Former Emeralds playing for Milwaukee rugby club.

It’s not uncommon to see former Manistique High School athletes move on to play football or basketball after graduation. But how many spend their post-high school careers playing … rugby?

The answer is at least two, now that former Emerald football players Craig Mattson and Tim Swanson are excelling on the field for the Milwaukee West Side Harlequins – a club that recently advanced all the way to the top eight among the country’s Division II teams.

Mattson, a 1998 MHS graduate, is the son of Janet and the late Ken Krueger. He now works for the asphalt and construction company Payne & Dolan, as head of quality control in Antioch, Ill.

Swanson, the son of Kevin Swanson and Alicen Phillips, graduated from Manistique in 2003. He also works for Payne & Dolan, as a density  technician based in Waukesha, Wis.

Both have been playing rugby for many years now.

For Mattson, it all began during his freshman year at Northern Michigan University, when he became a member of the NMU club. He went on to play for the Moosemen for the next five years, four of those as team captain. Along the way, he made the Michigan collegiate all-stars three years in a row, was selected to be captain of that team, and was also chosen to play for the all-Midwest college team.

When Swanson arrived at NMU, Mattson spent a year trying to recruit him to the squad. Once he agreed to give the sport a try, Swanson quickly showed the other players how a relatively small athlete can use strength and speed to control the field – no surprise to Emerald fans who remember him setting the MHS rushing record, but most likely a surprise to his new opponents.

“It was hilarious,” Mattson recalls. “These big monsters would run at him, thinking they were going to flatten him, and he would lay them out every time.”

Like Mattson, Swanson eventually became a member of the Michigan collegiate all-star team.

Flash forward a few years, to 2008, when Mattson decided to jump into a pick-up rugby game at a local college. Among the other players that day was a recruiter for the Harlequins, and Mattson was soon on his way to becoming a member of the Milwaukee club.

Like many teams, the Harlequins follow an “open” concept, where players of any experience level are invited to join practices, play on the developmental team and, if they’re good enough, work their way up to the starting side.

That process didn’t take long for Mattson. He began to play after just five games, and by the end of the season he had not only secured a starting role but was also named rookie of the year.

He notes that Swanson is almost certain to capture rookie honors this season.

Over the winter, Mattson pursued his love of the game in Europe, spending four months living in Wales, where he played for a semi-professional team.

“It was a bit of a chance, really,” he says. “Our team has gone over and toured Wales a few times, so the general manager had a few connections with a team out of Bedlinog, just outside of Cardiff. He sent over some highlights, and a few months later, there I was.”

Like the Harlequins, the Welsh club followed an open concept.

“I played with the developmental side quite a bit – keeping in mind that their developmental squad could whip most American teams,” Matt-son says. “I managed to see some time with their starters, and if I had been able to stay longer, I would probably have cracked the starting 22.”

Back home again, Mattson joined Swanson and the other Harlequins for another season of rough and rugged competition.

By the end of the campaign, the club had won the Midwest championship, was ranked seventh overall in the country, and had earned a spot in the “Sweet 16” round of the national playoffs in South Carolina.

If that sounds impressive, it is – especially when you consider that there are at least 11 Division II teams playing in just the Chicago-Milwaukee area and approximately 700 teams at that level nationwide.

At the playoffs, the Harlequins found themselves facing Tampa Bay in the first game.

By that point, after scoring a try (the rugby term for touchdown) in both of the previous two contests, Swanson had worked his way up to a starting position on the playoff squad.

“That was quite a big deal,” Mattson says. “Most rookies don’t really get that kind of chance, due to politics and whatnot. Seriously, though, the way he hits and runs the ball, there wasn’t much choice for them.”

Mattson himself scored a try in the first playoff game, and the HarleCopyright  quins went on to beat Tampa Bay 34-10.

They then found themselves facing the number-one ranked team in the country, a club from Lancaster, Penn., with a trip to the final four in Colorado on the line.

Milwaukee played a solid game for the first 30 minutes and trailed by only 14 points at the half, but ended up losing the contest 44-10 .

Ask most Americans what they know about rugby, and they’ll tell you it can be a physically brutal sport, but few truly understand just how tough the players have to be.

Mattson, who had dislocated his hip just prior to the playoffs, took an even bigger beating in South Carolina, winding up with a re-broken nose and an “out-of-joint femur.”

Swanson fared even worse, coming out of the Sweet 16 with a “bloody head” and a concussion, cracked ribs and a back injury.

The battered Harlequins tried to regroup over Memorial Day weekend, when they faced the Chicago Blaze for the Chicago area championship. It was a game they were expected to win handily, but it didn’t work out that way.

With some players still injured and others gone for the holiday, Milwaukee found itself taking the field without six of its starters.

“Even with our subs in we only lost by 14, but it was a team we should have killed by 50,” Mattson says.

That meant the Harlequins had ended the year ranked sixth nationally but just second place within their own league. That could have been considered a disappointing finish, but for those who play because they enjoy competition, because they love the game, it was just a minor setback. “Oh, well,” Mattson says. “There’s always next year.”

Vic Drover
Vic Drover

Vic has a long history in and around the sport of rugby both in Canada and the US. He has played for and started numerous clubs (Vandal's RFC, Strathcona Druids, Suffolk Bull Moose, West Side Harlequins, Milwaukee Barbarians, Hamilton Girls Rugby), and served many roles over the years at all administrative levels. Vic joined the Harlequins in 2007 and remained an active club member through the transition to the Barbarians. These days, he spends his rugby time playing tag rugby and touring with the Old Boys, keeping the club website updated, helping organize the Lakefront 7s, and fundraising.

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