Ian ‘Stoney’ Brooks: A passion for rugby that goes beyond playing

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Ian Brooks on Manchester Field on Oct. 8, 2015.

Kyle Samec

Ian “Stoney” Brooks’ short rugby career has taken him through two states in the span of four years: From a high school team around Pittsburgh, to the Pittsburgh Harlequins club team, then playing for Wheeling Jesuit University and finally, the Flashes of Kent State, where players think of him as a veteran among the majorly young team.

“It’s more than just having all the rugby knowledge in the world,” men’s rugby head coach Tim Brofman said of Brooks. “It’s having an objective set of eyes. It’s important to have other guys here who understand the game on more of a macro level, so we can look at the entirety of our team.”

Brooks is a polite person, giving off a feeling of modesty when talking about himself. He isn’t the loudest person. He isn’t the biggest person. He is very approachable and has a friendly demeanor that is inviting. The average person would probably find it difficult to believe that someone so mild-natured could play one of the roughest sports on the planet – one that is stereotypically thought of in the United States as a game of brute strength.

“Stoney” Brooks, as all his teammates call him – a reference to the lead guitarist of the rock band Pearl Jam (Stone Garrison), Brooks said – got inspired to play rugby, ironically, while visiting Wheeling Jesuit in his pursuit of a baseball scholarship to play catcher.

“I noticed they had fliers up for a rugby team that they were going to start, and they were handing out scholarships for it,” Brooks said, about his visit back in 2011. “I got in contact with the coach and went to three combines over the next two months down at Wheeling Jesuit, where I played with seven of the kids on campus, a couple fellows from Zimbabwe and another gentleman who spent a lot of time in New Zealand coaching and playing.”

After his time at Wheeling Jesuit, the coach set him up with the North Park Crusaders, a high school team in Pittsburgh, where he would go to develop skills that would take him to the college level.

“Coach Jim Verner (of North Park) gave me the basic rundown of rugby,” Brooks said. “He taught me all the basics, and really introduced me to the game tactically.”

In just a short time of playing for the Crusaders – only during the spring of 2012 – the coach who Brooks met at the combines at Wheeling Jesuit offered him a scholarship to come play rugby for the Cardinals, leading him to where he is today.

After receiving notice about the scholarship offer, Brooks decided to contact a club team down in Pittsburgh – a little over an hour away from his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio – to inquire about joining the Pittsburgh Harlequins for the summer after his senior year of high school.

“I traveled around with them and played in a couple tournaments to get some experience before going to college,” Brooks said. “Unfortunately, that was cut short because I broke my ankle in one of the games, so I was out for most of the summer. But when I got down to Jesuit, the cast was off and I was able to start practicing with the team (Wheeling Jesuit Cardinals).”

The Cardinals have a varsity rugby team, which is why they can give out scholarships, and are highly backed by the school. Brooks said they have nice facilities with a lot of money tied into them, and they even made the jump from Division 1-AA, the division the Flashes are in, to Division 1-A, the highest level of collegiate rugby.

“The first year we only lost maybe four games between the fall and spring semesters,” Brooks said. “Going into the fall semester of my sophomore year (2013) we were accepted into Rugby East, which is the power-house conference on the east coast, as far as D1-A rugby.”

During his three semesters with the Cardinals, Brooks said that his tactical side, which is all the specific, detailed points of the game, and his general understanding of the game developing to “tremendous extents,” are both a product of his fine coaches: Eric Taber and Eric Jerpe. Eric Taber worked for the USA Rugby international team, and Eric Jerpe – the coach who Brooks met when he went to the combines at Wheeling Jesuit during his senior year of high school – played and coached in New Zealand for a while.

After that fall semester, Brooks left Wheeling Jesuit to go to a school closer to his home: Kent State. More specifically though, the Salem branch. While there, he took a semester off rugby to get used to the new school.

In the fall of 2014, he joined back up with the Harlequins’ 15-man team. Later that fall, he attended a scrimmage between the University of Akron and Kent State, and played with the Flashes in that match. In spring of 2015, he officially joined the Flashes.

Tim Brofman, Brooks’ coach at Kent State, said Brooks is someone who is able to share his wealth of rugby knowledge to the younger Flashes players, and that is something that Brofman truly appreciates about him.

“It’s nice to have somebody over here who can help me out with explaining these finer points to these guys, rather than me trying to yell at 30 people standing around,” Brofman said, about Brooks. “It’s helpful to have several people kind of chiming in on that, and giving the experience that you only get from playing that can be passed on.”

The other person Brofman means by “several” are team president Keegan Gillilan, also a Kent State student, and former Flashes’ rugby player and 2012 graduate Bradley Smith, who was the assistant coach of the team last fall, but now comes around to help out the team every once in a while.

Smith said he remembers the first time he saw Brooks play with the Flashes. It was last fall when the team was down a man one match. Brooks, attending the Salem branch of Kent at the time and not officially on the team yet, jumped in on the match versus Akron and “was a star from the beginning,” Smith said.

“(Brooks) has a wealth of experience and he’s very capable of applying that and teaching that as well,” Smith said. “He just has a great rugby mind all together and rugby IQ….(and) the coaching ability to relate and connect with the players at their level, too.”

Aside from playing rugby for a high school, a club team that competes at the highest level of club rugby, a D1-A college varsity team and the club team at Kent State, Brooks is also a certified coach and referee.

“In the spring of 2013 and spring of 2014 I was an assistant coach of the North Park Crusaders, my high school team, under head coach Jim Verner,” Brooks said. “I’ve refereed one or two games out in the Pittsburgh area.”

To top it all off, in the summer of 2015, Brooks also played for two different club teams: The West Virginia Warhounds and the Pittsburgh Pandas.

Brooks truly is as the cliché goes, “a student of the game,” and has made a positive impact with his fellow Flashes in his short time with them.

“You can have all the rugby IQ, you can have all the coaching skills, the leadership, but if you don’t have the capacity to make it transferable, that’s where the difficulty tends to be,” Smith said. “He (Brooks) definitely has that. He’s a huge help and I’ve…seen the success (of the Flashes) come from his input since he’s been here, and I definitely want to see him be around.”

Kyle Samec is a sports reporter for The Ket Stater. Contact her at [email protected]