Until last year, Reveley Protain didn’t know about rugby. He had much more pressing things on his mind – family issues at home. Then, by chance, he stumbled upon the sport and it changed his life.
Protain was walking down the hallway at Aspirations Diploma High School in East New York, Brooklyn, when he noticed a flyer tacked to a bulletin board. He was drawn to the image on the flyer – a guy holding what looked like a football. Under the impression that it was for football, the 19-year-old spoke to a school counselor about the flyer, who then told Harold DeLucia, a physical education teacher at the school who was forming Aspirations’ first rugby club.
Sports aren’t generally part of the curriculum at Aspirations, a so-called transfer high school for students 18 to 21 who haven’t accumulated enough credits to graduate from other high schools. Many, like Protain, come from troubled backgrounds. Aspirations had only a basketball team, but DeLucia wasn’t deterred. He invited Protain to after-school practice drills to learn how the sport was played. The student thought rugby had too many rules – but he was hooked.
Before rugby, Protain had no release for his anger and energy. He had been going through a lot at home and the weight of it all seemed to follow him everywhere.
Protain was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to parents from Grenada and Panama. His mother, from Panama, died when he was just six years old. He remembers she made him happy. She was always there.
“I was her king,” he said with a wide smile. “I did anything I want – got away with it.”
His father is here and there sometimes, Protain said. He also has two half-siblings and two sisters. After his mother died, Protain was shuffled from relative to relative. He has lived in the Bronx, Flatbush, Queens, and East New York.
“Nobody wanted me at the time,” he said. “They said I was a handful.”
He currently lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant with one of his sisters and her two kids.
Protain has been in and out of jail since he was 14 years old, when he first got arrested for an assault on another boy. Other times, he had been arrested while hanging out late with friends who he said smoked, drank and gambled.
When rugby came along, it pulled Protain away from things he used to get in trouble for.
“I feel free,” he said. “I could do anything, hit anyone. I could get some anger off if I had any anger built up.”
Protain is a lot more hopeful now than when he first came to Aspirations. Three years ago, when he was a student at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in Lower Manhattan, a counselor told Protain that he wouldn’t be able to earn all his credits there and graduate on time. He said his counselor knew his situation at home and arranged for a meeting with Aspirations. He later agreed to transfer there.
When he first arrived at Aspirations in 2009, Protain kept to himself.
“I’m not the type of person to go around and start making friends right away,” he said.
Protain speaks slowly – as if searching for exactly the right words.
“I don’t know…that’s just how I am.”
Other students weren’t entirely friendly either, Protain recalled.
“Some of them got their walls up…their boundaries,” he said. “The boundaries come down and you start to talk.”
Protain also kept his guard up. He said he didn’t want to expect anything unexpected.
Nigeria Lockley, a teacher at Aspirations, remembers having Protain in her literacy class this past fall.
“When school first began, he would come into the classroom completely disruptive,” she said.
When Protain would come into class, Lockley said he talk to other students. He’d do whatever he’d like, she added.
“I always attempted to re-direct him. He would always be very polite and apologize,” Lockley said. “Five minutes later, he’d do the same thing.”
Protain said he wasn’t able to focus on school because his mind carried the weight of his family problems. When teachers or students would talk to him, he would sometimes flip out. He’d also pick fights. Other times, Protain would simply walk out.
But rugby has changed all that. Many students at Aspirations Diploma now know Protain as the guy who always carries a rugby ball with him – every day. He said it’s to improve his handling and passing of the ball. Protain can be seen tossing his ball lightly in the air as he strolls in between classes. He has a nice, smooth smile, and shows it when people comment on his rugby ball. Sometimes, he passes it to others, including some of the school’s staff.
The habit of carrying his ball everywhere began after a fumble. During a game, one of Protain’s teammates passed him the ball. It was catchable, Protain recalled, but slid straight through his hands. His teammates called him Butterfingers after that.
“I said to myself, the only way to get my handling better is to walk around with it, train with it, run with it,” he said.
In Protain’s art class on Monday mornings, other guys sometimes hold his rugby ball. They study it with their hands, bounce it lazily on the linoleum floor.
Protain owns six rugby balls, but brings only one at a time to school. Two of his rugby balls are covered by signatures of both female students and the school’s female staff — girls’ signatures only.
In black and blue ink, the signatures began appearing on the balls this past fall after a girl asked to sign it. A thread of more signatures soon followed, some written with great care, others bold and aggressive.
In Lockley’s class, Protain tosses his rugby ball around sometimes. He may start bouncing it, she said, but less frequently.
“I just have to remind him that that noise is not conducive to classroom settings, so he cannot bounce it in class,” she said.
On the field, Protain is one the quickest, according to DeLucia. The teacher said the student has a lot of strength and scores many tries as a winger, which is the position Protain plays the most. A winger’s job is to score when they get the ball.
“Scoring is what Reveley does best,” said DeLucia.
Protain, now 20, is no longer able to play on his school’s rugby team, so he joined the New York Rugby Club, along with DeLucia. The two have an understanding, Protain said. At Aspirations, he is the student and DeLucia is the teacher. Outside of school, they’re teammates.
At a recent practice on the rooftop of Pier 40 in downtown Manhattan, Protain was among about 20 guys on a field of artificial grass. It was a chilly evening, though it would have been difficult to tell from the way some of the members of the New York Rugby Club were dressed. Many wore shorts, including Protain, whose head was covered by his light grey hoodie.
The group began with warm-ups. Before he began a new drill, DeLucia called Protain to step out of the group, along with another player. DeLucia gathered both guys and together, the three demonstrated a routine. The three ran in a hard line across the field, calling out to each other as they took turns tumbling on the grass and tossing the ball to the next player.
In the corner of the field lay open duffel bags, combat boots, and a pair of headphones waiting for the team members when they took a break from practice. Steady traffic rumbled from the highway below and as it grew darker, tall buildings glowed in the distance.
During the break, Protain remained on the field and talked to his fellow players. He even laughed sometimes.
DeLucia recalled that when Protain began playing rugby, he was a big kid whose head was always in the clouds. Since then, he has seen his student improve and emerge as a leader, even assisting DeLucia with after-school practice drills.
Rugby could be the key to his future as well. At a rugby tournament last November, was approached by several recruiters after a game. They discussed possible opportunities to play rugby for their college teams. Protain still has not decided about college or where he would like to go. For now, he’s concentrating on his game.