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Written By: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt
Photo Credit: Mark Knutt
The alarm goes off. 4:30 am.
There’s a six am practice session, but you need to be ready; first a bit of a stretch, go over strategy, get some protein into you. Early days. But you’re used to it.
The bell sounds. 3:00 am.
It’s cold as you swing your legs out of bed. You shake the cobwebs as you’re listening to the call. Two alarm barn fire. Need to get to the scene to prevent it from spreading to a neighbouring stable. It’s early and the equipment is heavy. But you’re used to it.
Want to know why it feels natural to enter the life of firefighting post-rugby career?
It seems to be a recent trend at Rugby Canada – players entering the fire service post-rugby playing days. Canada’s top try-scoring powerful winger, DTH van der Merwe, has been open about the fact that once he’s done playing his professional rugby (he’s currently with the Newcastle Falcons in the Premiership in England, but before that the fleet-footed fan favourite played for the Scarlets in Wales and Glasgow Warriors in Scotland), he will be applying his trade as a firefighter. He’s already completed and passed the course. So, once he hangs up his rugby boots, he’ll be reaching for the heavy fire-retardant boots instead.
He will join other professional rugby players who have decided to make the switch; among them recent Canadian rugby stars John Moonlight, currently completing his training for the fire service, and Brittany Benn, newly graduated. They enter the ranks as firefighting professionals alongside former players Derek Daypuck, 18 capped Canadian International (still active at club level) and in the fire service for the last six years, and Chauncey O’Toole, now three years into his life in the fire service.
O’Toole is a full-time firefighter in Saint John, New Brunswick, but before that he was a professional rugby player and Canadian International, making 21 test appearances for Rugby Canada, including a turn at the 2011 Rugby World Cup. He was active with the team for 7 years, and in that time forged some very special relationships with, as he coins, “the boys.”
As O’Toole explains it, he made the transition to firefighting from rugby because it seemed a natural segue for someone used to the demanding physical elements and athletic training that are also required as a first responder: “It seemed like it would be the closest thing to professional sport that you can get ‘in the real world’,” he says.
A Toronto area Fire Captain explains that as with rugby, the firehouse is a team environment in which everyone plays their own part. “If the pieces of the puzzle all come together, you’ll win that game [Rugby] or you’ll excel at an emergency. Whether you’re a Flanker or ‘on the nozzle’, you have a specific role.”
It is also that sense of team that makes for a happy firehall. The Captain explains that as a team you lament your losses together; likewise after an emergency you’ll sit around the table together and support one another. “It’s all bonding, [such as] eating a meal before or after a match or during your [24 hour] shift.”
According to O’Toole, it is that need to replace the feeling of being ‘a team’ that drove him into firefighting: “You’re still part of a team, it’s physically demanding, and you still get the adrenaline rush when a structure fire [call] comes in.”
John Moonlight echoes O’Toole’s sentiment. “Firefighting is all about trusting in the team. When you’re out there, your life is on the line and you need to count on the guys around you.” The former Sevens Captain and 15s stalwart continues, “the same is with rugby. We have to trust that the guy beside us will do his job. Without that you won’t be successful.”
John Moonlight would know about that trust. As former Captain of the Sevens team, he would be leading by example each tournament. A natural leader, he captained the Canada Sevens for three years, including during their gold-winning campaign to the Pan-American Games hosted in Toronto in 2015. Further, he completed his incredibly demanding 2015 Sevens season and without much of a break returned to the 15s side to compete in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. That’s the kind of stamina that will hold Moonlight in good stead in the fire service.
Currently, Moonlight is nearly done his training and is a driving test away from completion. In a few short weeks, he will join Brittany Benn as newly graduated.
The buzzword each player seems to return to is the idea of “team.” For Benn, star and Olympic medal winning Rugby Sevens player from 2013-2017, the idea of replacing her ‘team’ was a necessity for her as well. Further, it was a need to continue to connect with the larger community as she had done within rugby that drove her to a future as a first responder. As she has said, it was to be part of a “new team, a new family” that provided the impetus.
As with Chauncey O’Toole, she felt the need to fill a void that would be left once she was no longer training and touring with her Rugby Sevens team. She feels that her training as an athlete will give her that leading edge in her new life, but that also her commitment and loyalty to the team will come into play.
O’Toole agrees. “I think a lot of the [players] will tell you that what they miss most after they leave rugby is being around the boys and it’s very similar in the fire service,” he shares. “it’s the people you meet and the relationships you develop that make both special.”
The other special aspect is that community outreach. As the Fire Captain explains, they’ll often get visits from the community they’ve helped, who come to thank them for pulling them out of a car or performing CPR on a family member (or themselves). He explains that it’s a great feeling having the support of the community. Again, the correlation to rugby is that professional players are also in the public eye. They are part of a community, and most players have exceptional ‘people’ skills. This is necessary if they are to be successful ambassadors of their sport and country. Firefighters also fill that role in the community. They are looked up to, so remain aware of their responsibilities and carry a strong sense of that with them.
The discipline that one applies while training for an elite sport is easily transferable to the training and discipline necessary as a first responder. There is also the strength and stamina that is required in both fields. Not everyone can be an elite athlete; not everyone could be a firefighter.
Family is a word used by players who have become firefighters or first responders. As my Captain friend explains, your team is your family whether it be professional sport or at the fire hall. Extending from your actual teammates, the partners and children become close and share moments together such as BBQ’s and other celebrations. It’s that sense of family that helps buoy the team up in good times and in bad. He says that anyone who already understands the bond of the team is going to fit in more naturally than one who has not already experienced this unique aspect. Win or lose, they are all in it together.
There is a physical and mental strength that one needs in order to make a successful transfer from rugby player to firefighter. Each of Canada’s rugby stars that have made the transition are especially driven. It was always evident on the pitch, and it will continue to be in their post rugby careers.
I think of that long 2015 season John Moonlight made it through, day in and day out, training and playing tournament to tournament without falter. And it makes me realize that if he’s but one example of the next generation of firefighter, along with the fast and fearless and equally driven Brittany Benn, I’ll feel that we are all a little safer.
As an addendum, hats off to every single first responder out there. Thank you very much for everything you do for your communities. We all feel safer knowing you’re looking out for us.. Thanks also to my Captain friend who took time during a particularly busy period to give me some great feedback. Cheers, each and every one of you. And good luck John and Britt!