Elsie Allen High's Daniel Nguyen finds safe haven on the rugby pitch

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Daniel Nguyen has already taken steps toward a career in medicine. But now Nguyen, a junior at Elsie Allen High School, is wavering. His AP history and government classes have also gotten him interested in politics and national security.

“There’s so much in this world to explore,” Nguyen said.

And the kid sometimes seems intent on exploring every corner of it before he turns 17. Daniel Nguyen’s résumé is a college recruiter’s dream. He has a 4.68 weighted GPA, which doesn’t account for the classes he takes at Sonoma State and Santa Rosa JC. He has participated in a leadership program called Summer Search, a residential course known as the Stanford Medical Youth and Science Program, the Upward Bound college preparatory program and a Rotary-sponsored group called NewGen Peacebuilders. He sings in the school choir and offers himself for community service.

Oh, and don’t forget the rugby. Nguyen is a starting inside center for the Elsie Allen Lobos Rugby Club.

For 20 years, the team has been the pride of Elsie Allen. Rugby isn’t recognized as a CIF interscholastic sport. It’s strictly a club sport, and not all the players on Nguyen’s team attend Elsie Allen. But most do, and the club is highly competitive in the Redwood Empire Conference, which includes teams from Napa, Marin, Alameda and Berkeley, and a combined squad representing Cardinal Newman and Santa Rosa High. The Lobos are off to a slow start this year, but they made it to the state final two years ago and to a state semifinal last year.

Nguyen knew nothing about rugby when schoolmate David Klaut dragged him out to a practice at the start of the 2015 season. He was immediately smitten by the game’s emphasis on teamwork.

“When I came out and actually played, like the first time we hit, was kind of when I fell in love with the sport,” Nguyen said. “Everyone around the team environment was just so encouraging.”

To be honest, he is undersized for the inside center position — the 12 position for those of you who know rugby. Nguyen stands 5-foot-6 and weighs maybe 155 pounds, in a role that might be compared to a fullback/linebacker in football. He makes up for the size deficit with quickness and guile.

“He’s not our best player,” said coach Alan Petty, who founded the rugby club 20 years ago. “He’s a good player, he’s a starter. But he’s a great guy.”

Nguyen’s emergence as a rock-solid battering ram on the rugby pitch is an unlikely tale. He played soccer in elementary school and basketball through middle school, but he was always the chubby kid. As an Elsie Allen freshman he pledged to lose weight and shed 40 pounds, dropping down to a lean 127 before adding some muscle.

Nguyen says the weight loss boosted his confidence, and so has rugby. It’s a demanding sport, to say the least. Three-hour practices are not uncommon. Nguyen described a drill called Indian tackles: One guy carries the ball and the rest of the team — about 30 players, in Elsie Allen’s case — lines up to tackle him, one after another. That’s 30 collisions. When you’re done running the ball, you get in line to tackle.

Images like that contribute to rugby’s reputation as a brutal sport. The players are beefy, and the action can be rough. But Nguyen insists it’s anything but thuggish, noting the mental awareness that goes into the game.

“There are different types of intelligence,” he said. “I’m pretty gifted academically, in a way. But out here on the field there’s just so much more to learn — when to pass, timing, and just athletic ability. That type of intelligence is something that’s kind of new to me.”

At first, Nguyen’s parents weren’t crazy about his newfound sport. They are immigrants from Vietnam. His father works in a factory. His mother is a tailor. They have worked hard to make a better life for their children — Daniel’s older sister is at UC Santa Cruz — and they didn’t want their son’s brain scrambled on a rugby field.

He eventually won them over.

To Nguyen, rugby’s greatest draw is its brotherhood. The Lobos are a varied group — big and small, Mexican- and Asian-American and white, academic achievers and kids who struggle with homework — but all are welcomed as equals on the pitch.

He also notes that the physical demands of the sport help unclutter his mind.

“It’s kind of my safe haven,” Nguyen said. “Especially now, my junior year. I’m not gonna lie at all, it’s a difficult school year to do. Taking AP classes and honors classes, the work is tremendous. But rugby is where I can kind of just forget all that stuff. … I just forget that term paper I have, that project that’s coming up. I drop it all out here on the field.”

Nguyen is humble and upbeat. His only real weakness as a teammate is that he occasionally misses games because he’s gotten himself overextended. Apparently, Nguyen has never met a club or youth program he wasn’t interested in. A couple stand out.

Summer Search is a national organization that identifies high-achieving, low-income students in their sophomore years and helps them rise to their potential and develop leadership skills. It has a strong emphasis on college education.

Nguyen remembers being skeptical when he left on his first Summer Search outing, a two-week wilderness expedition, but he returned brimming with enthusiasm. This summer he will spend three weeks in the Dominican Republic.

Part of the Summer Search experience is connecting with a mentor. Nguyen’s is Whitney Demorest, program manager for Summer Search North Bay.

“I think one of the things that really stands out about Daniel is his resilience,” Demorest said. “He’s obviously from a low-income background. There are a lot of struggles with that, and he continues to rise to the occasion. He’s a kid who’s involved in a tremendous amount of activities and extracurricular classes. He has a lot on his plate, and he never gives up.”

Another remarkable opportunity that came to Nguyen was the Stanford Medical Youth and Science Program. He lived on the Stanford campus for five weeks, heard lectures from university professors, shadowed personnel at Stanford Medical Center’s cancer treatment center, observed a stem cell transplant and bone marrow extraction, and worked with human cadavers.

Nguyen’s future is halogen-bright but undetermined. He’s looking at Ivy League schools. And while he’s still unsure of his career path, there’s a good chance it will be spectacular.

“You make your own universe,” Petty said. “You can decide what you want to be. And some of these guys, they decided to be miserable, so that’s what they’re gonna be. They decided, ‘I’m not gonna pass any classes,’ so that’s what they’re gonna be. … And Daniel’s universe is gonna be achieving, achieving, achieving.”

With a little driving and tackling thrown in, perhaps.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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