May 17, 2013
By Mike Killeen
Before Nick Gardner came to school at Saint John's University, his entire knowledge of the game of rugby was limited to a 30-minute television episode of "Friends."
"All I knew about rugby was from one episode of 'Friends,' " Gardner recalled. "I knew they had it on there one time. Otherwise, I had never heard of or seen a rugby match."
Good thing Gardner saw Ross attempt to play rugby to impress his English girlfriend Emily during episode 15 of the fourth season of the popular show.
Fast forward a few years. Gardner - now playing for the SJU club rugby team as a senior tight head prop - was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2013 National Small College rugby tournament, helping the Johnnies capture their first national title in the sport.
The Johnnies posted a come-from-behind 37-35 win over the University of Denver in the semifinals April 27, and then beat Duke University 31-16 April 28 in the championship match. Both matches were played at Infinity Park, Glendale, Colo.
Credit some "recruiting" by rugby players to lure Gardner out to the pitch.
"When I came to SJU, I worked at Sexton Commons, and some rugby players worked there. They said, 'Hey, you're pretty big (6-foot-2, 280 pounds). You should try rugby.' I said, 'Well, I don't really know, I'm kind of busy.' They got me to come to some practices, and for about the first year, I only practiced. I didn't have the commitment to play games.
"Then, I started to really like it and enjoy it, and I made those commitments that came on weekends (for games and tournaments)," Gardner said. "I really tried to become a student of the game. We have three really good coaches. They have done a great job of teaching me how to play the game, how to play my position and how to understand how I integrate with other positions to better our team. I can really attribute my growth to the coaches."
Gardner led the Johnnies with four trys scored in the two-game national tournament. Think of a try as like a touchdown in football, only a try is good for five points.
"Nick was obviously a key contributor on the weekend," said SJU coach Dan Franklin. "He definitely peaked at the right time. He has been a contributor all season, but you could tell that he stepped his game up for the national tournament."
"We've always been a team that has been able to get to the try zone, and score. That's an attribute to everybody," Gardner said. "Everybody works hard to get us down there, and I ended up being the one that got us a few scores. But, it's everybody's success, I would say."
Gardner is a nursing major at SJU, and graduated May 12. Being both a nursing student and a hard-nosed rugby player is "unusual," Gardner admits.
"The two stereotypes of a rugby player and a male nurse tend not to mesh," Gardner said. "That being said, the stereotypes aren't necessarily true. A lot of people, when they see me on the field, they say that doesn't match my personality, how I am as a person and a nurse. I can see that. I am different on the field. But, that's the way it goes, I guess. They're two totally different domains.
"Everybody, I think, has that competitive mode. I really enjoy that."
Gardner hopes to find a nursing job on a medical-surgical floor in a hospital in the Waconia, Minn., area, not far from his hometown of Gaylord. His long-range goal is to work in a pediatric unit, because "I really enjoy working with kids." He realizes he has to give up playing rugby temporarily as he establishes himself professionally "before I can risk getting hurt in rugby, which is always a risk."
For now, he revels in the Johnnies' victory in the national tournament and hope it encourages more student-athletes to join the club program.
"I hope high school seniors and juniors see this as a winning club and a great school to come to," Gardner said. "I hope they see that, and they are drawn here. We have great coaches, we have great professors, everything about this school is pretty amazing. I hope the championship brings in new athletes, and they keep this tradition going. We don't want to give up the title, that's for sure."