Wa Dat Deh, Mr Tony?
THERE comes a time in everybody’s lives, I think, when you need to take a moment to look back at what you’ve done, and understand how and why you did it, just to see if in fact things make sense and you can be happy with where you are now. Often, this happens when you’ve reached a point where you’re not sure which direction to take – you’re at a fork in the road and your next decision determines where your life goes next.
I did this in early 2014. I should have done it years before, especially following a divorce which turned out to be more acrimonious than at first seemed. The breakdown of my marriage was a low point in my life, even though it had lasted ten years, it still felt like I was a failure and I didn’t truly understand why. True, I had been diagnosed with testicular cancer at age 38 – just one year after getting married, but we – the wife and I – discussed it and agreed to try adopting. We had a daughter (from her previous marriage), whom I loved and treated as my own, so, I thought everything was going to be fine. It wasn’t.
I was confused and feeling lost. I was probably depressed as well, but never thought about that much. I’d been single for 5 years and lonely. Although I had a good job – working for a small business association in Dublin – and liked socialising with a small group of friends, my life lacked direction and purpose. I spent a lot of time reflecting – even to the point where I started to write a book about one of the happier times in my life.
At age 18, I had left home and joined the Royal Air Force and two years’ later I was stationed in Belize, a small commonwealth country in Central America. A fascinating place full of lost Maya cities, golden beaches and the promise of paradise. I had never been anywhere like this before and it captured a place in my heart which lingered long after I returned to England. In later years, after leaving the RAF, I visited Belize a number of times for holidays, but something nagged at me that I should be there; there was something I could contribute. I didn’t know what; it just felt there was something.
In 1998, following the closing down of a company I had been working for in Manchester, I took a job in Dublin. Not long afterwards I rekindled my love of the best team sport in the world, by following two rugby clubs – Leinster and Ulster. I’d always had a thing for rugby – it seemed to me that people involved in the sport were the epitome of what sportsmen and women should be: I loved their passion, determination to see the game through no matter how many times they got brought down or lost the ball, and the sheer dedication to their teams – everything that other sports appeared to have lost or failed to encourage in players. I went to as many games as transport would permit and really started to feel alive again.
So, from 2010 onwards, as I slowly started to withdraw into my own small world, retreating from everybody and everything because I didn’t feel needed or wanted, I would handle my undiagnosed, but real enough, feelings that I had nothing to give (depression)by holding emotions and feelings back: I didn’t speak to people about it. I kept it all inside and concentrated on trying to find a way out. Escaping. And going to watch games enabled me to escape because I felt like I was part of a huge, glorious family – there was no other way to describe the emotions rugby invoked, and I thrived on each game, each try, each roar of the crowd.
At some point rugby and Belize came together. I discovered that there was no rugby in Belize.
Then, in 2012, I finished writing my book “The Bayman Operation”. The process of researching this first novel had allowed me to escape my mundane reality and released so many feelings, that, straight after it was published I made a decision. Late in 2014, the concept of Rugby Belize was born, so in June 2015, I quit my job, sold most of my stuff and moved to Belize. As I got off the plane carrying my rugby ball, life got better.
There’s obviously more to it than that: I’d written a proposal document explaining how and why rugby would be great for the youth and young people of Belize, which was well received, and I’d found someone who was curious enough about rugby to want to sponsor me (give me a job) so I could stay in Belize. All I had to do now was convince more people and get the ball rolling (literally!).
My proposal was that rugby could be a mechanism to help provide an alternative activity for the youth who, lacking opportunities and direction, and would thus engage their innate physical abilities and energy in a positive, physically-challenging activity. At the same time, essentially, I found my purpose – through rugby.
Initially, it was actually quite easy to get kids involved – I just went to a local parks and beaches and kicked a rugby ball around. Pretty soon kids, as curious as cats, were coming up and asking “Wa dat deh, Mr Tony?” In Belize, it doesn’t take long for people to find out who you are, especially if you are one of the few ‘white folks’ living where I do in Belize City. Rugby Sessions lasted as long as the kids stayed, and although not all of them endured beyond four or five weeks, those that did gained an appreciation for a sport they hadn’t even heard of before.
Our first games were unruly, chaotic, fun, actually hilarious tag-rugby sessions, involving youngsters of all ages just basically chasing each other. I tried to avoid tackles, but they were having none of that! So, I had to adapt orthodox training rules to include elements of safe tackling and safe falling techniques, in addition to the more usual passing, running, avoidance skills. It worked. On many levels.
First, for me – I regained lost confidence and a love for life that had begun to wane. I felt like a contributing member of a society that valued my contribution. Regardless of the ex-pat naysayers that tried to suggest it would never take off; that there was a reason why rugby had never taken hold in Belize when all around had been playing the sport for years. Well, it has and now kids call out from across the street when they see me “Rugby!” and a lot of people here know me as “Mr Rugby”.
Second, now with (so far) four fully kitted out and sponsored teams in San Pedro, Kings Park, Yarborough and Orange Walk, the sport has established itself. We’ve played inter-district matches, held the first-ever beach rugby tournament, broke new ground with a prison rugby programme and started a schools tag-rugby competition. Plans are afoot for our first international – against Guatemala – with three others on the cards later next year. And, the age profile has changed too; now we have a lot more teenagers getting into rugby, whereas previously it was only very young kids.
I have a Board now – driving me on; fundraising, getting sponsors, spreading the word.
All in just over two years.
Today kids can be seen playing (a version) of rugby in public parks now (I was very generous with distributing used, donated rugby balls in order to spread the word), much to the amusement of curious, and often surprised, adults.
But it has not been easy. Many evenings I would turn up for practice in the City and only one or two players would arrive. It was sometimes demoralising for us, but every bone in my body told me to keep going. Because, focusing on something like this – rugby – knowing what a wonderful, exhilarating sport this is; knowing how it can change lives, challenge lives, build lives, has given me something nothing else has ever given me. And I want to give that to others: Self-assured determination and the guts to keep going. You can regret taking specific actions and you can probably, at least to yourself, justify them, but I don’t believe you should have any regret about your life. I know I don’t. So I have stuck at it and I won’t give up. Every smile, every laugh, every kid running with a rugby ball seals the deal for me: Rugby for life!
Founder & President