‘Purpose-driven’: A Cal rugger’s life

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Every day after his morning commute from Queens to Manhattan, Jack Manzo would see the signed jersey of three-time captain and Cal rugby great, Seamus Kelly, hung on the walls of Xavier High School in Chelsea. After playing for one of the most famous rugby high schools in the nation, Manzo was inspired to follow that jersey and journey 3,000 miles across the country to be a Golden Bear. Jack Manzo found his purpose.

Now a starter for Cal’s 15s squad and an All-American, junior Manzo is an embodiment of American rugby at the highest level — far removed in time and space from his days as a young rugby player riding the subway every morning.

But all stories have a beginning, and like many American ruggers, Manzo’s rugby story began on a football field.

Coming into Xavier, Manzo didn’t know much about the game of rugby, save for some exposure to the sport from an Irish family friend. Unlike other high schools around the country, however, Xavier is a rugby powerhouse. After playing football in the fall of his freshman year, Manzo was exhorted to play rugby in the spring. Little did he know that he was about to begin a path that would lead him 3,000 miles across the country to Strawberry Canyon.

As a linebacker for Xavier High School, Manzo exhibited many characteristics of an excellent rugby player: namely, hitting hard. Manzo’s father, Tony, recalled an episode when the young Manzo got a penalty for hitting a wide receiver too early. On the next play, the would-be rugby player picked the runner up and dumped him like a bag of gravel.

“It’s that competitive spirit that has done him very well in rugby, but was the source of many penalties in football,” Tony said.

Manzo was quickly recognized as a promising rugby player, and began to excel at Xavier under a high-quality coaching staff that boasts many big names in the U.S. rugby community, including USA Eagles national player Mike Petri.

“They really guided the way. It’s all about coaching at the younger level and I owe it all to them,” Manzo said.

Eventually, Manzo began to play on All-American development teams. He excelled especially in his commitment to fitness and love of gnarly, early morning training sessions. Standing at 5’8” and weighing 205 pounds, it is clear Manzo has devoted a lot of time to building his strength.

His mother, Pamela, recalled how a young Manzo would prepare for training with All-American development teams by using his baby sister as extra weight for his planks.

“He would do a minimum of 10, sometimes 15-minute planks with this 30-pound kid on his back,” Pamela said.

As he fell in love with the sport, Manzo made a commitment to be the best in American rugby. With the help of his coaches and his strong work ethic, Manzo took step after step — diligently following a path that had been laid out for him by predecessors like Seamus Kelly. Indeed, his progression is a textbook path for any aspiring high-level rugby player in the United States: from Xavier high school, to UC Berkeley and potentially playing for the USA Eagles.

Throughout this process, however, Manzo has never forgotten where he came from. He has crossed the country to take the next step on this American rugby path, but he’s always centered his performance around the lessons he learned from his youth.

It takes a lot to commute every day into one of the biggest cities in the world. It takes a certain type of person to actually enjoy waking up at 5 a.m., riding the subway to Manhattan and sprinting up the stairs in the cold. Whatever it takes, Manzo’s got it.

“I’m gritty,” Manzo said. “A gritty New Yorker.”

That grittiness has followed Manzo to Cal. Standout Bears wing Sam Cusano described him as a “beast.” He even casually mentioned his max bench press of 345 pounds, almost twice his body weight.

One could argue that a “beast” mentality is a prerequisite in the game of rugby. But one could also argue that it’s especially important in Manzo’s position of the hooker. The hooker is at the center of the scrum, where the opposing teams bind and push on each other, trying to scoop the ball with his foot back to his team — hence the term hooker.

“You’re at the center of it all, essentially,” Manzo said. “It’s all about keeping a calm head, but a vicious attack on the body.”

At Cal, Manzo has maintained his diligent discipline, spending hours in the gym and on the pitch. The junior made the starting squad last year and has been the anchor of the Bears’ scrum for two years. Manzo combines his strength with his speed to be a valuable asset for the team.

“He’s able to move around the field and have a high volume of moments — whether it’s with the ball in hand, or making a tackle, or supporting somebody or trying to win a ball in the ruck,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark.

But rugby is more than just a game of strength and speed — it’s also a community. And after being selected to the All-American collegiate team, Manzo experienced the strength of this community firsthand as he played alongside his rivals from the best collegiate programs in the country.

“It was cool seeing all those Saint Mary’s boys, and Life boys and all the best players in the country,” Manzo said. “It was an honor playing with those guys that I saw play as a young freshman and who I was honestly kind of scared of when I was younger.”

And it’s not only the players that experience this sense of community, the parents do too.

“The rugby community is not even a community,” Tony said. “It’s a family of people.”

In every country, regardless of how popular the sport is, rugby has a traditionally brotherly element — the type of sport where after a game, opposing teams will retire to the pub to share a pint of Guinness. It seems that in the United States, the community of rugby players is perhaps even tighter, because unlike in England, Ireland, South Africa or Australia, the sport is not very common.

If there were ever a sport where the cohesion of the team is vital to win games, rugby is it. But rugby cohesion goes beyond just communicating or knowing one’s teammates; it relies heavily on a shared purpose. Every action must be purposeful. The team needs to be a family, with each member buying into the mission.

It is clear that Jack Manzo has bought into the Cal rugby mission. He is profoundly committed to the American rugby community, a community which gifted him a purpose years ago in New York City. He is both a product and exemplar of that community, but his mission isn’t over: he continues to work hard for that community and the Cal team he represents.

“It’s top-notch. It’s lifelong leadership lessons, it’s lifelong team lessons. You’re never going to get a better strength and conditioning program,” Manzo said. “It’s very purpose-driven.”

Jem Ruf covers men’s rugby. Contact him at [email protected].