This is a terrific story about an inner-city athlete getting a chance to go to college–all expenses paid. Wanya McElveen played football at Hillhouse High School in New Haven. He was a linebacker. But now, he’s heading to Kutztown University in Pennsylvania as a rugby player.
McElveen was driving along one day about a year ago when he saw some people playing rugby in a nearby field. “I can do that,” he said.
So he took up the sport, and just a year later, he was offered a scholarship by coaches at Kutztown.
We sat down with Wanya to talk about his journey to a college scholarship, his mother’s health issues, and how he has overcome to make good.
Check it out.
SE: Now we talked about this on the news earlier this week, but how did all of this happen?
WANYA: It all started playing on the Old Black rugby team on the boulevard, and then getting transferred to Cheshire High. Playing there opened up more doors. Originally, everything was just getting all jammed and I was going to go to Gateway, and I was like, oh, I’ll transfer to UConn later.
Then one night, [Kutztown] coach Doc Jones called me, and he said, ‘So, how would you like to come play for us?’ And I was like, ‘Are you serious?’, and he said, ‘Yeah I’m serious.’ One thing I remembered from that night was how to pronounce Kutztown. [Kootz-town].
SE: So, why did you start playing rugby?
WANYA: Last spring football season, I wanted to prepare and get stronger. Coming off of a championship year, I wanted to be dominant. I asked around, ‘Hey, what can get me tough?’ And one of my teammates said, well, you can come play rugby with us. I was like, rugby? That’s dangerous. It’s football without pads. And that’s when I went down there and I just watched a practice. After watching it, they let me step in and do the drills, and I was like, hey, this is pretty easy, it’s just like football. When I started playing it, I was like, ‘hey, I can really do this.’
SE: You were able to go to Cheshire because Hillhouse doesn’t have a rugby team, so you can go play at another school close by that has a team.
WANYA: Yes, as long as they’re a club sport.
SE: So tell us about the season you guys are having right now, you’re pretty good.
WANYA: Yes, we’re undefeated. We’re 6-0. It was tough because when we first started, we were in the gym because it was snow outside. We had very bad snow. When we went on the turf field, we had to shovel the snow, we could only use half of the football field, and had to share it with the lacrosse team. It was tough. Coach said, maybe we can do this? I was like coach, trust me, we got this. We’re going to go undefeated.
SE: You have had some other challenges too. Your mother has been ill, and you’ve had to work to support your family and your 10-year old sister.
WANYA: My mother, her kidney shut down about my eighth grade year. And at the time, she didn’t make a big deal with it. She stuck it out, she had to do dialysis at home, and I would have to help every night. She couldn’t go to sleep unless I helped her with her machine, I had to set it up.
And that’s when–I’ll never forget it, it was junior year, and my mom went to a doctor’s appointment and they detected something, and they said that, we can’t let you go home. Ever since then, she’s been in and out of the hospitals and rehab centers. Her leg got infected and they had to amputate it in February of my junior year. She’s been trying to get her health back up, but now her other leg is infected also, and they were talking about amputating the other one. She’s just stuck it out and that’s where I get my strength from.
She said as long as you know what you’re going to do in life and make me proud, that’s all that matters. And that’s why I keep driving. Last two years, she hasn’t been home. She just came home last night and saw me go off to prom, and that was a good thing.
SE: And how proud she must have been to have her son going to college on a full scholarship. When the coach called and you told your mom, what was her reaction?
WANYA: I actually have pictures on my phone. She cried, and she brags to her friends all the time.