2,500 Hours a Year: What Keeps this Rugby Volunteer Coming Back
Written by: Brock Smith
Every rugby club has at least one.
Ask around the bleachers at your local club on any given Saturday, and dozens will be able to point him or her out. You know, the one who pumps balls, cuts grass, paints lines, and makes sure the pitches are playable. Or the one who coaches four junior teams, manages a couple of senior teams, and even finds time to play the odd match if too many regulars aren’t able to suit up. Maybe it’s the one who keeps the clubhouse in tip-top shape, fills out all the club paperwork, and keeps the books balanced.
They’re volunteers. The ones who do it all for the love the game, putting in countless hours with scant celebration or fanfare, and expect very little in return. Without them, organized rugby couldn’t exist.
For the Aurora Barbarians, Khalil Ajram is that volunteer.
The 28-year-old serves as the club’s vice president and treasurer, pulling double-duty on Aurora’s executive. Ajram also coaches the Barbarians’ under-16 boys team - a program that has attracted a club-record 60 kids this summer.
Three roles? Ho-hum. On the surface, possessing a trio of titles doesn’t seem that onerous.
But when you dig a little deeper, the sheer number of duties required of these three positions begins to add up, and fast. Attending board meetings, preparing financial documents, filling out game sheets, organizing practices and drills, driving to matches across the province for eight months of the year, and scores of additional tasks, all demanding hours and hours a week… it would be easy to think that under normal circumstance, all this work would necessitate the helping hands of three or four different individuals.
For most, this workload would be draining. Exhausting. Far too much for any one volunteer.
But for Ajram, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
If you look beyond his work at the club level, you’d need all your fingers and toes to count the number of roles he holds across the Ontario rugby landscape.
With Rugby Ontario, he coaches the under-16 boys Central Hub (a feeder program to the junior provincial fifteens side), and is a manager and video analyst with the under-18 provincial sevens program.
At Trent University (Peterborough, Ontario.), he serves as the assistant coach and manager of both the men’s and women’s varsity fifteens teams, as well as the head coach of both the men’s and women’s sevens teams.
At Dr. John M. Denison Secondary School in Newmarket, Ontario, he coaches the high school’s senior boys fifteens and sevens teams.
After helping to establish a successful junior sevens program with Toronto Rugby in recent years, Ajram has shifted gears to serve as manager of the Canadian Mis-Fit Sevens, a program dedicated to developing potential sevens stars who have already graduated from junior provincial rugby.
And in his free time?
“I’m a referee, and a coach of match officials, too,” laughs Ajram. “I’ve actually been reffing every Saturday this year, too. Many times, I’ve stepped in to ref my under-16 boys because there hasn’t be a ref there. Four games so far this year, and counting.”
So what does all this add up to?
“If I were to ever put a total amount to it, I would probably say 50 hours a week of rugby. Between practices, prep work… even just a few minutes ago, I was doing the game sheets for the Barbs’ under-18 boys - playing tonight.”
50 hours a week? He couldn't be serious, could he? No one could spend that much time volunteering while balancing a full-time job on the side, right?
“It’s hard to believe, I know. Sometimes I don’t believe it either. 50 hours a week from April to November, but it gets scaled down a bit over the winter throughout the sevens season... But only a bit.”
Ajram estimates that his yearly total would likely be around 2,500 hours, a staggering number for any one person. Heck, that would be impressive for a group of five, or even 10.
“A lot of my friends and family get mad at me because they don’t see much of me during the rugby season,” he says, chuckling. “But it’s a balancing act.
“There’s always something on the go when it comes to rugby in my life. Sometimes you can get a little worn out, but I never ask myself ‘Why am I not beach-side?’ or ‘Why am I not cottage-side?’ There’s nowhere else I’d rather be than pitch-side.”
Ajram began playing rugby at 15, but it didn’t take long before he felt drawn to the administrative side of the game. His first managerial role came at 17, when he was tasked with overseeing a Toronto Rugby under-16 side during a tour to Ottawa.
“I was only a year and a half older than those guys who were playing, but I loved the role, and I loved the idea that I could give back to the game beyond being a player.”
