The energy in the backyard of Andy and Cherie Augspurger’s home in South Minneapolis is festive and exuberant. I’m hanging out with 13 extremely strong men who are devouring extremely full plates of food. These men are from all over the world and together, they form Old Blue Rugby Football Club of New York, one of the country’s best teams in Club 7s. They’re here to win a national championship.
The pursuit of glory on the pitch will wait until tomorrow. The club is here now, eating around a campfire and playing lawn games as opposed to packing into the booths of an Olive Garden because this is where one of their best players spent his entire childhood.
Nate Augspurger spent the first 22 years of his life embedded in the Twin Cities rugby community. His father Andy played for Minneapolis RFC (now known as Metropolis RFC) and Nate, along with his older brother Sam, grew up on the sidelines. When Andy was playing, they were watching, learning, and consuming the sport that would shape their own personal narratives.
“Ever since we were little kids, it was me and my brother showing up on Saturdays to club rugby games our dad was playing in,” Nate says. “We’ve been entrenched in this community since we were growing up and it’s been great.”
The Augspurger brothers took the tutelage of their parents and community and turned it into something special. They shared the pitch for an incredible Minnesota high school state championship run in 2006 for Southside Rugby, and for two seasons at the collegiate level for the University of Minnesota. In addition to his friends and family, Nate credits much of his success to his big brother.
“I always knew whatever he was doing was the right thing. He’s how I ended up playing for the U of M,” Nate says. “He’s the best big brother you can have. Every time I stepped on a field and I knew he was there with me, I knew we had a chance to win.”
For the Augspurgers, rugby and family are paramount. Nate’s games can always be found streaming on the family computer, no matter what time of night or where in the world they’re taking place. Nate and his newlywed wife Rosie, a player on Old Blue’s women’s team, wear matching pink cleats in all their games. The couple’s dog, Baker, is named for the practice field in New York where they first met. Elder brother Sam has gone on to tear up the pitch locally for the Eastside Banshees. Andy and Cherie can always be seen at those games as well as heard. They know everybody and aren’t shy; whether its bantering with a referee or sharing a few sideline beers with a rugby greenhorn, they’re always there to make a day in the Twin Cities rugby community a memorable experience.
Unfortunately for Nate, his homecoming wasn’t the memory he was hoping to make, as the club settled for fifth place in the championship tournament. There are 16 supremely talented rugby teams in town from across the country. Many would be happy to be fifth in the nation, but it’s not what Old Blue came to the Twin Cities for. It’s not what Nate came home for.
For the last two days, Nate basked in the love and support of his hometown crowd—a community he hadn’t played in front of since college. But at the end of the trip, someone else went home with the trophy he was so desperate to hoist.
It’s not the first time in Nate’s career that something he wanted badly ended up just out of reach. A player dynamic enough to be in the national team picture for rugby 7s and the more traditional 15s, Nate was a strong candidate for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
Rugby 7s was making its Olympic debut and Nate was called into every camp and made every tour heading into the games. Just a couple weeks before the opening ceremony, with his whole family’s travel arrangements to Rio booked and ready to go, he found out he had just missed the 12-man roster.
Two days before the team left for Brazil, though, he was offered one of the three traveling reserve spots. A backup position in case of an emergency, but almost certain to not see the field.
“It was one of the most testing times in my rugby career,” Nate says. “I was like, ‘Man, after all the work I put in, do I really want to go and be a traveling reserve?’ Then the lightbulb goes on and it’s like, ‘Yes, you have to. You spent your last year-and-a-half out in California training for this. Maybe you missed out on the 12, but you’ve got to see it through.’ I stuck my nose down and I stayed ready.”
His attitude and work ethic paid off months after the Olympics. Nate was selected to play for USA Rugby 15s in the Americas Rugby Championship in February. For the final two games of the six-team round robin, he was named captain.
“Knowing I was going in to lead the team was a massive honor. Leadership has always been one of my stronger traits as a player. I’m not a freak athlete,” Nate says. “Being a leader and getting that acknowledgement was super gratifying especially after what I experienced with the Olympics.”
The move proved to be a good one. A 57-9 victory against Chile set up a match with a powerful Argentine squad on the tournament’s final day.
When the match comes, Nate is the one who leads the USA Eagles onto the pitch in Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina. More than 6,000 miles away in downtown Minneapolis, the atmosphere at the official viewing party at Kieran’s Irish Pub is booming in its usual exuberance.
Nate leading the team on the field is a special moment for every single person in the room, but what happens next is pure joy. From the sound of the first whistle, Nate plays the game of his life.
Watching him on the pitch doesn’t require a working knowledge of rugby. His play is an athletic and artistic expression that transcends knowledge of the sport. He’s not playing, he’s performing. He’s Mad Max. He’s a poet. He’s a samurai. It’s better that I can’t see every single in and out of the game. There’s nothing to stand in the way of seeing his performance for what it is. Equal parts power and grace; style and gumption.
The game ends with a score of 27-27. USA forced a tie with a try in the final seconds, and with it, secured the tournament championship by way of tie-breaker. Nate is handed the championship cup and the man who just missed out on the Olympics hoists USA Rugby’s first major trophy in 93 years and gets carried off the field by his teammates.
Kieran’s explodes in celebration and the bar turns into the biggest party in the Twin Cities.
“It felt unreal. Moments like that, that was a special one for me,” Nate recalls. “For me to go through some of the hardships and then achieve something that I wanted really bad. It feels like you’re levitating. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Whether Nate gets the same experience with the national team at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan or at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics remains to be seen. What is certain is that no one in this community will forget the shining moment when Nate Augspurger captained America and lifted himself and his city to the top of the rugby world.