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Written by: Brock Smith
Photograph by: Michael Schroeder
Growing up, Rob Brouwer didn't have much time for sports.
As a teenager, long summer days were spent working on his family’s farm on the outskirts of Lindsay, Ontario, a largely rural community about two hours northeast of Toronto.
Back then, you’d be more likely to find the soon-to-be-formidable prop out in the fields, rather than in the middle of a scrum on the pitch. At that point in his life, Brouwer had never even picked up a rugby ball.
“We worked until the work was done,” says Brouwer. “That’s life on the farm, and it taught me some valuable lessons for later on.”
Working through long lists of daily chores, representing Canada never entered the mind of the teenaged Brouwer. Every hour of sunlight was valuable, and no sport, let alone rugby, was more important than his family responsibilities.
Almost 20 years later, it’s that same never-quit work ethic that has allowed the former farmhand to defy the odds to become Canada’s oldest debutant - 33 years, 72 days old - when he entered Canada’s Americas Rugby Championship match against Brazil last year.
Brouwer’s journey to the international stage has been anything but orthodox.
The 34-year-old teacher picked up the sport as a high school senior and joined the local Lindsay Rugby Club a few months later. Yet, he still considered himself to be a “casual player,” never expecting to play beyond his time as a student-athlete at McMaster University.
“As someone who was brand new to the sport, it wasn’t until I reached university that I realized I was a bit more dominant than the average player, but I never put much stock into it. It was a hobby for me more than anything, and I figured that by the time I was finished university, I’d quit playing. Thankfully, that never happened.
“Every summer throughout university, I just kept going home to Lindsay and playing at the club level, and I loved it more and more.”
Brouwer became a regular starter for Lindsay in his twenties. His 6’2”, 250-pound frame and raw, farm-bred athleticism gave him a reputation as one of the most feared forwards in Ontario, but by his own admission, he hadn't yet sought to channel his athletic potential into loftier aspirations.
Despite a burgeoning teaching career serving as his primary post-university focus - and yes, the man that Lindsay area students call ‘Mr. Brouwer’ is still helming classrooms to this day - the sport was slowly becoming a bigger part of his life.
“For my first few years with the club, I just played. But as I spent more time at the club and gained a richer appreciation for all it brings to our community, I became more and more involved, and wanted to contribute.”
Seemingly in tandem with his skill development on the pitch, Brouwer’s club contributions have only grown as the years have gone on. On top of his full-time teaching job, and as well as his national and provincial team duties as a player, Brouwer also serves as Lindsay Rugby Club’s president, a role he’s held for the past four years.
“I’ve been a junior coach, a social convenor, served on the executive, have cut grass and painted lines - I’ve done just about all of it over the past 15 years or so. I’m surrounded by so many hard-working club members, so it never feels like ‘work.’ We’re this little community within a community where things get done.”
When Brouwer tries to encapsulate what the club has meant to him, he calls upon a speech he recently gave at Lindsay’s minis (under-8 to under-12 players) banquet.
“I was invited to say a few words after their dinner, and while I’m sure most of it wasn’t too memorable, I did tell the young players that rugby has been the biggest positive influence on my life in so many different ways.”
Most notably, Brouwer met his future wife, Hannah, at a club function. They welcomed their first child, Urban, last year, and are expecting a second early next year.
“When I think about the most important things in my life, after my wife and son and our families, it’s the club. It’s a clichéd thing, but our club is like a family. It becomes part of the fabric of what you do.
“I have a lot of pride in my club, so when I play for Canada or Ontario, I’m proud to say I’m from Lindsay, and that Lindsay is my home club. I want to represent our club as best I can on the national and international stages.”
That representation began nearly a decade ago; Brouwer’s development into an elite athlete began with the launch of the Ontario Blues provincial program in 2009, marking his first taste of high-performance rugby.
“Provincial rugby was a whole new world for me. For my first five years with the Blues, I exclusively came off the bench, and deservedly so. Back then, I would do some good things, but plenty of not-so-good things,” he laughs.
Photograph by: Lorne Collicut
“But as time went on, the game just sort of slowed down for me. I became a regular starter, and could see myself improving each season, and sometimes each match. Maybe my understanding of the game just got better after I turned 30.”
The Lindsay man has been a permanent fixture for Ontario over the past decade. He’s played with the Blues for all of the provincial team’s nine seasons, helping to lead Ontario to five national championships in the process. Brouwer’s ninth provincial campaign was highlighted by serving as the team’s captain and earning Rugby Ontario’s Senior Provincial Player of the Year award.
Brouwer’s improvement didn't go unnoticed by Rugby Canada selectors, with the prop beginning to gain national team consideration following the 2015 Canadian Rugby Championship. However, despite a strong showing in Canada’s top domestic tournament, Brouwer was ultimately snubbed for a spot on Canada’s 2015 World Cup roster - a decision that fueled him to work harder than ever before to earn a national team call-up.
“I thought my play had merited a spot on our World Cup team that summer, and not being selected certainly stung. But at the same time, I don’t know if I had given it my complete effort quite yet. I don’t think that came till the following year, even though I was already quite old by rugby standards,” he chuckles.
He didn’t have to wait much longer.
The following February, Brouwer achieved his dream when he entered Canada’s ARC match against Brazil as a late-game substitute. It was a moment the (then) 33-year-old rookie would never forget; the culmination of 16 years of rugby experience.
“It’s hard to describe the moment. I had already sat two games of the tour on the bench, so I was champing at the bit to get in there, to be given a chance. But once I got in, and had a few pretty good passages of play, I began to calm down and enjoy the moment. It was a relief, more than anything.
“I think I’ve probably spent my teaching career telling my kids that’s what happens: if you work hard, good things will happen. Only this time, I felt that it happened for me.”
Two weeks after his international debut, Brouwer experienced the “most powerful moment” of his rugby career. After wrapping up a 64-13 victory over Chile on a frosty evening in Santiago, the prop was met on the pitch by his wife and newborn son.
“Hannah and Urban flew out to see me, and Urban was only six weeks old. I held him after the game, and it was a flood of emotions. Everything I had done within rugby, and everything rugby had done for me, had led to this wonderful, perfect moment.
“The two of them, flying all the way to Chile to see me play with that Maple Leaf on my chest, really symbolizes the incredible support I have at home. I wouldn’t be able to do this without Hannah’s support, and I’m so grateful for it.”
Far from a one-and-done, Brouwer’s national team portfolio has grown considerably over the past year. The prop has now earned nine caps for Canada, and has no desire to slow down.
“I want to keep going. Best-case scenario, I’m playing in the next World Cup. The tournament is two full years away, and a lot can happen between now and then, but the World Cup is my goal. I’ll need to stay healthy and put in some good performances, but I think that’s a realistic goal.
“It’s a long way to go, and it will take a lot of hard work to get there, but good things happen to those who push themselves. I’m already a living example: when I was 30 years old, I never once thought I’d be on the national team, and three years later, I made it. I’m proof that you never know what you can accomplish until you go for it.”