OAKLAND (CBS SF) – Under the lights on a chilly Oakland evening, dozens of teenagers kept warming running after the rugby ball on the field at Merritt College.
“Stay with it, good job, good job!” called coach Ryan Burke.
The kids were mastering the game, but learning a lot more than the rules of the sport from Burke.
“He’s taught me to never put down anybody, never underestimate no one, always show respect and give respect,” explained player Ikani Tupouata.
Burke, a former rugby player himself, is president of the Oakland Warthogs Rugby Club.
“When I first started this, I thought I want to teach kids to be better kids,” Burke remembered. “Then after the first year, these guys all were my little brother, and I couldn’t.. I haven’t been able to walk away.”
Burke is a construction manager by day. He co-founded the club in 2005 to encourage inner city kids to pursue a sport, develop character, and strive for college. Many of the 8th through 12th grade athletes come from tough Oakland neighborhoods where drugs, violence, and poverty aren’t uncommon.
“We’ve had kids where their mother stabbed their father the night before Thanksgiving,” Burke said. “We’ve had kids that sleep on the couch. We have a kid that sleeps in the closet.”
Burke is also serious about scholastics. If you don’t earn a C average, you don’t play. He canceled the team’s playoff entry last year, so they couldn’t defend their division title, because several students failed to submit their report cards.
Tupouata remembered the heartbreak:
“He’s teaching us how life’s gonna be. Everything’s not gonna be handed to you. You gotta work for what you want.”
Under Burke’s leadership, the team doesn’t just emphasize sports and school, but also, community service.
“It takes character to put your heads down and do things for others even when it feels like nothing’s being done for you,” Burke said.
The club’s service projects have included clearing weeds at Merritt College, picking up trash along Lake Merritt, and trimming bushes at Brookdale Park.
Former Oakland Warthog Siliveinusi Tomasi believes in the mission.
“When you give you will receive later in the future,” Tomasi said.
And Tomasi did receive. When the Warthogs sent him to rugby camp, the College of San Mateo freshman ended up playing for the Junior Rugby World Trophy – the top prize.
Burke couldn’t be more proud:
“I love these kids, even the ones who are tough and a pain in the butt sometimes. They come back later and appreciate what it is we’re doing here.”
So for coaching teenagers in rugby and in life, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Ryan Burke.
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