After his first summer as a manager, Ajram immediately began looking to accrue more volunteer titles while continuing to play. His first stint on the Aurora Barbarians Board of Directors was when he was 19. His first club coaching role was when he was 20. By 21, he became involved with Toronto Rugby as a convenor, a role he held for five years before joining the branch union’s Board of Directors.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Ajram’s playing career came to a crushing end in 2012 after tearing two knee ligaments while playing for the Seneca Sting in the OCAA Gold Medal Championship. Despite undergoing two reconstructive surgeries, Ajram was told by doctors he wouldn't be able to return to the pitch without the aid of a bulky metal brace. Reading between the lines, Ajram knew his competitive playing days were behind him.
While it would have been easy to walk away from the sport in anger or disappointment, the injury had the reverse effect on Ajram.
From that point on, Ajram took every job available to him, and since then, he’s helped coach or manage every program the club has offered, ranging from mini's to senior men. He’s served as the club secretary, social convenor, and communications officer - you name it, he’s done it.
“Aside from serving as the club president, I think I’ve touched every role possible,” says Ajram.
But why offer so much time to the sport?
“I’ve made so many good friends out of rugby. When I think about it…” he pauses, “Every friend I have is through rugby. Everyone I know, everything I do, everything revolves around rugby.
“Rugby has made me into the man I am today. It’s given me so much. I think of the tours I’ve been able to go on, the parts of the world I’ve been able to see… Vegas. Vancouver. New York. These aren’t experiences that many people will get in their lifetimes.
“I think about those I’ve worked with on the sidelines, or those that I’ve had the opportunity to coach, and the young kids who tell me ‘I can’t wait to come back next week!’ or ‘I had so much fun today, Khalil!’
“And there’s the inspiring next generation… it’s young provincial players like Andrew Quattrin, Jack McRogers, or James Hammond… the young men who are willing to put the time in. I might do a lot of work across rugby, but these are guys who are training with the provincial team on Monday, club rugby on Tuesday and Thursday, maybe attending an academy program on Friday, playing in matches on Saturday and Wednesday… they never quit.
“Every club or organization has someone like me - trust me, I’m expendable!” he laughs, “But if it wasn’t for the players in this game, what do we have, right? The players drive our sport forward, and they drive me to be the best I can be, too.”
Ajram’s work in the community has garnered high praise from his club and provincial counterparts. On top of receiving several club honours over the past decade, he also earned Rugby Ontario’s Volunteer of the Year Award in 2015.
Hardware aside, perhaps the most significant praise Ajram has received is from John Reich - the man who inspired the 28-year-old to volunteer within the sport in the first place.
“It was John Reich, who is still our men’s team manager, who got me interested in giving back to the game,” says Ajram. “You’ll still see him on the sidelines at every game. He really pushed me in. He told me at a young age that I was going to be involved in this club for a long time. That was 10 years ago, and I’m still involved.”
Reich, a 40-year member of the Toronto Barbarians, and later, the Aurora Barbarians (Toronto Barbarians merged with the Aurora Rugby Club to form the Aurora Barbarians in 2002), knows a thing or two about dedicating a lifetime to the game: on top of serving as club president for more than 20 years between 1985 and 2012, Reich has held dozens of coaching, management, and executive titles with the club.
Like Ajram, Reich has held just about every club role there is to hold. He’s the kind of individual who knows a good volunteer when he sees one, and in Ajram, something caught Reich’s eye right from the get-go.
“The bottom line about Khalil is that not only is he a willing and tireless volunteer, but he’s competent,” says Reich. “In Khalil’s case, and this was evident right from the first time I met him as a junior, he was doing things that were beyond his years in terms of understanding how a volunteer, not-for-profit organization works. He was very impressive right from a 17-year-old.
“At the club level, he’s virtually done it all. Over the last 10 years, he’s coached, he’s been on the executive, he’s been vice president, he’s been treasurer, he’s managed social events, and he’s arranged other volunteers to come and support events that are bigger than the club membership can sustain.
“Has anybody shown the versatility and willingness to dedicate time in so many different areas as Khalil? No. In all my time in the game, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.”
