Rugby newcomer Abu Kamara epitomized Baylor’s surprise season

D1A Rugby: Rugby newcomer Abu Kamara epitomized Baylor’s surprise season
Photo Credit: Norma Salinas

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Two years ago Baylor University’s men’s rugby program won just one game in D1A Rugby’s Red River Conference. Now, the Bears are champions of that very same conference and are in the midst of preparing for their first-ever D1A Rugby playoff game.

The team’s relentless perseverance and unexpected rise to rugby stardom – or at least respectability – is reminiscent of one of Baylor’s breakout players. Four months ago Abu Kamara had never seen a rugby ball. Now Kamara’s coach is comparing him to Team USA Olympic rugby star Carlin Isles, and not just because of the winger’s blazing speed, but because of the difficult personal circumstances Kamara overcame before finding his way onto the rugby pitch.

Baylor’s 2017 Red River Conference-winning squad is similar to the vast majority of college club rugby teams around the country in that the Bears field a roster blended with players with previous rugby experience and those like Kamara, who are brand new to the game. While the non-stop, action-packed game involving an egg-shaped ball might be new to Kamara, sports are not.

Kamara was born in raised in the West Africa country of Sierra Leone. At the age of seven, Kamara’s mother moved herself and her only child to the United States, where they settled in Alexandria, Va. Despite Kamara’s mother working three jobs to provide for her son, the two didn’t always have their own home, and often scrambled to find a roof to keep over their heads.

Instability and poverty seemed to be a shadow of Kamara’s life, following the young boy with every step. It wasn’t until two important things entered his life that things began to change for the better. Kamara found sports and, even more importantly, his mentor.

Kamara was adopted by a lawyer and social volunteer in the local community. He is one of about 20 young African-American boys adopted by the man who not only became Kamara’s legal guardian, but also a father figure. With additional stability and guidance in Kamara’s personal life, he now needed to find direction in his social life – that’s where athletics come into play.

Kamara was a three-sport athlete at Annandale High School, excelling in football, track and wrestling. Keeping busy by playing sports was a way for Kamara, who admits to having issues controlling his temper growing up, to channel his anger and frustrations in a more positive light. His seemingly never-ending commitment to sports also meant Kamara was too busy to allow himself to get sidetracked by far less productive activities.

“Playing sports kept me from getting in trouble,” recalled Kamara. “Growing up it was rough. I had a lot of friends getting into bad things and playing sports kept me guided. It taught me a lot of discipline.”

Remaining head and shoulders above the dangerous distractions surrounding him, Kamara shined as a two-way athlete for Annandale High School’s football team and earned a scholarship to play at University of Virginia’s College at Wise. The Liberal arts college wouldn’t be home for long, though. An injury to Kamara’s Achilles early in his tenure at UVa-Wise, followed by a change in the football team’s coaching staff, quickly left him less than thrilled with his new college experience. The encouragement of his mentor to seek a new school, a vivid dream he had and an eagerness to leave the area he grew up in were enough to warrant Kamara’s transfer to a new school in a completely different part of the country – Baylor. Even more importantly, Baylor has a highly-regarded master’s degree program in social work. That’s the area of study Kamara has taken to so he can one day help impoverished youth persevere through their hardships to achieve their goals.

Upon arriving in Waco, Texas, Kamara still had intentions to play college football, but he discovered a new athletic passion before ever getting an opportunity to try out for Big 12 Conference football. Driving through campus one day, Kamara caught a few students throwing around what appeared to be a blown-up-sized football. The sports-obsessed 20-year-old had to know more. A brief exchange didn’t alleviate much confusion about the sport, but Kamara received the details needed to make it to the Bears’ next practice.

Coming off an above-program-standard .500 record during the 2015-16 season, Baylor began the 2016-17 campaign 2-0. Wins over Texas Tech and Arkansas were by a combined four points and could have gone either way. It was apparent the Bears were improving week by week under second-year head coach Mason Hering, but the team could use more dynamic threats to complement captain Pete Hamm in the forwards and back-line general Parker Vincent – but heck, which club teams couldn’t?

Kamara played both running back and linebacker during his high school gridiron days. He knows if he played college football one side of the ball would have to give way for the other. The running back inside Kamara immediately loved running through and around defenders with ball in hand on the rugby pitch, while his linebacker side relished every opportunity he got to inflict punishment on a ball carrier.

Kamara made his first-ever rugby practice in October. By the time Baylor traveled to Oklahoma in mid-November to play the Sooners for its last game of the fall season he was a reserve on the bench. When the team resumed its season Jan. 21 against Arkansas, he was starting in the No. 14 jumper.

