I first met Tal Bayer in 2010 in Las Vegas. It was the weekend of the IRB 7s World Series, and Bayer and I were participating in a roundtable, along with other coaches and administrators from around the country at different levels, to discuss the state of rugby in America.
I hadn’t been in rugby but for a few years, I hadn’t coached before, and I didn’t have a lot to offer to the discussion. But I was excited to be at the table with Bayer, who I’d learned about through a documentary put together by Fox Sports that was narrated by Terrance Howard.
At the time, which seemed in the midst of a series of movies about black athletes breaking barriers – "Remember the Titans", "Glory Road", "Pride", "The Express" – the piece came across as rugby’s version. But it still seemed distant, and I put Bayer on a pedestal for being a guy who was taking rugby to a new frontier, the inner city.
Three years later, I have a more nuanced appreciation for what Bayer’s accomplished. I’ve coached now. In 2011, a teammate and I started a high school team out of thin air, just like Bayer did at Hyde (now Perry Street Prep) 14 years ago, and I don’t think it’s fair to Bayer, his players or his legacy to remember him simply as the guy in DC that got black kids playing rugby.
There’s a beautifully written article in the Washington Post about Bayer’s decision to leave Perry Street Prep, and it’s accompanied by a well done video. Like the 2009 documentary did, and a 2008 story in the New York Times before it, the Post article focuses on Bayer growing rugby, and positively affecting the lives of young people in an unlikely place. Bayer deserves all the credit for doing that, because at the end of the day, what matters most in sports, youth sports and rugby, is character building.
It’s why so many of us are involved in the game. It’s why Stu Krohn and Dave Hughes give so much of themselves to the ICEF program in Los Angeles, and why Lisa Lake and all the people involved in New York Rugby Club’s youth programs do what they do. It’s why Alex Magleby coaches. It’s why Mike Tolkin coaches. It’s why I coach.
But, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we also coach to help fill that competitive void. We coach because seeing that light click on in a player’s brain when he or she gets it is worth all the sacrifice, but it’s worth just a little bit more if it results in a win. And Bayer’s time at Pride should be remembered not only as philanthropy, but as the building of one hell of a rugby program.
It can be hard enough to get kids to and from practice and games with matching uniforms and some semblance of an idea of how to play the game, and that’s the truth whether you’re coaching high school rugby at a prestigious prep school in an affluent suburb or at Perry Street Prep. Bayer managed to not only do that, but win.
One achievement every high school coach would love to boast is developing an Eagle. Bayer famously helped PJ Komongnan find his way through high school and into Team USA 7s jersey.
Bayer was also on the cutting edge of the 7s revolution. His teams were playing 7s rugby long before there was such a thing as high school 7s. They’d play college and men’s teams in the summer, at first struggling, but eventually winning. And though there’s no real high school 7s national championship, the High School Challenge at the CRC is as close as it gets. Bayer’s boys won the first one in 2012 and finished second in 2013.
In 15s, Bayer did something else few high school coaches could ever brag about – beat Gonzaga. In the 2011 Metro Area Varsity Rugby Conference Championship game, Hyde beat the vaunted, hallowed DC program to win its first league title. Gonzaga finished third at Nationals that spring.
It wasn’t until the end of Bayer’s tenure at Perry Street Prep that college rugby scholarships started to become more and more popular. But as programs like Life University and American International College have bloomed, Bayer’s boys have made their way onto their rosters.
At the end of the day, most people will remember Bayer’s tenure at Perry Street Prep as that of a fantastic leader and molder of young men, of whom many were in dire need of his guidance. I will remember Bayer as that, too, but also as a very successful coach and an inspiration to this young one.