Toronto Arrows forward Marcello Wainwright worked his way from North York to Rugby’s Pro Circuit, writes Paul Attfield of the Globe and Mail in Toronto.
Had he been born just 10 years earlier, there’s a good chance Wainwright wouldn’t have become a professional rugby player.
He certainly wouldn’t have been pulling on the blue shirt of the Toronto Arrows, for whom the back-row forward could make his season debut on Sunday after missing the first three games with a sprained left ankle. But while the latter opportunity was afforded him by the founding of Major League Rugby three years ago, to even be in a position to grasp it was due in part to the emergence of the Toronto Inner-City Rugby Foundation (TIRF) in 2011.
“I wasn’t very good at sports growing up,” Wainwright says of his childhood, when his sport of choice was soccer. But all that changed when he first picked up a rugby ball at 14 after being asked to try out for the rugby team at Brebeuf College School.
“I remember just being able to run with the ball in my hands rather than having to dribble it, you can move a lot faster,” the 23-year-old says. “So just when you make a break and you run, it’s just much more of a feeling of freedom than having to slow down and dribble the ball. Your brain kind of switches off and you just go.”
Having been bitten by the rugby bug, Wainwright tried out for Ontario but didn’t make it. So he joined Toronto Saracens rugby club at 16 and with more game time under his belt, he tried out once again for Ontario and made the cut.
The only problem was that representing the Ontario Blues for a summer would cost between $2,000 to $3,000, a sum of money that neither Wainwright, nor his mother Stacey, could afford.
His career might have stalled there, but that’s when TIRF stepped in. Co-founded by Toronto executives Alan Broadbent, Bill Di Nardo and Scott Bryan, the foundation’s mission is to build community through rugby. While that initially began with the simple idea of exposing young Torontonians to the sport through rugby clinics in priority neighbourhoods, it has since grown into free summer house leagues and programming at 106 elementary schools throughout the city. In its nine years of existence, TIRF has allowed more than 26,000 kids to pick up a rugby ball and now awards annual scholarships to postsecondary rugby players.
In a stroke of good fortune, at Toronto Saracens Wainwright found himself playing alongside Di Nardo’s son, Riley, coincidentally enough a future Arrows teammate. When Bill Di Nardo found out about the financial hurdle Wainwright had to overcome to represent his province, he ensured that TIRF removed it.
But Wainwright still had to put in the work, both on the pitch and off it.
“What we're talking about is creating pathways for people with desire and capability and removing the financial constraint from them,” Di Nardo says. “Marcello is not there just because we've removed the financial constraint. He's there because he had both desire and ability.”