Written by: Doug Crosse
A rugby team in California that stresses learning and teamwork is making huge strides in diverting potentially at-risk youth from the mean streets of Oakland and into post-secondary success and a better future.
The Oakland Warthogs were created over a decade ago with the intent of reaching young men that were facing failure in school and leaning to a life in one of the forty-plus gangs in the Bay area. And according to its current coach Yasha Ghaffarzadeh, the combination of teaching a new sport as well as providing educational support, has created a number of success stories within its history.
Ghaffarzadeh says the key to the Warthogs ethos is about accountability. To the team, their families, and to themselves as well. One of the main provisions to be able to stay on the team is to participate in tutoring sessions if a player’s grades are slipping.
“It starts off with trying to teach them what rugby is to get them on the field,”
Ghaffarzadeh told Ædelhard Rugby. “Then we coax them through to our true aims, which includes teaching the game, but also education and life skills to give them everything they need to get through.”
He illustrates this point with a story from about a year ago; some of his key players were not available to play because they failed to attend the tutoring sessions and keep the requisite 2.0-grade point average, even though World Rugby TV was on hand to do a segment on the successful program.
“We had a couple of issues with our players not attending our tutoring,” he explains. “We sat down and said as a team the week before that if a player has a D or an F they are required to go to tutoring. If you don’t do that then you are not allowed to play in our next game, which was the Clayton Valley game.”
Six of his players failed to do the required work. So, despite them making the one-hour bus trip to Clayton Valley’s pitch, he pulled them aside ahead of kick-off and reminded them of their deal. Ghaffarzadeh admits he held his breath and was waiting for some push-back, but instead, an interesting thing happened.
“Surprisingly they weren’t angry or frustrated at me, but they understood that we agreed to this as a team and they really held themselves accountable for disappointing themselves and the team,” he recalls. “They made me very proud because these starters, A Squad guys, were running out water and being encouraging to the guys that were playing. We had to start with twelve kids and at the end of the first half we were still in the lead.”
As a result of their positive reaction and actions, Ghaffarzadeh put the affected players in the second half, and the Warthogs cruised to an easy 48 point victory.
Warthog player Gonzalo Franco echoed this sentiment in an interview with World Rugby at the time. “It teaches you lot about responsibility, how you grow up and learn and take care of your own things,” he says humbly.
Another great aspect of the Warthog culture is that players do not either pay to play or for the tutoring they’re given. This is all supported by a well-developed network of sponsors, many of whom come by way of the Northern California construction community. Ghaffarzadeh and Warthogs President Ryan Burke are contractors, and together started building relationships with people they worked within the industry. This has continued to be a great aspect of the Warthog way. As well, a local educational company is stepping up to help. Achieve Learning is running the after school tutoring for free, and there is also a financial literacy program to get the boys set up early in the ways of personal finance.
The Warthogs play in a 20 team Northern Cal youth rugby league, and usually play a ten game schedule, though Ghaffarzadeh admits all teams are struggling to make their player numbers and manage budgets, so it is usually a work in progress.
Over the course of twelve seasons there have been a number of success stories to report, including a pair of players joining the Oakland Police Department, and two players going to the southern hemisphere to pursue rugby careers in Australia and New Zealand. But it is one Filipe Lopez that is the beacon of what the Warthog program can do.
“He learned that the more you have against you, it is important to just keep going,” says Ghaffarzadeh passionately about the former player. “Whatever stops you temporarily, just get up and keep going.”
The team created the Felipe award to give to a player that best reflects the values of former Warthog stalwart.
“Felipe Lopez went to college while going through tremendous conflict, went to Chico State and graduated in Construction Management,” says Ghaffarzadeh. “The Felipe Lopez award has set such a standard for our players.”
With dozens of potential Felipe’s coming through their ranks each season, this group of young men proudly fly the Warthog colours, when they could just as easily be on the streets of Oakland flying colours of a completely different and potentially violent nature.
Ghaffarzadeh says he has players whose siblings, parents or relatives have connections to the gang life, but they come and see what the Warthogs are about and are among the most enthusiastic supporters of the team.
“There is a lot of family involvement and support here, which is awesome,” he offers. “Everyone who has been involved with us in the past is helping us grow into the future.”
Twelve years on, this little club that could continues its satisfying mandate of “improving the lives and character of young men in Oakland, while motivating them to obtain a college education.” A simple mantra on the Warthogs website, but a life-altering reality for those who choose to pick up a ball and make possibly one of the most important decisions of their young lives.
If you would like to find out more about the Warthogs team and how you can help, visit www.oaklandwarthogsrfc.com