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Life on the Pitch

Josh VanDyke • Jan 10, 2019 at 1:00 AM

It was a difficult decision for then-senior student-athlete Aaron Cummings, as he prepared for his spring season at Grand Haven High School in 2015.

After spending most of his athletic career excelling on the track and field team for the Buccaneers, the versatile athlete decided to take a risk — joining the Grand Haven rugby club and leaving his track days behind.

That decision, while risky at the time, has changed Cummings' life forever, as he committed to the sport and excelled to the point that he can now call himself a professional athlete.

Last week, Cummings signed a professional contract with the New England Free Jacks, an expansion team in Major League Rugby, as he continues to chase down his dreams on the pitch.

"It was wild," said Cummings of the experience. "This is something I've been praying about for a long time and to see it unfold like this is truly a blessing. I just think about all the times that I stayed up until 2 a.m. watching film and all the hard work I've put in both on the pitch and in the weight room, and this proves that I made the right decision.

"For the Free Jacks organization to give this opportunity means the world to me. I've been passed over a lot through the years, so for them to believe in me and give me a chance to prove myself is something I won't take for granted."

ROAD TO THE MLR

Cummings was a three-sport athlete at Grand Haven, excelling at football, wrestling and track for the Buccaneers.

After committing to play football at Davenport University, Cummings decided to give rugby a try in the spring, after completing his final season on the mat for the Grand Haven wrestling program at 162 lbs.

The physical nature of the sport and the camaraderie within the rugby community are two things that really drew Cummings in initially.

"I enjoyed the physicality of the sport and culture around it," he said of his initial impression of rugby. "It was really a family atmosphere. I felt like I didn't just have teammates; I had brothers that I was willing to do anything for.

"It's just different. There's no other sport where both teams sit down and have dinner together after competing in a high-intensity game like that. There's so much respect between athletes and coaches, and it's just a very supportive community."

The decision to quit track and try a brand-new sport was not an easy one, as most of Cummings' family wanted him to stick with track and focus on his future football career at the college level.

"I didn't want to quit track," he admitted. "My grandma wanted me to keep doing track, and I had already made the decision to play college football at Davenport. My decision was basically, ‘It's my last year in high school and I wanted to try something new'. I fell in love with rugby right away and I knew it was something that I wanted to stick with."

When he first walked onto the pitch, Cummings was immediately floored by the level of commitment that his teammates had for the game and the nature of head coach Dave McDonough.

"It was eye-opening for me," he admitted. "It was really cool to see how a different sport operates and how much technical things go into the game. Coach Mac (McDonough) is such a great coach. He's a laid-back guy, but he's also demanding of his players.

"His practices are fun and challenging, but you learn right away that when he talks, you better be listening. He really got everyone ready for combat, and he and coach (Tom) Foley have always been in my corner. I can't thank them enough for what they've done for me."

DEVELOPING AT DAVENPORT

After getting his first taste for rugby in his senior season at Grand Haven, Cummings continued to keep the option of playing college rugby in the back of his mind.

"The Davenport rugby club was actively recruiting a few of my teammates when I was at Grand Haven, and they were looking at me, too. I was originally committed to play football there, but they let me come out for rugby that spring of my freshman year.

"I played both sports for two years, and then made the switch to rugby full time because that was my best shot at going pro."

Another difficult decision for Cummings was made easy due to staff changes after his sophomore season.

"After my second year on the football team, my position coach took a job at Western (Michigan University) and I decided that was it, that was my out. Over time, I just fell out of love for football and decided rugby was where my heart was."

Staff changes within the rugby program made life challenging for Cummings, as well, but one change to his own game may have vaulted him to the professional ranks.

"I went through three different coaches at Davenport," he said. "My first coach taught me the basics, and then my second coach switched me from a wing to a flanker. I hated it at the time, but I think that move really helped me become a better rugby player.

"Wings and backline players are like the wide receivers of rugby. They get all the praise and all the glory. Flankers are the inside linebackers. I love the physicality of that position, and it was a really easy transition for me."

SHOWCASE IN SAGINAW

After developing into a key player for the Panthers rugby squad, Cummings made another decision to invest in himself. He drove to Saginaw to workout at a combine that the New England Free Jacks were putting on in order to scout for talent to add to their roster.

Once again, Cummings' belief in himself paid off.

"I went there and they offered me that day," he said. "I was blessed enough to receive a contract from them and it was like a dream come true. I believed that I could do it, but you never know what could happen. I just continued to work hard and take risks and believe in myself."

Now that his professional dreams have been accomplished, Cummings is motivated to reach even higher and, hopefully, realize his dream of representing his country someday.

"I want to do well in MLR and make a name for myself at the professional level, and then work my way to playing internationally and play for the USA national team someday.

"All I know is, I'm going to pour my heart and soul into this game, because it's already given me so many opportunities to do great things."

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