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