In the United States, most girls grow up playing pee-wee soccer in their backyards or playing pickup basketball on the local court. They develop dreams to play at the best Division I schools, or be the next Alex Morgan or Maya Moore of the sports world.
20-year-old Tess Feury thought that was going to be her story. During high school, she took soccer very seriously and hoped to play at a reputable college. But she just couldn’t shake the idea of doing something different and play a sport that is now developing in the States. Feury wants to become the next international rugby star and she is well on her way to making a name for herself on Team USA.
Last weekend, she was invited to play with the top 55 rugby players in the country at the National All-Star Competition at the University of Colorado. Athletic talent aside, what separates Feury from other players her age is her high rugby IQ. Most American women don’t find the game until college, but she’s been playing since the time she could walk.
The rugby seed was planted right in her backyard. Feury’s father Tom had played rugby at Rutgers and wished that he had found the game when he was younger. In 1999 he started the American Flag Rugby Program in Denville, NJ so his sons 9-year-old Blaze and 7-year-old Jake and could run around with other kids to learn how to play. When Lil’ Tess turned 4, she didn’t hesitate to hop in with her brothers. Her love for the sport grew organically.
“I’m really thankful that my dad never pushed me to play rugby,” said Feury. “I feel like that’s what made me love rugby so much. It was just always another thing to do for fun.”
Rugby was all fun and games for Feury until she became a sophomore in high school. Blaze and Jake went off to play rugby in college and one day Feury went to see Blaze play at Penn State. The Penn State Women’s team was practicing nearby and Feury just couldn’t take her eyes away.
“They looked like they had so much love for the game,” said Feury. “Watching them play made me realize that I want to play at that level and I want to play at the highest level I can.”
And Penn State has one of the best women’s rugby programs in America. Established in 1962, the Nittany Lions are 10-time national champions in 15s rugby and they don’t treat the sport like any old club activity. The players benefit from having paid coaches, health insurance, athletic trainers, access to a weight room, strength and conditioning coaches and even admissions and academic support. Now girls get recruited to play at some of the top institutions in the country and through that, Feury saw her future.
“I had the opportunity to do something so unique that so many other girls don’t get to do,” said Feury. “So from that point on every decision I made was for rugby.”
The Feurys are an “all or nothing” kind of family she said. She played at every chance she could get from going to national camps to playing ball with Blaze and Jake in the park. Her father coached her while her mom became the athletic trainer for each team she joined.
Feury’s skills improved and in a way, her development paralleled the growth of rugby in New Jersey. Her home team won the first high school girls state championship in 2013. The following year, she captained Team USA for the Youth Olympics in China—that was the first time rugby was featured in the Youth Games, and a significant moment for Feury.
“I remember just running out of the tunnel for our first game against Spain, “ she said. “I just thought about all the people back home that we were representing.”
Now she’s a rising junior at Penn State and living out her dream in the national team pool.
This year, sevens rugby will debut on the grand stage in Rio and the selection pool for the American Eagles is getting more competitive with a lot of experienced players. The average age of the team is 26.
“It’s definitely a little scary playing with the older team but it’s just an opportunity to grow,” said Feury.
But she is not alone. With more mobility within the national team program, more young players are getting the chance to train with senior players. For example, last winter 21-year-old Frankie Sands (Norwich University) had such a great showing on the collegiate level that she was invited to compete with the Eagles. And Richelle Stephens, who had been playing rugby since 8th grade, debuted on the senior team before she had graduated high school. Feury is just making her breakthrough and might not make the final roster this summer, but she can now dream of not only winning the Rugby World Cup but one day taking home Olympic gold with the American Eagles.
Beyond her athlete career, Feury wants to be a rugby coach and follow her passion for helping people. She’s following in her mother’s footsteps by studying to get her nursing degree. Between school, college rugby and national team camps, Feury has a lot on her plate and she does it all to play a sport that doesn’t pay off in terms of money or fame. But she loves it because of country and family and opportunity. She is entirely grateful to her father.
“Whenever I put on the jersey I just think of him and the reason I’m playing,” said Feury. “The reason I’ve accomplished so much in my life was because of him. Every time I step on the field, I know he’s proud of me.”