Annual Black Friday rugby tournament tackles swim safety in Philly

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Every year for the past nine, a group of St. Joe’s Prep alumni gather the day after Thanksgiving to remember Josias Sterling, a classmate who died suddenly in 2009.

They do so in a way Josias would have loved: by beating the living snot out of each other.

They play rugby.

“He loved rugby,” said Marie Sterling, Josias’s mother. “He was great at it. That’s something that I think he would still doing if he was still living, if he was still here: He’d still be playing rugby.”

After Josias passed away, his teammates started a rugby tournament in his honor: the Apple Pie 7s. They piggybacked off of the Prep’s alumni game — also held on Black Friday, when everyone is back home from college — and Josias’s teammates from Temple University joined in. On Friday, there were 20 teams of every sort playing: high school, college, men’s, women’s, and even a few “old boys” sides, where no one is younger than 35.

The tournament’s nickname comes from Josias’s favorite dessert. “Josias loved apple pie,” said Ryan Gregory, who played with him at the Philadelphia all-boys Catholic high school.

Gregory was with Josias the day he died. The two had played in a rugby tournament down the shore in Ocean City, New Jersey, and then decided to hit the beach afterward. They were tossing a ball around in the water when a rip current struck.

“We weren’t in the water [even] waist deep,” said Gregory. “It was knee-deep.”

The two were pulled out. Gregory managed to to swim to safety, but Josias didn’t know how to swim. His body was found about two weeks later.

That’s why the tournament raises money to help provide swim lessons to low-income Philadelphians. Between the fees, concessions, and raffle tickets, the tournament raises around $10,000 each year, which is enough to pay for a 12-week course for a little over 100 people. So far, 1,100 Philadelphians of all ages, from toddlers to adults, have learned to swim at the Salvation Army’s Ray and Joan Kroc Recreation Center in Hunting Park, thanks to the rugby tournament. That’s 1,100 families that may not face the tragedy the Sterlings did.

The altruistic mission isn’t the only thing odd about the tournament. It has no winner — it’s just a round robin with no tiers or trophies. Freed from competitive concerns, many of the teams go all out to have some sartorial fun: the Sexy Santas’ kit consisted of red suits, fake beards, and cleats. Another team, the Hazbro Blazers, rocked sports jackets over their regular uniforms. (Disclosure: This reporter used to play rugby with many of the tournament’s participants.)

Like all rugby matches, the event has a “rain or shine” policy — they play no matter how bad the weather gets. But they’ve never had to test the teams’ resolve, said Bill Gregory, who coached the St. Joe’s Prep team when his son and Josias were there.

“As you can see, it’s late November, and it’s sunny and 55 [degrees],” said Gregory. “As I said [earlier], Josias was always very coachable. He’s in charge of the weather every year and once again, Josias has come through with a beautiful day.”

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