Rugby coaches embody the brotherhood the sport represents

Rugby is not only physically demanding but also takes an emotional toll.

The Florida men’s rugby club does not invoke the biggest chatter on campus. However, the band of men has slowly started to make itself known and share the impact rugby can have on the community and players.

Established in 1969, the club has struggled to get a fresh batch of recruits each semester. Veteran players such as team captain Connor Murray have taken it upon themselves to welcome new players.

“I’ve taken my experiences and given back the way I see helps best the player and the team in the future,” Murray said.

Emphasizing the importance of recruitment to his team, Murray has played a vital role in using both social media and tabling methods to gain attention for the club.

When tabling in Turlington Plaza, their most common method of approach is catering their pitch to each individual, trying to see where their interest lies and introducing rugby to them.

Although not every attempt comes up successful, the presence in Turlington has gotten the attention of some of their most dedicated players, including junior Vince Duarte.

Promising recruits like Duarte have stumbled upon the rugby club by chance. Looking for a new way to improve their athletic ability, rugby seemed like the perfect answer.

Struggling to keep a healthy lifestyle between a heavy load of computer science courses and a part-time software engineering internship, Duarte was trying to balance school and staying active. Passing through Turlington, he saw the rugby club tabling and was instantly pulled in.

†[I] with Connor and immediately knew I had to do this for sure,” Duarte said. “It turned out, when I talked to my dad, he played in college as well.”

Although the motivation to stay active compelled him to join the club, what kept him in was the brotherhood he experienced right away. Meeting up outside of class, participating in a Bible study and praying before every match were the little moments Durate cherished.

Rugby fosters a unique culture of respect towards the coaches, teammates, referees and opponents unlike any other sport.

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The coaching staff have formed a strong connection with the sport and embody the culture they have come to know.

Head coach Ken Simmons experienced the camaraderie first hand during his years as a player. He began his rugby career as a senior at the University of Tennessee. After falling deeply in love with the sport, he could not imagine his life without it.

Simmons participated in multiple tours across the globe as a player and a coach. The welcoming environment he experienced is something he’s never seen anywhere before.

“I tell our guys that they can go anywhere in the world and say they play rugby,” Simmons said. “They’ll have an instant social life, network of people, a place to stay, get jobs, etc.”

Keeping his passion for the sport alive, Simmons continued to play with the Fort Lauderdale Knights. During his last years, he found the team without a leader since the team was considered “uncoachable.”

“We really needed to do something for the club and my body was hurting a lot worse so I just switched over,” Simmons said. “It was difficult to make that change, coaching players you used to play with.”

Although he tried to remain active as a player, Simmons slowly started to give coaching the majority of his attention. After four years of coaching, the team improved tremendously and won seven out of eight state championships from 1988-95.

“My assistant coach in Naples (Naples Rugby Club), was working with the captain of the club at the time,” Simmons said. “Larry was coaching them by email, so we decided to go up and do a camp with them. They had 30 players and I hadn’t worked with players that were so eager to learn. It was a satisfying experience for the both of us.”

Little did he know that six months later, in the midst of a job hunt, the Florida rugby team would welcome him with open arms. Once it took him in as its coach, he never looked back.

The club team continued to improve under Simmon’s watchful eye and made its way to a couple of national tournaments in the 2010s.

Simmons has made his mark on the rugby club team for the past 15 years. However, a new addition to the coaching staff has not gone unnoticed. Alongside Simmons, the team takes true inspiration from its assistant coach John Supon.

Supon turned his love for the game into something more meaningful after a tragic accident. He repays the game that saved his life by coaching and making a positive impact on his players whenever he can.

Former marine turned rugby superstar, Supon was destined to play for the United States national rugby union team. However, two weeks later, in 2006, he was involved in a motor vehicle accident that caused his spinal column to separate.

Paralyzed from the waist down, Supon flat-lined three times on the same day of the accident. He still vividly remembers what happened when he first woke up in the hospital.

“The first thing I remember waking up in the hospital was my rugby brothers from my team in my ICU unit,” Supon said. “They were all balling their eyes out and rugby guys don’t cry.”

Supon’s teammates would show up every week to see him in the hospital. Their sentiment towards their brother was clear, “We are always here for you, no matter where you are.”

Hearing those words from his fellow teammates reminded him of the brotherhood environment he had in the marines from 1997 to 2001. The only difference is that rugby extends to an international community.

After years of coaching rugby and being a part of the Paralympic team for skiing and weightlifting, Supon found his way to Gainesville. Going to Williston High School in Florida, he lived right around the corner, and wanted to be a Gator.

Looking at graduate programs in state, Supon found one that fit perfectly with his love for rugby. UF offers a Sport Management program with a specialization in high-performance coaching.

While attending Florida, Supon immediately contacted Simmons in the summer of 2021 and got involved in helping coach the team. Immersed in the culture of rugby for at least 20 years, he is reminded every day why he wants to continue the journey.

“They don’t see me as a coach, they see me as a rugger, and that’s very different than saying rugby player or rugby coach,” Supon said. “When you’re a rugger, you are massed together into a family, and that’s how we see each other.”

Mutual respect is weaved through the team. All of the players know they can call upon each other and have someone there in a heartbeat.

Supon has more impact than he ever thought he could through the game he loves, applying what he teaches in rugby to his players’ daily lives and futures. If they are not willing to put all their effort towards the game unfolding right in front of them, who says they won’t do the same in their future lives.

The Florida club rugby team made history when they became the Florida Collegiate Conference 7’s Champions for the first time. Suffering a tie in both the semifinal and final, the team’s stress level was at an all-time high. Fortunately, it was able to pull through and ended up on top.

“I remember it being a mentality battle of who wanted it more,” Duarte said.

No one suspected the extreme underdog team to come out on top, and now it is on its way to two invitation-only national tournaments.

Its first tournament is the USA Rugby 7s Collegiate Championships from May 14-15 in Atlanta, Georgia. It will be broadcast live on NBC, CNBC, and the streaming service Peacock.

The team will then travel to New Orleans to compete in the 2022 Collegiate Rugby Championship over Memorial Day weekend, May 28-30.

Contact Vanessa Sanchez at vsanchez@alligator.org† Follow her on Twitter at @_vanessa_sanch

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