Ryan Martin isn’t your ordinary University of Massachusetts student.
After graduating high school in 2006 and spending three semesters at Bridgewater State University, Martin left school to join the Marine Corps, where he served two tours in Afghanistan over a four-year span. Martin returned home and enrolled at UMass in January 2012, and in that time, he picked up a new hobby: rugby.
Martin had never played rugby before joining the UMass club rugby team, but immediately became passionate about it. However, as quickly as he fell in love with playing, his career may be over just as fast.
Now a senior, the 25-year-old Martin was ruled ineligible to play by USA Rugby the night before the team’s Sept. 14 season opener against Middlebury due to a new eligibility requirement that states that every student-athlete has seven years immediately following high school graduation to compete for a maximum of five years.
According to UMass coach Phillip Ciccarelli, the previous rule simply allowed five years of eligibility as an undergraduate student regardless of when they had graduated high school, and could petition for a sixth year.
Ciccarelli submitted a waiver to USA Rugby in order to confirm Martin’s eligibility before the season started. But between the time that email was sent and the team was given a response, the rule had changed.
Martin was stunned. He reached out to USA Rugby Eligibility and Sanctioning Coordinator James Wilbur that night with hopes for some clarification and to ask if there were any exceptions for military veterans.
Wilbur, who declined to comment on the situation to the Collegian, responded the next day. There were no exceptions. The bottom line was that Martin would be ineligible. His playing career was over.
“It’s kind of shocking to tell you the truth,” Martin said. “The organization is called USA Rugby and I thought that as long as I was a college student here, I haven’t played any sports in college before, that I’m eligible. And when I found out I wasn’t because I was out of high school too long it was kind of upsetting. It’s not like I was sitting around doing nothing. I joined the Marine Corps and I went over to Afghanistan twice.”
The rule change came as a result of foreign-born players, who in some cases were long graduated from high school and in their mid-to-late 20s, coming to America to play in college and physically having a competitive advantage over college-aged students, according to Martin.
The circumstances also apply to American-born student-athletes as it creates parity for all teams at the college level.
Ciccarelli, however, said he would’ve liked to have seen USA Rugby take into account all potential situations, including one involving military veterans, such as was the case for Martin.
“I was surprised at their lack of instruction to kind of sort out all the issues that would come about,” he said. “I understand what their position is and what they’re trying to do but to overlook an entire subset of a rugby playing population (military veterans), to forget about that and only really be concerned about the foreign-born players coming over to the United States and playing in college, I think it’s kind of short-sighted.”
Martin’s teammates, both former and current, haven’t given up hope on him playing again. Josh Haney, a graduate who was president of the UMass rugby club last season, started a petition on Change.org to USA Rugby CEO and President Nigel Melville, who could not be reached for comment, to change the rule “out of respect and honor for our beloved veterans,” the petition reads. It also included a video with pictures of Martin both in uniform for the Marines and UMass rugby.
The petition currently has almost 3,000 signatures and was featured on the website Barstool Sports last Thursday.
“I think it’s a little absurd that he can’t play,” said current rugby captain Zach Almond, who has already signed the petition and promoted it on his Facebook page. “He missed out on the rule by just one year, but I think the rule should allow for exceptions when it comes to those who have served.”
Ciccarelli said that UMass isn’t the first program to petition in favor of military veterans. Although he is unsure of the specific situation, he said that there was another player whose teammates also started a petition that inspired UMass to start a petition of its own.
Martin didn’t know of the petition when it started, but was overjoyed when he saw it.
“I woke up in the morning and saw that he had put up a whole video together. It was shocking,” Martin said. “I had already accepted the fact that it was the end of the road for me. I reached out to USA Rugby on my own, but to see my buddies created a petition, it just shows how important rugby is to me.
“These are my rugby friends that did it and it just shows that they respect me and we look out for each other. It was a great feeling knowing that someone went out of their way to do this for me.”
With that in mind, Martin is hesitant to get his hopes up that he may actually get to play again. If anything, he said he would like to at least help pave the way and inspire change for the good of future veterans.
“I don’t want to get any false hope,” Martin said. “It’s kind of obvious that I don’t think it’s gonna happen. I hope it will make a change for future veterans if it can’t make it change for me for this season.
“Does it give me a sense of hope that I can play again? A little bit. I would love for this to make a change immediately. If I got a phone call tonight saying I could play in (the next game) that would be phenomenal. Hope for the best, plan for the worst is the easiest way to put it.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.