A notification recently pinged onto Shane Young’s phone, alerting him that it was 10 years since he first shared the logo for Memphis Inner City Rugby (MICR) on social media.

“This is the beginning of a new opportunity for economically disadvantaged high school boys in Memphis,” Young wrote on Facebook in 2012.

“It is a project that I founded with my partner, friend and fellow rugger Devin O'Brien. Our goal is to use the power of rugby to foster academic and personal excellence in young men who attend Memphis inner city schools.”

Young and O’Brien had met when they moved to south-west Tennessee to work for the non-profit organisation, Teach for America.

Working in some of the most disadvantaged schools in Memphis, the pair were struck by the lack of sporting opportunities that existed for their pupils and decided to start a rugby team.

That first team was set up at the high school O’Brien taught at, using his classroom to announce that training sessions would be held at a park down the road.

Parents of interested pupils were also consulted and the success of the team ensured that Young and O’Brien were able to take rugby into other schools in the area, some of which could not afford to run sporting programmes of their own.

“The first year that Devin and I became teachers, we met each other [and] realised we both had a rugby background. He played in college, I'd played all my life and we said, ‘Let's start a team’,” Young told World Rugby.

“We tracked their academics, and we held them accountable behaviourally and tracked their attendance. Teachers started to notice the difference it was making for these kids.

“Then we saw all of our friends in Teach for America around the city teaching at charter schools that did not have athletic programmes or football teams. And we were like, ‘What if we could give our team someone to play against?’

“I started a team at a charter school that was going to play against the team we both started together, and that was the beginning of Memphis Inner City Rugby.”

“What about us?”

Within three years, MICR set up its first girls’ team and fast forward a decade and more than 1,000 boys and girls have passed through the programme.

“Girls were really interested, they would see their friends, their boyfriends play and say, ‘What about us?’” Young added.

“They basically self-advocated, they were kicking down the doors saying, ‘Why not us?’”

The organisation currently serves around 350 children from 14 schools, not only exposing them to rugby but giving them the tools to go onto college, university or work, and to succeed in life.

According to an impact study carried out in 2020, at that time, MICR had helped 48 of its alumni access college through rugby, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships. Six of those players had gone on to earn All-American honours.

In 2021, meanwhile, MICR graduate Calvin Gentry was drafted into Major League Rugby to play for the Dallas Jackals.

Beyond what Young describes as the “flashy” success stories, the study also found that 98 per cent of participants believed the programme empowers academic performance, while 91 per cent of parents reported that the programme improved the mental well-being of their child.

At the time of the study MICR also employed 28 alumni as coaches and it is those achievements that Young says he takes most pride in.

“We’ve had Division One college scholarships, All-American rugby players and professional rugby players, but those are exceptions. That's not the common result,” he said. “Those are by-products of what we do.

“We get most passionate about [seeing] students from very deep economic disadvantage and academic deficit, who maybe have trauma… believe in themselves and take risks and climb the ladder of our society and experience upward mobility and opportunity.

“You know, when we can see that happen at scale systematically, where kids can lean into rugby and our services and then benefit in those ways, that's what we get most passionate about. We’ve designed the programme to allow for that to be possible.”

Making an impact

Plans are in place to open the programme up to children as young as eight, which it is hoped will have an impact both on those participants and the popularity of rugby in Memphis.

Young stresses that his most pressing aim is to make MICR financially sustainable, but there is evidence that its success means rugby has become a much more common sight in south-west Tennessee than it was back in 2012.

“It’s crazy because now that we're doing middle school and getting these pathways going, we're running into all kinds of kids [who say], ‘Oh, my cousin played for your team’,” Young said.

“[There are] all of these connected lines, family lines, friendship lines, where kids are starting to notice rugby is just this thing that's normal in their school and community.

“That's a fascinating reality for us because, of course, none of this is normal. This wouldn't be here without this organisation, but the kids are starting to adopt it into their lives as a legitimate entity.

“I think once we have kids playing from such a young age… when they pick it up at eight, 10, 12 years old and have that many more years of development and experience and love for the game, we're going to see many more All-Americans and college scholarships and pro players and hopefully USA Eagles.”