John Connolly is one of those omnipresent, yet quiet warriors for Rugby that we have all crossed paths with in various roles over a very long period of service to the TRU. Since many of us tend to till our own garden, we often overlook those who have toiled in many different areas. When we finally reflect on such a long and productive career promoting the game, we think, “how could we have missed this?”
Before moving to Houston in the ‘80s, the Bronx native with deep Irish roots came to love Rugby in his native New York, playing for Manhattanville College. Once in Texas, John quickly became a leader of the Houston Old Boys in 1983, contributing as a handy center and wing before taking on many administrative roles within the club, including serving as President for four years, a time during which the club fielded three sides. Following the merger with the Houston RFC to form HARC, he worked to make the new entity a success by setting up and chairing the organization’s 501(c)3 charitable trust. He remains committed to the club, and to the Old Boys alumni organization.
The apple did not fall far the tree; when his son Patrick enrolled at Strake Jesuit HS, John began a relentless campaign to establish a club at the school. When he finally succeeded in 2008, he recruited the coaching staff (serving as an assistant coach himself), and saw the team accepted as a full varsity sport; it remains a cornerstone of HS rugby in the Houston region and throughout Texas, having just concluded one of its most successful seasons.
As an organization, the TRU and USA Rugby have benefitted from John’s talent and service. He served as the TRU Collegiate Secretary for seven years in the late 90s, where he elevated not only the competition, but ran various state, regional and championship events while dealing with competition issues such as division placement and eligibility of players. One of his programs designed to elevate skill levels saw the creation of an annual exchange of collegiate players with teams in New Zealand. Locally, he fostered the college game with his long service to the Rice University Rugby Club as an assistant coach (1995-2000, 2011-2014), administrator and personal mentor during the club’s championship years with trips to the national playoffs.
Even though he had already given a lot as a player, coach and administrator, John recognized that the game would not grow without referees. Despite wearing many other hats, he was a stalwart member of the STRR for four years in the mid-90s.
One of the most thankless jobs in rugby is dealing with eligibility issues. During what must have been a long four years, John served as USA Rugby Eligibility Chair in the early 2000s where his duties included hearing appeals from club, college and high school teams from around the country. Ugh! Prior to this national service, John practically single-handedly brought to Texas (Houston), the 1991 and 1993 USA Collegiate Rugby Championships, and then served as the primary organizer of the events.
John is one of the first people called by both USA Rugby and the local sports authority when Texas is awarded International Test Matches. He has served on the Local Organizing Committee for Eagle matches in Texas featuring Uruguay, Italy, Ireland, the international Women’s 7s Series, and the epic victory over Scotland in 2016.
There are many other initiatives John has either organized or supported to boost rugby in Texas, including clinics in support of coaches, referees and players; public relations outreach; support of the women’s game at Rice and elsewhere; helping to establish a HARC HS team, and even helping of individual players on-and-off the field. But no narrative of John’s long career of service would be complete without mention of his pivotal role as a key founding committee member the legendary Lost Afternoon Rugby Luncheon. This often raucous affair routinely has drawn hundreds of attendees to hear big name rugby speakers from around the globe, resulting in tens-of-thousands of dollars raised for the Houston Youth Rugby Association, on whose Board he has served for years.
Youth Rugby benefitted from John’s leadership in areas other than fund raising. In the 90s, he helped establish within the Houston Parks and Recreation Department a city funded Summer Rugby Day Camp for inner city youth. Teens were bussed from community centers to a central city park each day for instruction and play using paid Camp Counselors from the Rice University Rugby Club. Campers were not only transported, but given kit and lunch each day.
John’s service is not reserved for his favorite sport. He is actively involved in his church and community. A striking example came in 2001 when he worked with “Help A Hero” to fund the education of six youths who lost a firefighter parent on 9/11. Two months later, he personally raised over $10,000 to help the community of Rockaway when a departing plane from JFK crashed into the Washington Heights neighborhood. His community service is very relevant, as our election criteria places a high value on “character.” John’s work brings credit to the Rugby community at large.