Nelson and his team are winning off the field in Pleasant Valley
Brent Nelson, head coach of the Triton Rugby team, expects his players to be honorable guests — whether they just won a match on the road or finished a meal in the school cafeteria.
“When we leave, we clean up,” Nelson said. “We don’t leave something for someone else to pick up after us. The reason we do that because we want to instill in these young men we are not better than someone who picks up trash. Our young men eat together. I’ll bet when we leave a table at the cafeteria, our program’s table is pretty clean.”
That mindset also applies when the Tritons are at home in Pleasant Valley, the Fort Dodge neighborhood where the team has played and practiced since the fall of 2016.
“We are down there every day,” Nelson said. “We drive through there. We play down there. We practice down there. Iowa Central has a huge presence down there.”
Recently, the team — along with the local organization RSVP — helped winterize homes in Pleasant Valley and elsewhere in Fort Dodge.
Players have spent many days picking up trash around the Pleasant Valley neighborhood.
“There is an overall philosophy in rugby about a sense of community,” Nelson said.
His commitment to Pleasant Valley grew stronger when he reconnected with Sherry Washington, president of the Pleasant Valley Awareness Committee, this past summer.
The two had first met more than a decade ago when Nelson played pick-up basketball games with Washington’s younger brother.
“I always knew him by Nelly,” Washington said. “So when I heard the name Brent, I thought ‘who is that?’ He’s always been a great guy. He’s always just open to hanging with everyone. He was one of the guys. We all knew him as Nelly.”
But it was this past summer when the two discussed ways to improve the community together.
“Sherry and I got to talking,” Nelson said. “She calls me Nelly. She said ‘we have this Pleasant Valley Awareness Committee, I would love for you to be on it.'”
The two specifically mentioned a mural that is to be painted in the spring of 2019 to beautify the neighborhood.
The art, which will occupy the pillars of the Kenyon Road Bridge, will be visible along Seventh Street near Meriwether Drive and 11th Avenue Southwest.
“I said ‘what a neat thing for you to do and it’s right down from us’,” Nelson said. “I said my guys could really help out with that.”
The Triton rugby team plans to be the caretakers of the property surrounding the artwork.
“They will also take part in preparing the mural,” Washington said. “There may be some power washing. We may need some volunteers to help the artists when they are there. There’s a team of artists and whatever their needs are, the team will play a really important part in the mural. We are very thankful for Brent bringing that to the table. It’s something we needed, and before we could even finish the conversation he was the first one to volunteer so that’s super awesome.”
Nelson said joining the Pleasant Valley Awareness Committee was a perfect match.
“It checked all the boxes,” Nelson said. “Getting the guys involved. Getting myself involved. Growing up in Humboldt and having gone to school at Iowa Central and then being in Fort Dodge, I think we all know there is a huge disconnect with the Pleasant Valley area and the Fort Dodge community and it’s very separate. It really has been for many, many years. I just think if we reach out in not so much of adversarial way to people and we kind of extend our hand as we are guests and our friendly with a sense of family and community, maybe we begin to bridge that gap a little bit more. That’s what I want the example of these young men to see.”
Washington said having Nelson and the rugby team in Pleasant Valley has already made a difference.
“The team has put in a real effort to keep the community free of any trash or debris that may be in the community,” Washington said. “They don’t mind picking up and cleaning up or doing whatever is needed. They don’t have to be asked. They just take the initiative to do it themselves. They are ready and willing to do it at anytime. The beauty in it is that the team works so well together to help. That sheds a great light on the leadership of the team.”
Children in the community have taken notice.
“Some of the children will stop by or ride their bikes by the game,” Washington said. “They can tell me what the score is, who’s winning and who’s losing. It’s great to see African-American kids seeing a different sport and knowing of rugby. These children are seeing it firsthand. When you hear the kids on the playground talking about rugby, it’s making a difference.”
‘Sweeping the shed’
The Triton rugby team’s attitude was on display during a match in the fall of 2017 in Bemidji, Minnesota.
