Alexander resident Will Burke said his life has been a whirlwind since an unexpected introduction to the sport of rugby six years ago.
“It has been a wild ride, man,” Burke offered – and it is bound to continue for at least another year as he embarks on his first season as a member of the Dallas Jackals, one of 13 franchises of the Major League Rugby professional league.
Burke, a four-year standout at the University of Buffalo, where he played under Coach Mike Hodgins of Batavia, is part of an elite group of American-born rugby players to make it to the pro ranks.
The 6-foot-1, 255-pound former high school football player and wrestler is expected to anchor the Jackals’ front line as a tighthead prop, a position that calls for serious strength and power.
“I’m currently working with John Opfer (owner/director of Proformance Sports Training), who trains NFL players and college prospects that are going into the NFL draft, and will be doing that until I leave for preseason camp (next month),” said Burke, 24, a 2014 graduate of Alexander Central School.
Burke’s first regular season game is scheduled for March 20 in Los Angeles against the LA Giltinis, like Dallas, a 2021 expansion team.
The league has television contracts with CBS Sports Network and Fox Sports, and all games are available for viewing on ESPN+, a streaming subscription service.
Burke, a son of Nelson and Edie Burke, said he has received quite a few lumps since taking up the sport in his freshman year at UB.
“No major injuries but I broke my nose three times and I’ve dislocated about every one of my fingers and broken a couple,” he said. “And I separated my shoulder once in college, but as far as semi-professional and professional, I’ve not. It’s probably the most physical sport, in my opinion, for a contact sport next to wrestling or mixed martial arts.”
The physicality is no more pronounced than at the front of the scrum or lineout, as it is called, where all of the 15 players from both teams assemble in what resembles a pushing-and-shoving match to advance the ball.
“My main job is to anchor down the scrum against the opposing team – win the scrum or secure the ball if it’s our scrum,” he said. “It has changed over the years, and now the props are the most physical guys on the field. They’re in charge of making a lot of tackles and taking hard lines.”
Burke said he didn’t know much about the sport as he entered UB, but that all changed one day when he was walking through the student union.
“A guy came up to me and asked me if I was on the football team, and I said no. And he said why don’t you come out and try to play rugby. I kind of debated about it a little bit and I remember calling my brother, and asking him if he thought this is worth my time,” he recalled.
He decided to attend a practice session and kept coming back. After a few weeks, he was in Hodgins’ starting lineup and playing in a game against the Army team at West Point.
“I think I played 15 minutes and the next game I played a whole half (40 minutes) and by the third game, I was starting,” he said. “And I haven’t looked back from there.”
Burke played rugby all four years at UB, where he was captain of the squad for two of the seasons. He earned honorable mention for All-Conference in Rugby East and also was selected for the All-Conference Rugby East first team.
From there, he traveled to play some exhibition games as MLR attempted to organize into a full-fledge pro league, and also competed with the Buffalo Rugby Club, helping the team to a national ranking of seventh in Men’s D2 rugby.
He then was invited to play for a junior team in Ireland, but ran into visa issues and abruptly had to return to the states.
“I had to be sent home, leaving 90 percent of my stuff there,” he said. “I had a Republic of Ireland visa but was staying in Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.”
Devastated over the turn of events, Burke regrouped and caught on with the MLR’s Rugby United New York team during its training camp as a “trial player” (the equivalent of a walk-on).
“I spent the rest of my savings on an Airbnb as one of 11 trial players (at the camp) in Staten Island,” he said. “I was the only one to get a contract.”
Burke played well in the first two games of the 2020 MLR season that was shortened due to COVID-19. As a free agent, he then decided to sign a one-year contract with the Dallas team.
He said his rookie deal calls for a salary of $30,000 plus the team covers his living expenses. He said he hopes to prove himself this season and be able to sign a contract the following year with a substantial raise.
He said he chose Dallas because of the area’s commitment to expanding the sport.
“There were other teams interested but Dallas has a big focus on promoting American rugby and American rugby players,” he said. “Most of the teams have junior clubs -- developmental teams to support the major league teams.”
MLR requires that about 80 to 85 percent of the players have to be foreigners, Burke said, which makes it tough for American-born players to make it.
“The truth is that it is really hard for American guys to get that far, but it’s starting to happen with the developmental teams that look for Americans that can play rugby,” he explained, adding that the foreign players (from the United Kingdom and Ireland, for example) are experienced and raise the quality of competition.
Burke said he loves the sport “because of the culture and camaraderie that didn’t match any team sport I played before.”
“Rugby is unlike any other team sport in the world, you truly need all 15 men on the pitch working together to find success. It is a shoulder to shoulder sport with no room for arrogant and cocky players,” he said.
Hodgins said Burke has put in the time and effort to be successful as a professional.
“Will is positioned at the front of the scrum, where bulk and strength are needed,” said Hodgins, who has coached at UB for 11 years and also coaches varsity rugby at McQuaid High School in Rochester. “He definitely has a bright future as long as he stays healthy.”
Burke said his goals include competing on the world stage.
“There’s a chance to go and play for the national team in the next World Cup or the following World Cup – that’s every four years. So, that would be another thing and another pay raise if I can eventually prove myself in this league and then I could make the World Cup team and play for my country,” he said.
The next Rugby World Cup tournament is set for 2023 in France.