John Eichten got the phone call around 10:15 p.m. It began with: "Are you sitting down?"
A player on Eichten's South Metro Tigers rugby team was dead. But it wasn't Patrick Watkins, the tornado-fast "8-man" for the Tigers, who died in an early-morning car crash 10 days ago in northeast Minneapolis.
It was 2006 and Trevor Marsh, 17, had been shot in the head along the banks of the Mississippi River.
In less than four years the Tigers, a winning club team whose players hail from families privileged and poor, have reeled from two violent deaths. It's Eichten's job, with assistance from fellow coaches Matt Hansen, Dan Regan and Max Zappia, to help lead the 65 or so teenagers back to stability. First, though, Eichten must figure out how to do that for himself.
"He was my guy," Eichten said, pulling Watkins' No. 8 jersey out of his briefcase earlier this week. The jersey is being retired for now, after a poll of players revealed that nobody wants to wear it.
"He was the guy I loved coaching the most," Eichten said of Watkins, who was a team captain and All-State Rugby selection. "He was like our rudder. The team played as Patrick played."
Eichten, 43, still thinks about Marsh, too. The South High senior was a longtime member of the Tigers, and "a really good guy." Four gang members have been prosecuted for his murder.
Eichten spoke at Marsh's funeral, which the entire team attended. "It was just awful," Eichten said. "I cried through the whole thing. All I could think of was the joy that his parents would get seeing him on the rugby field, stretching his boundaries and developing as a person."
After their only child's death, Bruce and Michelle Marsh created the Trevor R. Marsh Memorial Fund, which provides scholarships for low-income athletes to play rugby. One of those athletes was Watkins, a student at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis.
Eichten received that dreaded phone call around 3 p.m. July 13. Watkins had been driving just past 3 a.m. that day. The car, traveling approximately 70 miles per hour, struck a utility pole after a 100-foot skid. Watkins died at Hennepin County Medical Center. His buddy, 14-year-old Duane White Jr., who was in the passenger seat, died at the scene. Three friends in the back seat survived.
"Boys will be boys ... unfortunately," Eichten said, shaking his head and tearing up. He remembers meeting White, who came to all the team's games. White would be a freshman at South in the fall and was planning to play rugby and football.
News traveled quickly. Steve Adams, who plays on a metro-wide men's rugby team, titled a recent blog entry (propnurse.blogspot.com), "Patrick Watkins: A Death Too Young." Adams, a nurse and the father of a rugby player, understands the complexities of raising teens.
"The thing about teenagers is that, sometimes, they take risks without fully appreciating the danger of their actions," Adams wrote. "My hope is that maybe the people who survived this crash ... can use this tragedy as a cautionary tale."
While alcohol may have been involved, Eichten won't believe it unless toxicology tests come back positive. Regardless, he'd rather talk about Watkins, the exceptional rugby player. He remembers seeing Watkins for the first time. "I went, 'Look at that guy.' He was 195 pounds, 6-foot-4, chiseled, total muscle," a reality Watkins liked to trumpet under medium-size shirts.
And could he move. "He'd have 45-meter runs with the ball, taking on four, five guys, and scoring," Eichten said. "That became commonplace.
"There was an astuteness about him," added Eichten, who works in sales for TST Media. "He understood this game instantly."
Eichten's Tigers (www.south metrorugby.com) draw players from across the metro area, including South, Roosevelt, North, Edison, Henry and DeLaSalle in Minneapolis and Cretin-Durham Hall and Avalon in St. Paul. Some players' parents have worked for Fortune 500 companies; others have lived in Section 8 housing. The players learn how to get along and how to learn from other teams. Despite rugby's rough-and-tumble reputation, it is the only game I've seen where opposing players share a meal afterward.
Rugby, ultimately, is not about violence, Eichten said. It's about camaraderie.
"My job as a coach is not to teach them about taking the opposing player to the ground," Eichten said. "It's about taking that ball and continuing down the field."
He'll bring that message to his players when practice begins anew. "We can't fold up," Eichten said. "Hopefully, through these deaths, some tough lessons will be learned."
A celebration of Patrick Watkins' life will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, 2600 E. 38th St., Minneapolis.
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • email@example.com