Rugby: Psalm Wooching followed his passion, and it’s paying off

  • Psalm Wooching, center, stands for the National Anthem with his teammates before a rugby game earlier this year. Courtesy photo

In late April of last year, Psalm Wooching’s phone rang. On the other end, it was the Oakland Raiders, then — a little later — the New York Jets.

The teams were in the midst of the NFL draft weekend and were checking in on the former Washington standout outside linebacker, seeing if he was still certain that he wanted to pursue a rugby career, rather than one on the gridiron.

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Wooching didn’t budge.

“They were just checking in, asking if I was completely sure with my decision,” Wooching said with a grin. “It was cool on draft day to still get calls, but I was set.”

A few months earlier, Wooching shocked many when he announced his plan on Twitter to pursue a rugby career rather than the NFL.

“I will be exchanging shoulder pads for short shorts and rugby boots,” Wooching wrote. “My first love and sport I excelled in was rugby, and it is time for me to follow my heart.”

It wasn’t an easy choice to make, but before he made it public, he bounced the idea off family, friends, his new fiancee Courtney Gano, and his childhood mentors — uncles and aunties, many from the Island Breeze family, which he grew up doing luau productions with.

“I had a lot to say,” Wooching said. “They heard me out. I’m very thankful for that. Besides some of the, ‘Dude, you could be a millionaire overnight’ comments, everyone was very supportive.”

When he eventually made his decision public, he was thinking it would be just for family, friends and Washington fans. Instead, he made international headlines as “The college football prospect that spurned the NFL.”

“I don’t feel like I missed out,” Wooching said. “I feel like I have accomplished my football dream. I played at the top level of college football and if I wanted to play at the next level, I could have.”

Almost a year after announcing his decision, Wooching can feel confident he made the right choice. The 2012 Kealakehe grad has already been around the globe playing the sport he loves deeply and is connected to culturally, and next month, he will be suiting up for the USA Eagles — the top-level national team.

“When I looked back on the last year, I came up with the term ‘platform year,’” he said. “I got to do so much, earned a ton of experience and put my name out there. It laid the platform for the future. As for this coming year, I think it will be one for the books.”

Wooching is currently in California, preparing for the upcoming Americas Rugby Championship with the Eagles early next month. However, he came back to the Big Island to ring in the New Year, giving him some time back home to reflect.

“The fire that drives me started here. Whatever I do, I try to bring the Big Island with me,” Wooching said. “It has been great to get my mind and body right. I was able to reconnect with a lot of people.”

Dream chaser

Wooching is an interesting and unique prospect for a variety of reasons. He’s lethal running the ball, routinely leaving piles of would-be tacklers in his wake with a physical running style — a YouTube highlight maker’s dream. Defensively, Wooching obviously knows how to make an impact and he also possess a keen rugby IQ, having picked up the sport long before he became a force on the gridiron.

Out of the gate, Wooching garnered attention from multiple professional teams in Europe, going through a tryout with French squad Pau and eventually signing on for a trial with the Harlequins, based out of London.

After showcasing his skills and putting it on tape, he caught on with the USA Selects, the second-tier of the national team. He scored his first try — the rugby equivalent of a touchdown in football — for the Red, White and Blue at the Americas Pacific Challenge tournament in Uruguay. At the same event, Wooching played against Samoa, which was a surreal experience for the 24-year-old.

“I’ll never forget that game. It’s an experience that’s very near and dear to my heart,” Wooching said, who is proudly of Samoan descent, wearing it on his body with multiple tattoos. “That was the team I grew up watching and why I wanted to play in the first place.”

Wooching’s play and massive upside got him picked up by the USA Eagles for a November tour, which included stops in Germany and Georgia. He wasn’t expected to be an immediate contributor, but was able to play and practice alongside some of the world’s best. More importantly, he was officially in the system.

“They didn’t promise me playing time, but I was able to get the experience. The coaches got to see me everyday in practice,” Wooching said. “That experience pushed me to train hard and chase the dream.”

When he initially transitioned back to the sport, Wooching lined up at wing, a position on the backline built for speed, with the primary function of scoring tries. Since being in the USA program, Wooching has moved to flanker, a position on the outside of the forward pack that requires a little more grit and a lot more contact.

“It is so similar to outside backer, it fit me perfect,” Wooching said. “The USA coaches saw my background and thought I would fit right in. I’m coming in off the edge of the scrum. That’s what I’m good at.”

The sport and position wasn’t the only thing that changed for Wooching last year — his look did too. Back when he was hunting quarterbacks in the Pac-12, he became known for long, flowing hair out of the back of his gold helmet and smeared eye black war paint. He’s opted for more of a clean cut look heading into his latest adventure.

“New era, new cut,” Wooching said of the change.

What’s next?

The Eagles begin play Feb. 3 against Argentina in the Americas Rugby Championship. The team will play three games in California before heading to South America for the final two rounds of play.

By playing with the top USA squad next month, Wooching will earn his first cap — a metaphorical term for a player’s appearance in a game at international level (although sometimes a physical cap is given).

Wooching said by getting his cap, it will open up doors for him to sign overseas with a professional team full-time when he’s not playing for the national squad.

“I’m ready to take that next step,” Wooching said.

When Wooching made his initial announcement, he set playing the Olympics as his long-term goal. Rugby will be in the 2020 Summer Olympics, but currently only the sevens format — which features seven players on the pitch rather than the standard 15 in rugby union play.

If he does ever make it to the Olympic Village, he’ll have some good company. The same week he got the call from the Eagles, his fiancee, Courtney Gano, was named to the USA Softball team.

“Can’t get better than that,” Wooching said. “She motivates me with her hard work and dedication.”

Wooching said that the Olympic dream is still on his radar, although he’s firmly focused on 15s to be able to make a living playing the sport, hoping to ink a contract in the coming months.

Beyond all his physical abilities, one of the most important things Wooching carries with him is the pride of where he came from. No matter how far he gets from home — whether it’s Africa, Germany or New Zealand — he never forgets that.

“I just want to say thank you to everyone,” Wooching said. “You know, they say it takes a village to raise a kid, and I couldn’t have got out and made a name for myself without all the support I’ve had from back home.”

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The road to team USA: From Waverider, to Husky, to Eagle

• Played linebacker and running back at Kealakehe, helping Waveriders to BIIF title.

•Graduated from Kealakehe in 2012 and signed football scholarship with Washington.

•Saw time with Huskies at full back and defensive end before settling in as a full-time starter at outside linebacker.

•In 2016, Wooching led the Huskies in sacks on the way to a No. 4 ranking and a matchup with Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals (an eventual 24-7 loss in the Peach Bowl).

•In February of 2017, prior to the NFL draft, Wooching announced he would pass up playing professional football to pursue his first passion, rugby.

•Shortly after, invited to USA 7s training camp.

•Earns tryout with Pau — a professional team in France — in April.

•In May, signs on with the Harlequins — a pro team from London. Played in Beachcomber World Club 10s Tournament in Mauritius with squad.

•Picked to play with the USA Selects, the second tier of the national team. It was Wooching’s first taste of international rugby, including a matchup with Samoa during the tournament in Uruguay.

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•Received the call to go on a November tour with the USA Eagles, the top national team. Team went 1-1 with games in Germany and Georgia.

•Selected to the 39-man Eagles roster for the Americas Rugby Championship Tour, starting Feb. 3 in California. With the appearance, Wooching will have earned his “cap,” allowing him to play professionally overseas.

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