Founded in 2018, ROOTS is an afro-centric rugby organization whose mission is to expose players of the African diaspora to the upper echelons of competitive rugby. In their pursuit of excellence, the players will also learn about themselves and their people and be willing to pass their experiences on to their respective communities. Overall, ROOTS will aim to build a stronger sense of diversity, equity, and empathy amongst the rugby community.
Representation. Representation is everything. Young players need to be able to see Pro players that look like them, teams in the community that have players actually from the community, and getting over this stigma that “rugby is a white sport”.Kyle Granby
ROOTS is a non-profit organization, created to give Brothers and Sisters of the African diaspora opportunities to grow and show through rugby. Rugby is more than a game, it changes lives and builds family bonds that last lifetimes.
We spoke with co-founder Kyle Granby about the founding of ROOTS and to get his perspective on the Black experience in American rugby.
What is ROOTS?
ROOTS stands for Rugby Offering Opportunities To Succeed. We are an afro-centric rugby organization created for players of the African diaspora, but have grown into much more. We aim to offer our players opportunities to play at higher levels that normally wouldn’t have the chance to play at, while also representing our culture and being role models for our next generation.
What is the origin story for the ROOTS program?
ROOTS is an idea, a dream, a goal that most black rugby players have.
Most of us in the USA play on, or have played on, sides where we are the only minority or one of few. While rugby is a sport full of so many cultures and traditions, most Black players notice a lack of representation of our culture in the game.
For years I had been told to be better than the other black guy on the field, but not to be better than my opposite position. When that happens you eventually start to think, “What would happen if I were to team up with this player instead of always having them as my enemy.” Teaming up to represent a culture that isn’t represented too much in rugby.
Over the years I would have talks with Derek Lispcomb, Kimani Davis and Hayden James about this idea. Eventually it just came to the point where my wife, Tiana, said “Let’s stop talking and just do it.” She came up with the name ROOTS and from there we just created the program. Kimani gave us the push, Derek set the structure, Hayden gave us the platform to debut at New York 7s, we had Koma Gandy-Fischbein as our coach and the rest is history.
Creating ROOTS is my greatest rugby achievement! Better than my National Championship or any championships I’ve won.
Who are some of the key people helping to drive ROOTS?
The key people driving ROOTS besides myself are my wife, Tiana Granby, Kimani Davis, Derek Lipscomb, Koma Gandy-Fischbein, Hayden James, and Phaidra Knight.
My wife and I handle the day to day operations, but she is primarily in charge of the women and I handle the men.
Kimani has been our community outreach and youth program director, while doing so much more along with his M.A.D.E. program assisting and partnering.
Hayden has been our connection to the Caribbean community and connecting with players over there.
Koma has been there with all of her knowledge to coach, give helpful insights, set up connections and just assist in any way she can while also coaching her other sides and handling her own job.
Phaidra has been there as well to assist with any needs that she can help with. She has her PeaK Foundation along with so much going on, but she is still able to pop in and be a helping hand in any way she can.
But it’s the people that make ROOTS go. My wife and I, along with our board do the behind the scenes work that allow ROOTS to operate but without the support, belief and backing of our community we would be just another touring side.
Other races may not take notice, but leadership positions in rugby aren’t given to us as easily as our white counterparts.Kyle Granby
How do you fund everything?
Our funding comes from our players and then from my wife and I.
We charge tour fees from players to help with costs and then we have invested our own money to cover final costs. We knew that we’d have to invest and lose money, in order to get this dream off the ground.
It hasn’t been easy but it has been worth it.
What should the world know about the black rugby experience in America?
The Black rugby experience in America can be challenging. You’re constantly fighting stigmas and stereotypes, while trying not to fall into a category as “that fast Black wing” or “that strong Black forward.”
Many of us no matter where we go or how long we’ve played just end up on the wing only to be overlooked for other positions by many that we feel aren’t deserving of that spot.
Other races may not take notice, but leadership positions in rugby aren’t given to us as easily as our white counterparts.
What was your own personal experience entering rugby as a Black athlete?
Coming in, I was just trying to find my position and place. I was told to just stay on the wing and wait until the ball comes and then just run fast. I wasn’t told to work on my passing, kicking or decision making, just catch it and run fast. Though I wanted to be a rugby player, not just an athlete. To do this you have to constantly show week in and week out that you can do more than run fast.
The Black rugby experience in America can be challenging. You’re constantly fighting stigmas and stereotypes, while trying not to fall into a category as “that fast Black wing” or “that strong Black forward.”Kyle Granby
Given the best American athletes tend to come from the Black community, what are the keys to making the sport more attractive to Black athletes?
Representation. Representation is everything. Young players need to be able to see Pro players that look like them, teams in the community that have players actually from the community, and getting over this stigma that “rugby is a white sport”.
What are the accomplishments to date you are most proud of with ROOTS?
Our Mens side winning New York 7s, and Las Vegas 7s, both our men and women winning Carolina 9s and our men’s program reaching a championship match in each of our tours.
Most of all though, would be taking 30 African-American players to play rugby league in London in our first year of existence. Only made better by the Women creating history and taking first and the men taking second in their divisions.
What is next for ROOTS?
We continue growing. This year we are touring more, going to Amsterdam, London, Colorado, Kenya, New York, and Barbados. We’re playing in some high level tournaments such as Rugbytown 7s and Safari 7s. The main goal is to acquire sponsorship to lessen the costs of these tours and give our players more of an opportunity to show and grow their skills.
Who are the heroes that inspire you?
Personally, I’m inspired everyday by my wife. She has shown me what hard work, determination and commitment can provide. I see how she manages her work life outside of rugby along with our family and I think if she can get through all of that and still want to put time and energy into ROOTS then I can match that and be right there with her.
What does Black History Month mean to you as seen through a rugby lens?
Through the rugby lens, I feel Black History Month doesn’t mean as much as it should. We need more high level players and coaches to recognize it to give that pride to the people. When you have coaches and players that are looked up to showing that they can take the time to celebrate all that we’ve accomplished then it will become more important to others. The history doesn’t have to be about rugby but it helps to show why a culture within rugby has come to be the way they are today.
Visit https://rootsrugbyfamily.com/ for more information about ROOTS. Follow them on Instagram: @rootsrugbyfamily. And be sure to watch their first 15-a-side match against the “Connecticut Selects” on April 25th, 2020 at MCU Park before the RUNY vs Colorado MLR match.