Regular readers to this site have seen my previous references to Rugby and how I think that in some respects, USA Handball should try to model it’s development after USA Rugby. No analogy works 100%, but again Rugby has shown a path that hopefully USA Handball will one day follow. This example is 23 year old rugby star Takudzwa (Zee) Ngwenya. Originally from Zimbabwe, Ngwenya emigrated to the USA five years ago. In that five years he has gone from playing high school rugby in Plano, Texas, to amateur club rugby in Dallas, to the US National Team. And playing for the US National Team last year he was the bright spot of a 0-4 performance, with his try against South Africa being selected the “try (the rugby equivalent of a touchdown) of the year” by the International Rugby Board. This try, his overall performance, and his raw speed led to a contract to a professional contract with Biarritz in the French Top 14 League. And he’s not an afterthought at Biarritz, one of the top club teams in the world, where he is currently tied for first for most tries in the French League.
An equivalent trajectory in Handball terms would be Chavez HS in Houston, to the Houston Stars, to the US National Team, to HSV Hamburg in the German Bundesliga. The US has had a few Handball players play for European clubs, but usually for lower division clubs. Darrick Heath, who is arguably the most talented USA Handball player ever, followed a similar path to Ngwenya. He first started playing the sport in 1988 and 5 years later his strong performance on a winless USA Team at the 1993 World Championships led to a professional contract in Hungary.
But, while these paths were similar, the huge difference was that Darrick was 28 years old when he signed a contract and Zee today is only 23 years old with his best years still ahead of him. In fact, he’s still very much considered a work in progress as he is still learning the game and adjusting to competing on a weekly basis at the elite level. And the same was true with Darrick, but at the same time he was becoming a more experienced player he was also soon to start a long slow decline in physical athletic ability. I say long and slow, because even at age 43 he can still play– just ask the Canadians who played against him last year for PANAM Games qualification.
The big “what if?” that I’ve often pondered is what if Darrick had started playing Handball at age 17 instead of 23and then signed that first contract at age 22 instead of 28. How phenomenal of a player would he have been and what if the USA had had several other players also starting their professional careers at around age 22?
I’m not alone in this pondering. Some would even take it further to say that we need to find those talents at age 12 or even younger. It’s a tough sell, however, to get young kids excited to play a sport they’ve never seen when other sports with far more exposure and financial resources are also looking for athletes. But there are a few handball programs out there making inroads towards youth development. Houston, Chicago and Atlanta all have had decent youth programs. In fact Darrick Heath has been an integral part in the development of the Atlanta programs.
Starting these programs is clearly a challenge, but Rugby has clearly broken the code somewhat with several high school programs popping up in different parts of the country. A program, Play Rugby USA, has been established to encourage and provide support to schools interested in starting rugby. While USA Rugby still gets the bulk of their players from late starters (players often start playing in college) these youth programs have sprinkled in more seasoned players into those clubs. Instead of every Freshman starting from scratch a good number of them already understand the basics of the game.
While I don’t think we are ever going to see thousands of star athletes in the U.S. put down their basketballs and footballs for handballs when they are in the 12-18 age range, I do think it should be possible to expose thousands of youths to the sport. Maybe some spring time leagues with the carrot of participating on an under-19 Team USA will even draw in some really talented athletes taking a break from their primary sport. Then, if for whatever reason, their basketball, football or some other sport career doesn’t pan out like they thought it would they might immediately consider that Handball game they really excelled at. They’ll join a club and with the basics already down they might quickly develop into a good player.
To sum up, the path to national team success lies in finding the Handball Zee Ngwenya’s out there, exposing them to the sport and convincing them to make handball their chosen specialty. And to be really successful the finding, exposing and convincing will have to start as at young of age as possible.
Wikipedia Article on Takudzwa Ngwenya: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takudzwa_Ngwenya
Video of Ngwenya award winning try: http://rugbydump.blogspot.com/2007/10/takudzwa-ngwenya-smokes-bryan-habana.html
1993 Sports Illustrated profile of Darrick Heath: http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1138385/2/index.htm
Play Rugby USA article: http://www.americanrugbynews.com/artman/publish/Coaching_column/The_Play_Rugby_USA_model.shtml
Article on Wash DC youth Rugby club: http://www.washingtonrugbyclub.org/mainart/youth/hyde_school_rugby.htm
Play USA Rugby website: http://www.playrugbyusa.com/