PADECKY: Football's loss is rugby's gain
Published: Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 6:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 16, 2013 at 8:48 a.m.
Stephen Tomasin began May 31 like most Fridays he thought he would experience this summer. Tomasin, a former Cardinal Newman football star, had just finished his freshman year at San Diego State, where he played rugby for the Aztecs and earned a 2.8 GPA in school.
It was to be a good Friday, a nice, low-stress Friday, the kind of day college kids have in the summer when the anvil of class is not resting on their shoulders.
“I had no idea it was coming,” said Tomasin about the events to follow.
When Tomasin arrived back at his San Diego house that night there was a message on his landline waiting for him.
“Stephen, the USA All-American team manager called and left me a message,” said his mom, Shelly. “I don't know much about it except it has something to do with rugby and he wants you to call him.”
Tuesday night, 11 days later, Tomasin took off from San Francisco International Airport for a 14-hour flight to New Zealand. After undergoing and passing a rigorous three-day selection process, Tomasin is a member of the USA Rugby Men's Collegiate All-Americans. Tomasin and 27 others are representing the United States in a three-match tour against universities in New Zealand, the first match being today against Massey University in Palmerston North.
The past two weeks for Tomasin have moved faster than pizza at a kindergarten class. He is still trying to get his mind around it.
“It's crazy,” said the North Bay League's football most valuable player in 2011. “It's been a roller coaster. I'm very lucky.”
Tomasin is the only freshman on the team.
He began playing rugby in February 2012.
Seventeen months later Tomasin is playing rugby internationally for America.
So, OK, there might be a little luck involved. More to the point, Tomasin's quick ascent in collegiate rugby has more to do with skill than luck.
“People always told me I would be a better rugby player than a football player,” Tomasin said.
That would be due to a variety of factors. First, there's his solid structure — 5-foot-10, 205 pounds and no baby fat. His ability to run low and hard and with speed — around 4.6 seconds over 40 yards — made him tough to stop on the football field, and it's a skill that translates well to rugby. And then there's his intensity. Tomasin take plays off? Shoot, he doesn't take seconds off.
Tomasin's coaches at San Diego State, Matt Hawkins and Rueben Stilkin, kept pressing USA's head rugby coach Matt Sherman to invite Tomasin to USA Rugby's invitation-only selection camp on June 7 at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Sherman resisted. Tomasin, after all, was a freshman, a pup at 18, and he would be competing against the best college rugby dudes in America or, as USA Rugby said in a press release, “the top 1 percent of players.”
According to the website RugbyMag.com, the San Diego State coaches “nagged” Sherman enough that he relented. According to RugbyMag.com, Tomasin surprised everyone during the three days of tryouts. There were two workouts each day, nine hours daily of workouts, interviews and tests.
His ability to communicate, to move with and without the ball, to fire hot each and every play, Tomasin won the coaches over. The kid could play. Monday at 9 a.m. the coaches called all 53 players together and announced the 28 who would travel. It's not just a honor for Tomasin to be selected, it's startling in what it reveals about his ability. He was competing against college guys who have been playing rugby for seven or eight years, before high school even.
“It's still a shock to me,” Tomasin said.
Especially considering that as recently as two years ago, rugby was not his sport of choice in college. He wanted to play football. He had posted headline-making numbers when he was at Newman — like that six-touchdown game against Bishop O'Dowd in a 2011 North Coast Section playoff game — that it was unimaginable Tomasin would be soon giving up the game he had played and loved since he was a Newman freshman.
So come on down to the field, the San Diego State football coaches told Tomasin, and we'll take a look at you.
“I didn't look the part of a college running back,” said Tomasin, who is an outside center in rugby.
Tomasin could feel the disapproving eyes. He decided he wouldn't pursue being a walk-on, which in most cases is a tackling dummy at Division I schools, if that walk-on gets lucky. Tomasin had been playing rugby for a year at the Santa Rosa Rugby Club and had been growing fond of the sport.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Tomasin said, “and now I want to thank the people who didn't think I could play college football. I think rugby is the ultimate team sport because we all always are so close together when we are on the field, and there's no room for ego or arrogance, either.”
USA Rugby's collegiate team is a feeder to USA Rugby's National team. With the possibility he could travel the world playing rugby, representing the United States, Tomasin is aware that this could be just the beginning of his athletic career — even after the success he had at Newman.
“Once I represented a city when I played for Newman,” Tomasin said. “Then last year I represented a university. Now I'm representing America. ... This is all still a shock to me.”
On his cell phone, Tomasin took a moment to regroup. As if one day he'll wake up and this will all be a dream, and of course it won't. He's no longer what we knew him as, a football player. Tomasin is an elite collegiate rugby player and every day he's in San Diego, and not in New Zealand, he is reminded of this.
Tomasin stays in a five-bedroom house with other San Diego State rugby players. The house is called “The Hurt Locker,” after the 2008 Academy Award-winning movie about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq.
The Hurt Locker is a place, like his mother said, where the players can go to compare their bruises.
You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.