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Padecky: Empire graduates’ rugby dreams take them to New Zealand

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa High grad Eric Parsons didn’t give rugby a shot until four years ago. Now the Cal Poly senior continues to be passionate about the sport. (Karen Drinkwater / Courtesy)

Santa Rosa High grad Eric Parsons didn’t give rugby a shot until four years ago. Now the Cal Poly senior continues to be passionate about the sport. (Karen Drinkwater / Courtesy)

Life happens while you make other plans and at one time Eric Parsons and Stephen Tomasin had other plans. Tomasin was going to graduate from Cardinal Newman in 2012 and play NCAA Division I football. Parsons was going to graduate from Santa Rosa High in 2010 and become a veterinarian.

And then came along this sport called rugby that to the uneducated eye looks like a bunch of aggressive people with their heads down, pushing against each other, all fighting to find and grab that $20 bill on the ground.

“It was something to do in the spring,” Tomasin said, “so I could stay in shape for football (at Newman).”

“I’ll give it a shot,” Parsons said of his casual decision to test the sport four years ago. Back then Parsons was giving it the same emphasis and impact one would after hearing about a good movie. Go see “Die Hard.” Go see rugby. Whatever.

Now?

Both young men would love to play rugby in New Zealand.

This is what happens when you are young — Parsons is 20, Tomasin is 18 — and flexible, that life is more of an adventure to experience than a blueprint to follow. They went with their hearts, their instincts, their passion, and it took both of them to New Zealand for two weeks in June. It will take Parsons to Ireland, Italy and France in September. It will take Tomasin to London in the fall of 2015.

“If you were to give me a choice now,” said Tomasin, the 2011 North Bay League’s Football Player of the Year, “of getting a D1 football scholarship or playing rugby, I’d take rugby. Definitely. No question. I wouldn’t have gone this far in football.”

As an example, Tomasin wouldn’t have gone as far as New Zealand to play football. An upcoming sophomore at San Diego State, Tomasin joined Parsons, who will be a senior this fall at Cal Poly, on the USA Rugby Collegiate All-American team that played three games in New Zealand in June.

Parsons and Tomasin didn’t know each other until they made the USA team. They also didn’t know how small the real world is: Parsons’ father, Dean, and Tomasin’s mother, Shelly, work together in the Sonoma County planning and resource department. Two of the 28 men on the Under-23 USA team are from Sonoma County. What are the chances of that? And what are the chances that Americans overseas would hear the following two questions?

“How do you like our country? Did you enjoy it?”

That’s what Parsons heard when he was in New Zealand. It felt like nearly a mantra to Parsons, the Kiwis so conscious of how they appear to the outside world. Certainly it is a different approach than taken by many Americans who appear more conscious of how they look to one another than to a person from another country.

“They get very offended,” Parsons said, “if you don’t like them. No, wait, that’s not the right word. They would be confused if you didn’t like them. Yes, they would be confused.”

How could you not like a Kiwi? That’s a reputation well-founded. New Zealanders are exceedingly polite, not from insecurity but from a natural ambiance to work smoothly together, as if life was a group effort, not a reality television show in which someone must be a star. Ah, but enough reference to America. Rather, this helps describe New Zealand’s fixation with rugby.

“If a player there was going to showboat,” Tomasin said, “he would end up not getting along with his teammates. If he showboated, there would be a little something extra coming his way.”

In New Zealand rugby, that wouldn’t be someone handing him a Sharpie to sign an autograph. It would be someone handing him a big dose of shoulder and not announcing it was coming. If it was Parsons delivering a shoulder, it would be from a 5-foot-11, 245-pound body that has bench pressed 255 pounds three times and squatted 455 pounds three times. In other words, a rugby body ain’t afraid of a little bruise.

“The stars in New Zealand are pretty mellow guys,” said Tomasin, who will go to London in the fall of 2015 to play rugby and study. “They know they are good but they keep it to themselves.”

Tomasin and Parsons both found that attitude refreshing. A player on the All-Blacks, the country’s national elite team and a world power, carries the same respect there as a football player in America. Without the arrogance.

“It’s a religion there,” Parsons said. “It’s 24-7.”

Tomasin would be in his hotel room, watching television to see what’s on. A rugby match would be televised. Tomasin would change the channel. Another rugby match would be televised. Another channel change, another rugby match. Again and again. It would be like a Rugby Groundhog Day. The All-Blacks. Club teams. University teams. High school teams. If you live in New Zealand, you like rugby. Or you move.

“I can’t wait to get back,” said Parsons, who will go to Europe in September with his Cal Poly team. “I can see myself living there. I’ve thought about it.”

So has Tomasin. He learned of a 6- to 8-week summer program there, a spring training type of environment in which he would eat and train with New Zealand’s rugby best. Where it will lead, he has no idea. He also is not stressing about it either.

“To think of where I’ve come after playing rugby for only a year and a half,” Tomasin said, “I can’t believe it. A year and a half ago I couldn’t have imagined all this. In fact,- I wouldn’t have thought of it at all.”

And now?

“Rugby is universal,” Parsons said. “You can go anywhere in the world and play it.”

Would he? Parsons gave the same answer Tomasin did.

“Definitely,” he said.

When you’re 20, you can say that. In fact, when you’re 20, you should say that. When the whole world is your scrum.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.