Aug. 23, 2010 -- In 1995, newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela saw rugby as a tool to inspire unity among his countrymen, who had been alienated from each other for so many years by apartheid.
Ten years later in the Bronx, N.Y., high school history teacher Lisa Lake had a similar vision: use rugby as a tool to inspire her students -- students who were alienated from society by poverty, gangs and violent crime -- to do better.
"These kids need somewhere to be, they need somewhere to shoot for and they need help to get into college," Lake said. An athlete herself, Lake knew the benefits of organized sports. With few resources, Lake gathered as many students as she could to start a rugby team at the Bronx high school where she taught humanities.
Much as the rugby field provided common to the people of a new South Africa, the rugby field began to provide firm ground for this unlikely group of high school athletes.
As a former rugger, myself, I'm particularly inspired by Arnold Chavis, a child of the Bronx's Edenwald housing projects. It's one of the toughest places a kid can grow up in New York City.
"I wouldn't say it's too bad because I've lived here my whole life, but to other people looking, it's probably the worst place to be in the Bronx," Chavis, 20, said.
Adopted as a baby, he grew up in a loving home, but the projects still took their toll. His brother was killed in a gang fight.
"There's just so many influences, so much outside pressure and things that can happen randomly," Lake said.
Chavis and his classmates were resistant at first, but Lake and partner Annie Collier worked to convince them to join the rugby team with young athletes in the New York city area.
"I did beg, but once I got them there, they loved it," Lake said.
"I started practicing and fell in love with it," he said. "It was a contact sport where you were able to hit people and not get in trouble for it. It taught me self-discipline and respect for other people because before that I was a pretty bad kid, I'll admit it."
Despite the daily realities of their personal lives, the kids are stuck with it.
"I think that for them to stay on this path it takes an extraordinary amount of discipline," Collier said. "Traveling on public transportation for two hours, all across the city, coming down out of their borough to make this happen for themselves."
And the payoff has been huge for Lake and Collier's players. All of the kids in the program graduated from high school this year. One was a valedictorian and another was a salutatorian.
Chavis graduated in 2008 from the Sports Professions High School. He is the first member of his family to go to college and he intends to make them proud.
I asked Chavis what his mother said to him when he was leaving for college.
"She said, 'Just keep pushing, don't let anyone stop you -- not even me.' She said it just like that," he said.
Members of the New York Rugby Club have rallied around to help the young players.
"He got to Penn State because somebody paid his bus fare and dropped him off at the bus. He got books because somebody else donated the money," Lake said, noting that so many people helped.
Arnold is majoring in kinesiology -- the study of human movement -- at Pennsylvania State University. Movement is what Chavis is all about these days.
This summer he was invited for the second time to play rugby at the prestigious Sharks Academy in Durban, South Africa. It's an experience only a select few will ever enjoy.
"Rugby is a lot like life," Andre Volsdeedt, the strength and conditioning manager for Sharks Academy, said. "It's all about discipline, dedication and commitment. We always try to get better than the day before and it is always exactly the same."
For the young man who has come so far, it's more than the dream of a lifetime. As it opened the eyes of South Africa to its own possibilities, rugby has opened Arnold Chavis' eyes to possibilities he could never have dreamed.
"Arnold is a prime example of it, that if you struggle and you're prepared to work hard, you can get out of your circumstances. The person he was three years ago and the person he is today is totally different. He's grown up so much, especially as a player and as a man," Volsdeedt said.
Chavis's goals on the field are showing him the way to goals in life.
"Just keep pushing yourself to be somebody," he said. "That's the goal in everybody's life, to be somebody. And if you're coming from nothing, just like me, you can go out there and be somebody."
For more information about rugby in New York and the United States, visit the following websites: