Painful endings can forge bright beginnings.
Zack Test learned that lesson two years ago when the professional rugby player took a knee to the head at the 2017 Americas Rugby Championship, the top elite tournament for the Americas nations. The resulting skull fracture and brain hemorrhage proved devastating. “I should have been in a coma, but I was very lucky to come out alive and functional,” the Woodside, California native recalls. It took more than a year for him to fully recover.
At the advice of neurosurgeons and neurologists, he announced his retirement in early 2018. It ended a storied career that included earning the Men's 7s Player of the Year award, helping the U.S. rugby team win the bronze medal at the 2011 Pan American Games, and participating in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics Team USA rugby team.
“It was a very tough decision to give up the pride and joy of my life,” he says. “It was heartbreaking. It was almost like losing a piece of myself.”
But Test wasn’t quite ready to walk away from the game that he loved and that had given him so much. He wanted to share his knowledge with a new generation of players and to contribute to the growth of the sport. So when a former teammate approached him about helping coach the newly launched San Diego Legion, one of the only seven founding professional rugby teams in North America, a new door opened.
“When I was growing up there wasn’t a pathway to becoming a professional rugby player,” he says. “Now my goal as an Academy Director as well as coach is to build that pathway and to educate young players. It’s a true blessing to be a part of it.” Test’s relationship with rugby runs deep. The 29-year-old initially joined the sport his freshman year of high school as a means of preparing himself for the football season. The exciting pace of the democratic and demanding game hooked him. “In football, you have a select role with a few moments during the game,” he says. “In rugby, everyone has the same job: you have to make tackles, pass, catch the ball, kick the ball. It’s very much a team sport in the sense that you have to work together collectively. If someone is not doing their job, it can expose the whole team.”
The values and culture of the sport also resonated with him. In an age when athletes spit their mouthpiece at a ref, threaten hecklers (and their wives), and taunt fellow opponents, Test found rugby to truly abide by the tenets of good sportsmanship. “It’s very much a brotherhood,” the backs coach says, noting he made many of his best friends through the game. “You’re going to go to war with another team—but at the end of it, you’re going to shake hands, have a meal with them, and become friends with the guys you shared eighty minutes of carnage fighting against. We’re humble in victory and gracious in defeat.”
These are the same values he passes on to the players he coaches for the San Diego Legion, not just training the members’ tactics for a successful championship on the field, but fundamentals for life. It includes team building, working in the community, teaching rugby to middle and elementary school kids in P.E. clinics, and helping coach high school and college teams. His goal is to teach members leadership skills and to inspire them to inspire others.
These aims also contribute to Test’s long-term ambitions of organically growing interest in the game. With four well established competitive sports taking up the market share of American audiences, it won’t be easy for major league rugby to elbow in. But Test is loyal and committed to promoting the game that taught him so much about sportsmanship, brotherhood, and life. A game that continues to inspire and define him.Photography by William Callan. Story by Sandra Nygaard.