“About four months ago, if you would have asked Abu what he knew about rugby he would probably tell you ‘little to nothing,’” said Hering. “To see his rapid growth in the sport, combined with his natural athletic talent on display in such a short time is very exciting.”

The ability to play both offense and defense initially seized Kamara’s attention, but it’s not his favorite aspect of rugby. Just like the bulk of people who have invested a drop of sweat or pinch of blood to the sport, Kamara’s fixation on rugby is due mostly to what he describes as his new “brotherhood.”

“My team is the reason why I like it so much,” Kamara avidly said. “Those guys are really encouraging and the team chemistry we have feels like a brotherhood. Everyone is just so supportive and I love the Baylor Rugby community.”

Being a part of the rugby team not only supplied Kamara with the type of friendships that can only be made in the midst of athletic battle, and the type of friends he hadn’t made since high school, but it also helped ease the uneasiness of living 12,000 miles from home.

“Some days I feel I’m getting homesick, but playing rugby with these guys really helps me feel comfortable and helped my transition here.”

Kamara’s individual improvements as a rugby player began to parallel the improvements the Bears were making as a team. Baylor won its first three matches of 2017 to improve its conference record to 5-1. To reach 6-1, Baylor would have to avenge its lone loss of the season to Oklahoma.

“He’s so dang quiet, I wasn’t sure if he was taking in what I’ve been coaching him,” Hering said. “However, when you see him on the field you can tell he’s listening and absorbing the information.”

Three months after Kamara made his first A-side appearance against the Sooners in a 37-0 loss, the Bears put their vast progress on display in a 27-10 victory over Oklahoma. Kamara scored two tries in the win.

“That was last year,” Kamara said of the shutout defeat to Oklahoma. “We’re a better team than we were last year. They guys on the team really deserve it because they work so hard at practice.”

The win against the Sooners was followed by a 42-15 hammering of Texas Tech to claim the North Division title and set up a Red River Championship fixture with reining conference champion and 2017 South Division winner LSU.

The Tigers entered the championship bout heavy favorites given their 13-0 Red River record since entering the conference in 2015, and played like it through the first 40 minutes by taking a 19-5 lead into halftime. Desperately needing a spark, Kamara received a clearance kick that was probably better off finding touch. After dancing along the touch line for a few steps, the 5-foot-8 185-pound winger cut back inside where he made five LSU defenders miss before scoring under the posts from 30 meters out.

“He’s a finisher,” Hering bluntly said with joy. “He likes to get into space. And when he does get into space – it’s all over.”

Kamara’s brilliant individual effort that led to five points was indeed the spark Baylor needed, as the Bears fought back to beat LSU and win the Red River Championship, 25-22. An already unprecedented season will now reach new heights when Baylor hosts Arizona April 22 in the Quarterfinals of the D1A Rugby Playoffs.

As enthusiastic as Hering is over the group of guys he coaches, the Baylor head coach is realistic in terms of his team and individual reviews. Still, the rugby-lifer has remarkably high praise for Kamara.

“I’ve told Abu, ‘The Olympics is not that far out of reach for you. If you dedicate the next four to six years of your life to this sport you could make the Olympic team.’ It’s crazy to think how special he can be if he goes all-in and dedicates himself to being the best rugby player he can be,” assessed Hering. “With guys before him like Carlin Isles and Perry Baker being successful football crossovers and making a huge impact on the national sevens team, there’s a clear model to follow for Abu.”

As for Baylor’s new danger-man on the wing, it’s obvious he’s put far more thought into helping the Bears win games this season than how far he can take the sport.

“I don’t want to look too far into the future,” a humble Kamara said. “I just want to take things day by day.”

When asked which areas of his game need the most work, he was quick to respond in the modest tone he seems to always carry.

“I think I need to improve on every aspect of my game,” Kamara critiqued. “Whether it’s my cardio, my passing – I feel like I can improve all around.”

A win for Baylor against Arizona Saturday, April 22, will advance the Bears to the D1A Rugby Semifinals where they will face the winning side from a Quarterfinals matchup between Saint Mary’s College and San Diego State Saturday, April 29. As it was in the Red River Championship game, Baylor will likely be viewed as the underdog when it takes the pitch against the Wildcats this weekend.

Kamara, who notes the team has treated its last several matches as playoff games, thinks his team has just as good a chance as any on Saturday.

“It’s about playing in the moment and not letting the moment get too big, and I think we do a good job of that. It’s anyone’s game. I feel like it’s going to come down to whoever wants it more.”