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A rugby star grows in Brooklyn

Growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Mike Petri dreamed of being a professional athlete, but not a rugby player.

A lock was something you put on a bike, a hooker something completely different.

But now Petri is a member of the United States National Team and is set to play professionally in England’s Guinness Premier League, considered to be the top rugby league in the world.

He’s not only the first player from New York to do that, but just one of two players on the national team to play in England.

“It’s not the most glamorous lifestyle, but I wouldn’t do it any other way right now,” Petri said.

Petri was the starting scrumhalf for the United States against France A Saturday in the Churchill Cup, an annual rugby tournament that launched in 2003.

The finals were staged at Red Bull Arena, the brand-new $200 million home of the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer, giving Petri a rare chance to compete internationally in front of loved ones.

“It was an amazing atmosphere, absolutely amazing,” Petri said. “The crowd was electric, it’s a beautiful facility. It was amazing to have the support of my friends and family. I could hear them above the rest of the noise. It helped me go that extra mile when I had to.”

Petri was introduced to rugby as a freshman at Xavier HS, which has the longest running high-school rugby program in the United States. He was playing soccer and basketball and drew the attention of rugby coach Mike Tolkin, who is also the defensive coach of the U.S. National Team.

Those original skills have translated on the rugby pitch, which is why he’s on the verge of making history in England.

“He has superb skills for a rugby player and an American, his passing, running ability, his kicking,” Tolkin said. “He has all the skills and he has a great work ethic. He’s a guy who fits into a team well and plus his international experience is definitely a plus for him.”

Petri was an All-American at Penn State and earned his first cap with the United States in Sept. 2007 at the Rugby World Cup in France.

“My debut was against South Africa in the World Cup,” Petri said. “It was quite a rollercoaster, just an exhilarating experience. I was 23 years old, just called into the team and my first taste of international rugby was against the world champions. It doesn’t get much more thrown into the deep end than that.”

He’s made 15 more appearances for the United States, including Saturday’s 24-10 loss to France A in Harrison, N.J. All the while he’s had a day job to pay the bills, most recently working for UBS, a global financial services firm.

“You have to make a lot of sacrifices, juggle jobs while playing amateur, living day to day sometimes, it’s a lot of strain on the family,” Petri said.

But it’s paid off in a big way. Petri will begin playing at the sport’s highest club level in August. Already the first Xavier player to make the U.S. National Team, Petri will now give other Sons of Xavier something else to strive for.

“More and more guys now are more familiar with rugby, they see a lot more on TV,” Tolkin said. “I think you’re going to see more guys who see Mike as an example and say, ‘We can get to this level. We’re just like him, we’re from Brooklyn or Queens.’ They see it as a possibility.”

One such player is Petri’s younger brother Chris, who helped lead Xavier to its fourth national championship last month. He and his teammates were honored at halftime on Saturday for winning the title and Chris is off to follow in his brother’s footsteps at Penn State.

Seamus Kelly is another. He recently completed his first year at the University of California, earning freshman All-American honors like Petri did in Happy Valley a few years ago.

“Seamus is a great athlete, [has] a great head on his shoulders and an amazing future ahead of him,” Mike Petri said. “He’s another guy just carrying the torch for the Xavier kids.”

No one carries that torch higher than Petri, who is an ambassador for a sport he calls a “sleeping giant” in the United States.

“The more exposure it gets, the more this game is just going to take off,” Mike Petri said. “It incorporates so many aspects of other sports that American fans will really appreciate and embrace. I think it’s only a matter of time before you see the U.S. climb the world rankings and really shock the world.”

And when it does, a kid from Brooklyn will be leading the charge.

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