Willie Hankerson scoops the rugby ball off the dry, dusty ground at Sibley Field in south Minneapolis. With an effortless, underhand twirl, he spirals the ball back to Devante (D.J.) Riser, starting a string of lateral passes as they sprint and spin down field before crashing into a tangle of bodies.
Another practice is winding down for the South Metro Tigers, a ragtag bunch of inner-city kids -- rich and poor, white and black -- from South, Roosevelt and other Minneapolis high schools for whom rugby has become a rough, but healthy, alternative to the gang life lurking down the street.
They owe their participation, in part, to Trevor Marsh, a 17-year-old South High senior and longtime member of the rugby team who three years ago was pistol-whipped, shot in the head and left dead along the banks of the Mississippi River. Four gang members have been prosecuted for his murder.
After their only son's death, Bruce and Michelle Marsh created the Trevor R. Marsh Memorial Fund. For the past two years, they've quietly presented $1,000 checks to Tigers coach John Eichten, enabling kids such as Hankerson and Riser to play the game they credit with turning their lives around.
"To be truthful, rugby has changed my life a lot because, without it, I'd be out there doing something stupid, doing something bad," said Hankerson, who with Riser is considered a rising star in Minnesota's devout but under-the-radar rugby scene.
Hankerson met Marsh a couple times at South, but Hankerson wasn't a rugby player then, so they were never together on the rugby field.
"He was killed for no apparent reason," Hankerson said.
Now Marsh's love for rugby lives on through Hankerson. Using the scholarship money the Marsh family set aside, Hankerson joined the Tigers in the middle of last season, and his speed and toughness quickly attracted the eyes of rugby's elite. The U.S. national team, the Eagles, flew him last summer to Ohio for a tryout, where he was among the final players cut -- after playing only five games in his life.
This year, Hankerson cajoled Riser, his best friend and "go-to man" at Roosevelt, to give rugby a try, too.
"We were at lunch and I told him: 'I'll look retarded with that big old stupid ball,'" Riser said. "But I'm a quick study and I came out and now I like it more than football. I'm extra shifty and Willie is a beast, that dude is a monster."
Riser used to get on his friend for skipping football practice to play rugby. Last week, Riser was skipping spring football drills to get ready for Saturday's Minnesota State High School Rugby Tournament.
"I thought he was stupid for missing football practice, but he's not stupid anymore," Riser said.
Tellis Redmon, who racked up back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons with the Gophers earlier this decade, now coaches football at Roosevelt. His girlfriend's buddy plays rugby, and Redmon passed out some fliers to his players in hopes that rugby would help them stay in shape in the offseason.
"He thought there was some rambunctious emotion going on there that needed an outlet," said Eichten, the Tigers coach.
Hankerson was getting in fights and wound up in juvenile detention for auto theft after he jumped in a car with a gang-affiliated friend for a joy ride.
"They were heading down the wrong path, Willie and D.J.," Redmon said. "Kids are going to be kids, following the wrong people if you don't have someone directing you the right way."
"It's like a light bulb switched on, and they came to see what good things are out there if they keep off the streets," Redmon said.
Hankerson's mom, Gwen Hughes, has noticed the difference.
"He seemed to have a real snappy attitude before," she said. "Now, he's not snapping so much, and I'm glad he's playing because he's not out on the streets. He's too tired once he gets home."
When her son does stray, she calls Eichten.
"If I have a problem with him doing this or that, I call the coaches," she said. "They talk to Willie, and the next day he's a different kid."
Rugby itself is a little too violent for Hughes, who works as a personal care attendant for the disabled. She hasn't been to any games but was called to the hospital last summer when a rival player's cleat tore the tear duct out of her son's eye.
"I thought, 'Oh, my God, what did they do to my baby?'" she said.
Asked whether he considered quitting after the eye surgery, Hankerson smiled and said: "No way. I thought it was the prettiest thing ever."
Rugby, he says, give him a way to "take my anger out."
At 5-foot-6 and 171 pounds, he's small, but bigger than his friend, D.J.
"They've both got their short man's complex," Redmon said. "They're tough."
'Each other's go-to man'
The season didn't end Saturday like the Tigers hoped. In a steady, cold rain on windswept fields in Blaine, Riser wrenched his ankle and his team made up of players under the age of 17 lost in the state tournament consolation title game. Hankerson, playing with an older team, scored five times to beat Burnsville before a Duluth team knocked off his Tigers 10-5. But for these guys, rugby means more than the final score.
Now Hankerson and Riser will join the Minnesota Selects all-star team, traveling to Pittsburgh and Denver where the national scouts will be watching.
They're also both fathers, juggling school, sports and the responsibility of tending to infants. Willie missed practice last week to take his 7-month-old daughter to the doctor when her fever spiked from a virus.
"We're like each other's go-to man, and blood couldn't make us any closer," Riser said.
Patrick O'Reilly has played rugby for 20 years around the world. He grew up in Eden Prairie, played at St. Cloud State with Eichten and helped coach the Tigers last year before moving to Chicago to be a liquor salesman.
Every week, he sends Hankerson a $40 allowance and is serving as his rugby mentor, inviting him to play in Chicago recently. He's hoping to help Hankerson land a scholarship to play in college, possibly in Europe.
"Willie is one of the best young players in the country," he said. "The first time he picked up the ball, he kicked it a mile and he can run faster than anyone."
He said Hankerson was shy and withdrawn but has since come out of his shell.
"Something that's unique about the rugby culture is that nobody cares who you are -- your race, age, ability, sexual orientation -- as long as you know how to tackle," O'Reilly said. "The South team has different backgrounds, rich kids and poor kids like Willie. But on the field, they don't care and they all back each other up."
And pass it down the line --from Trevor Marsh to Willie Hankerson to D.J. Riser.
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767