Looking at Sheldon Norton on the rugby field, the first thing that comes to mind is that he’s awfully tall and lanky for such a physical game.
Watching the 6-foot-3-inch, 175 pounder once play gets underway is quite different; absorbing the tackles, it becomes clear that the need to be a side of beef on two legs to be good at rugby is just a stereotype.
“Contrary to what many people would think, you’re body doesn’t really go through that much,” Norton said. “I’m lucky in that I’ve got the speed. I can get away from people and avert some of the force of the tackle.”
Being told that Norton was born and raised in South Africa, the first question that comes to mind is whether or not he’s a racist.
Listening to him talk, however, it becomes clear that not every white person from that region of the world supported apartheid.
“I don’t think people judge me as being racist, but you know it’s in the back of their minds,” Norton said. “We were playing in a three-on-three basketball tournament and this black guy was going to play on our team. I was introduced to him, I told him I was from South Africa and the guy took off.”
The thin South African has been the subject of more than his share of preconceived notions. Even his coaches at Minnesota are guilty of making judgments about Norton before they knew the facts.
“The first time I met him I recognized an accent,” coach Dave Finkel said. “And when somebody comes out for rugby and has an accent I can most likely assume they have experience.”
Finkel’s assumption proved correct. Norton did indeed have experience, playing rugby from early in his childhood the way American children played baseball or football.
But Norton came to practice with the University club team with assumptions of his own.
“I expected a very half-assed setup,” Norton said. “But the level of college rugby, especially at this University, is just outstanding. I was very, very, very impressed. I expected to try out and find it to be too lazy and laid back. But the level of play is very good. They’d give a few teams in South Africa a good go.”
Norton and the team gave it a go Saturday in St. Paul against Minnesota State. In the Gophers 38-5 win, Norton scored two trys, each worth five points. He also found himself on the business end of a crushing tackle, and spend a few moments on the field catching his breath.
Norton then stayed to watch his inexperienced teammates get some much-needed game time against Minnesota State players of similar caliber. Although they have a long way to go, Norton has been pleasantly surprised by the strides the group has taken.
“Last weekend against River Falls, I was just amazed,” Norton said. “I never expected they could do that well. They’re new to the game, but those guys just amazed me.”
According to Finkel, the “new guys” are benefiting from Norton’s long-standing knowledge of the game.
“I’d never go out recruiting foreign nationals,” Finkel said. “But when somebody of his caliber jumps on a team, you’ve got to be very thankful. It does help the team.”
On a team where nicknames are as common as grass-stained jerseys on game day, Norton’s is fittingly grounded in a stereotype.
“One of the coaches calls me Nigel, and I asked why and they said, ‘Well isn’t everyone from Africa called Nigel?’ I thought that was pretty good.”
David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]