“They had a football game there earlier in the day,” Nelson recalled. “We happened to be on the home sideline. That home side was filled with tape and all kinds of stuff leftover from the football game.”
After beating their opponents 162 to 7, the players did something else.
“We not only picked up our own mess that we left from our match, but we picked up everything else along that sideline and made sure that sideline was clean when we left,” Nelson said.
The hosting team was grateful.
“We played against a team below our level of play, but after the match the other team thanked us for being so gracious in a victory where we beat them by over 150 points,” Nelson said. “That doesn’t happen very often. They noticed we picked up after ourselves and we were not gloating or putting them down. We encouraged them to play hard and strong. They thanked us for coming to their facility and being good guests.”
Nelson said the team prides itself on leaving a place better than how they found it.
“We want these kids growing up in an environment where we are no better than a food service worker or someone who picks up after us,” Nelson said. “Everywhere we go I am hearing that these young men are the kindest, friendliest, most respectful kids.”
Nelson said the team models the mantra of the All Blacks, the New Zealand national rugby team.
“They have a saying called ‘sweep the shed,” Nelson said. “It means they pick up after themselves. They are the greatest sports team in the history of sports. They have a 90 percent win percentage over the course of a hundred years they have been in existence. That’s incredible.”
He added, “One of their things is a sense of community of picking up after themselves. It teaches them a sense of humility. They are the best players in the world, but they literally sweep up after themselves when they go to away matches. They will be in the visitor’s locker rooms and literally sweep up after themselves.”
Building the program
Nelson, a 1989 Humboldt High School graduate, built Iowa Central’s rugby program from the ground up.
He was first introduced to rugby in 1999 when he joined a club team in Iowa Falls.
Nelson was hired by Iowa Central in 2014 as a distance learning associate.
During that winter, the college discussed some ideas to help increase enrollment.
That’s when Nelson proposed a rugby program.
“In the fall of 2015 they said go ahead and start the program,” Nelson said. “They said we will give you minimal funds, but they wanted me out recruiting and so I got some guys from campus that had dropped out of football or track or whatever and also had played some rugby in high school and other guys who just wanted to try the sport.”
Nelson spent that first year recruiting Iowa high schools.
When he helped bring in about 16 to 20 student athletes, Iowa Central was ready to expand the program.
“They said OK, we need to change your job,” Nelson said. “We need to make you a full-time rugby coach and we are going to go forward with this program full speed ahead.”
In its first full season, the Triton rugby team were national runners-up of the challenge cup in small college rugby.
In its second full season the team made the champions cup.
“We moved up a division and we were national champions last year and this year now we are in the final four, having won our region,” Nelson said.
The Tritons wrap up their “Fifteens” season today in Charlotte, North Carolina for the USA Rugby Division II National Championship.
The team’s camaraderie
What impresses Nelson the most about his team is how well they get along.
“We have kids from a number of different countries — England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa,” he said. “Then our American kids. We have some from Louisiana, several from Iowa, one young man from Oklahoma.”
He said despite their differences, the sport brings them together.
“What’s amazing about these kids on this team — they really truly love each other and they are from all over the world,” Nelson said. “They are from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different racial backgrounds, different areas of the world, and they just want to play rugby and that’s the amazing thing that has brought them together.”
Nelson added, “Rugby has a really special sense of belonging and community and camaraderie that I feel is a great fit to help bridge gaps in our community as well. Having Iowa Central support the program the way it has, has been an absolute dream come true. To help me reinvent myself and to have a legacy of giving and mentoring. It’s really, it’s hard for me to describe without being emotional.”
A little bit about rugby
There are two versions of rugby: Union and League. Union rugby typically consists of two common matchups: 15-a-side and seven-a-side. The fifteens competition is an 80-minute match with two 40-minute halves; sevens is a 14-minute game with two seven-minute halves.
The objective in rugby is to advance the ball to score, which is done by running, kicking or passing the ball backward or lateral. There is no forward passing.
Five points are awarded for a score. An extra point kick is worth two. A penalty kick or drop kick is worth two.