Now in his fifth decade with the Barbarians, Reich understands why those not entirely familiar with club rugby might question the significant time commitment required to be a consummate volunteer, but he’s quick to dismiss any naysayers; he maintains that his lifetime investment in the sport has been worth every sacrifice.
“When people ask how I got involved, and how could I commit the 40 years I’ve put into the game… I didn't find rugby, rugby found me!
“I think that decades from now, Khalil will look back on his experiences in a similar way.”
Reich has been around the game long enough to know that volunteers like Ajram will have an impact on the sport that will be felt years after they decide to scale back their involvement.
“If I inspired Khalil, I was equally inspired by guys who were there when I stepped up. This game is all about passing on the torch. I’m very thankful to have met as many good people in rugby as I have, and Khalil will leave that kind of impression on whoever comes next, years down the road.”
One of Ontario’s rising rugby stars is hooker Andrew Quattrin, who Ajram has coached since he was 15.
“I coached him in high school for three years and club for two years, and to see the dedication from a kid who goes from being a 130-pound fullback to a guy who is now pushing 230 pounds, and is one of the strongest, most fearsome competitors in the province, is jaw-dropping,” says Ajram. “You can’t help but respect his body of work.”
For Quattrin, who has learned from Ajram over the past five years, that respect is mutual.
“I’d say he’s the glue that keeps our club together. He’s an all-in-one. He’s the coach, the manager, the trainer. He’s the referee, he gets the equipment, he makes sure the balls are pumped. He does it all. He’s the first to arrive and the last to leave.”
Quattrin regularly practices with his Barbarians teammates multiple times a week, and says that it’s rare to go a training session without seeing Ajram pitch-side.
“A lot of things wouldn't happen at the club without him. It’s tough to admit, but it’s easy to take his work for granted. I bet there’s plenty of times throughout the year where I’d be at home, relaxing after practice, and he’s still at the club well after the sun goes down, even though he’s been there since 6 p.m. We do acknowledge him, but people who put in that much work need to be celebrated a lot more.
“This is how our game is going to grow. It’s on the backs of guys like Khalil, a volunteer who makes sure that kids are having fun, and that they stick around for years on end. I was one of those kids not too long ago.”
Quattrin made his debut for the Ontario Blues senior men’s side last summer, and despite being just 20 years of age, the physical forward has vaulted up Rugby Canada’s national team depth chart over the past year.
Since playing for Ajram, he’s worked with a number of coaches at the senior club, post-secondary, provincial, and national age-grade stages over the past few years, learning from many different coaching styles throughout this period.
Still, Quattrin can specifically pinpoint aspects of Ajram’s coaching repertoire that created a lasting effect - specifically, Ajram’s ability to provide his players with a comfortable and competitive atmosphere to build on their skill-sets.
“He has such a good bond with his players, you can really connect with him. It’s an equal relationship, which I think is one of the best assets you can have as a coach. Khalil doesn’t look down on you. He’s there at an equal eye level and wants your input, wants you to improve, to grow as a player and as a person.”
Now a three-time OUA all-star with the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks, Quattrin counts Ajram as a big influence on his development into a player with strong national team aspirations.
“Back in high school, even if I had a bad game, Khalil would always keep my confidence up. He always motivated me, kept the mood positive, and never said anything negative, even though he probably could have a couple times,” he chuckles, recalling a few plays he admits he’d prefer to forget.
“Khalil is the kind of coach that players want to play hard for. He’s a great role model, and he helped get me into a mindset to chase my dreams.”
Despite having already earned the respect and admiration of his peers from across the province, Ajram has no plans to slow down.
“I plan on staying in the game as much as I can for as long as I can. I love it too much to give it up.”
Ajram insists his passion for the sport will never wane.
“How could it? In what other sport do you have one team cheering on another team from their club? Or club members being at the park from noon to five, watching three or four games of rugby in a day? Or Old Boys, who are in their sixties or seventies, who show up and spend a day supporting their team? When you’re involved in it, there’s no getting out of it. There’s no words to explain it, but you can just go see it. Go to any pitch on any weekend, and you can’t help but see how much the sport means to those involved. You can feel it.”
“That feeling will always be worth 50 hours a week.”