likes it because the quicker games mean constant team changes and built-in commercial breaks. Sevens is becoming so popular that it will be an Olympic sport in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Sevens is different from 15s because the strategy and style of play requires more speed and agility from the players. It requires a different kind of fitness because there is more space on the field in relation to the number of players, which results in up and down, non-stop sprinting. A 14-minute game? If you think that’s easy, try playing the game for five minutes and see if you can hold down your lunch. And then consider that CRC requires playing six games in two days.
The LIFE players had less time than the other 19 teams to prepare for the 7s format. All the other teams had finished playing their 15s schedule a few weeks before LIFE because we were busy winning the national championship. LIFE players had exactly two weeks to prepare, compared to four to six weeks for everyone else. Fitness would be crucial, and making the mental transition from 15s to 7s would be paramount.
Any questions about preparation were answered in LIFE’s first game of the CRC versus the University of Texas. LIFE torched the Longhorns 33–5. Second game, same story: LIFE crushed the Gators of the University of Florida 35–7. The third game was a little tighter versus a determined squad from the University of Delaware. LIFE prevailed by a score of 24–12.
That’s the way the group stage ended, with LIFE going undefeated and earning a coveted spot in the knockout rounds on Sunday. They say the group stage separates the men from the boys, and the knockout stages are the true test. The boys had to ice their aching muscles and get ready to face the music.
In the quarterfinals, LIFE took on a tough team from the University of Kutztown, and came away with a relatively easy 31–17 victory, earning a spot in the semifinals against the U.S. Naval Academy. In what was perhaps LIFE’s most complete performance of the weekend, they dismantled Navy 43–7. This set up the final versus LIFE’s old nemesis and the gold standard in college rugby—the University of California at Berkeley (Cal).
Cal has won more championships in 15s and 7s than any other school. They are the New York Yankees of college rugby. Cal had a similar run to the finals, winning their group and giving dominant performances in the quarterfinals and semifinals. The showdown was a much-anticipated affair, as all the experts had predicted these two teams would be duking it out for the title.
Playing relaxed and calm, Cal stormed out to a 14–0 lead and looked to be coasting to a lopsided win, especially when extending their lead to 19–0 early in the second half. But that was when LIFE’s superior conditioning took over. Scoring two quick tries to close the gap to 19–14, it looked like a LIFE victory would be inevitable. The Cal players were doubled over, panting and exhausted. They were done. Lucky for them, the clock expired just in the nick of time. The final score was 19–14 to Cal. Another minute on the clock and the outcome would have been different—and Cal knew it.
Last year, LIFE made it to the semifinals, and this year they made the finals. In front of a television audience of more than 2 million people, LIFE showed they not only belong, but they are a dominant force in college rugby! And the commentary from the NBC both was all about Chiropractic, performance and conditioning—a great endorsement of the philosophy of the University and the rugby program.
It should also be noted that LIFE fans were once again the talk of the CRC. Sending more fans than any other school, and sporting the familiar LIFE gear, the NBC folks took plenty of crowd shots of the LIFE section. Chiropractors from as far away as Montana, California and Wisconsin showed up to cheer on the boys from LIFE and experience the incredible vibe and atmosphere of the CRC.
A special shout out goes to Stu Katzen, D.C., for serving as the unofficial host Doc. In addition to hosting a great rugby alumni party on Saturday night along with co-host Dr. Jay Zimmerman, Katzen was present for a special dedication involving the CRC executives on behalf of the alumni association. Katzen is a shining example of Lasting Purpose—not just for Life University, but also the rugby program and Chiropractic in the Philadelphia area.
The weekend was a great celebration of Chiropractic! Our brand recognition was tremendous, with more than 5,000 LIFE T-shirts and rugby gear being worn by anyone and everyone—including non-LIFE fans. Among rugby fans, LIFE is synonymous with rugby and Chiropractic. As we continue to compete at the highest levels of rugby, that message gets seen and heard by more and more people.
Just how contagious is the LIFE brand? The media rep from Cal begged and pleaded with this writer to give him a LIFE jersey. When the jersey was delivered, he discreetly buried it at the bottom of his computer bag. Then he asked for a good chiropractor in the Bay Area.