After graduating from St. Bonaventure University last spring and completing an excellent rugby career with the Bonnies, earning consideration for National Rugby Player of the Year honors, Jersey City’s Eamonn Matthews yearned for the chance to play rugby on a professional level.
Two years ago, Major League Rugby was formed with 11 teams in the United States and one team from Canada. The league did so well that the MLR announced plans to expand by three teams in Atlanta, Washington and Boston.
The 22-year-old Matthews earned an invitation to try out for the Atlanta team and participate in Rugby ATL’s Academy team over the summer months.
“I had to play the entire Academy season just to earn a contract,” Matthews said. “It was absolutely nerve wracking. There were a lot of calls back home. My father [Terry, the Associate Principal and Dean of Students at Hudson Catholic High School] told me to keep my head held high and keep working hard.”
Matthews realized that he had no choice but listen to his father.
“I didn’t have anything else to go on, just me and my play,” Matthews said. “I just had to see how well I meshed with the others.”
Matthews was given eight games to prove himself.
“But in three of those games, I was hurt,” said Matthews, who was battling a concussion and a sprained ankle. “I wasn’t 100 percent, but I figured I would just enjoy it for what it was worth.”
Matthews worked part-time as a bartender to make the ends meet.
“I was kind of driving myself crazy,” Matthews said. “I was obsessing with practices. It was my dream and I wanted to see it come true. I wasn’t upset with how I played. But I was playing out of position in all five games I played.”
Matthews was used to playing “scrum,” which is like the quarterback of rugby.
“It’s the one with the decision making,” Matthews said. “It’s all based on rugby IQ.”
But in the five games with the Rugby ATL’s Academy squad, Matthews was playing the wing position.
“I was really freaking out now, because I was not accustomed to playing there,” Matthews said. “It was the first time I was moved in my life. I was frustrated and confused. But if this is where they had me, then I was going to be the best wing I could be.”
Matthews learned to appreciate the wing position.
“I saw the game from a different perspective,” Matthews said.
Matthews said that the competition was fierce to earn a spot on the Rugby ATL’s 40-man roster.
But on Halloween night, Matthews received word that he was being signed to a two-year contract with Rugby ATL, becoming the first professional rugby player to ever hail from Hudson County.
“I felt everything,” Matthews said. “I felt humbled and excited. Of course, I was happy, but now, I’m really nervous.”
After a break for Thanksgiving, Matthews returned to Atlanta for training. They will take another break for Christmas, but then Matthews returns to Atlanta from Jan. 2 through June.
“It’s a good kind of nervous,” Matthews said. “It’s an exciting kind of nervous.”
Matthews said that the contract was nice, but “I’m not doing it for the money,” and will not relinquish his bartending job.
“The way the league is going, who knows what the future holds?” Matthews said. “But I am a paid professional athlete now. This is an absolute dream come true. That thought is a sense of gratitude, because there were a lot of people who helped me along the way, especially my Mom (Jackie) and my Dad.”
Well, being a pro rugby player wasn’t always Eamonn Matthews’ first dream.
“I wanted to win the Heisman Trophy for Notre Dame,” Matthews said. “I loved playing football. Being a pro rugby player didn’t become something in my mind until my junior year at Bonnies. My coach told me I had a shot, so I gave it a go.”
“I’m ready to go down to Atlanta and give it everything,” Matthews said. “I worked hard to get where I am. I now want to work even harder. I genuinely love the process of playing rugby. I love the grind and love the physicality.” – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com