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Aldridge puts rugby in spotlight

Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold game will feature a unique halftime show this spring, thanks to former Irish running back James Aldridge. The 2010 graduate has taken up rugby since leaving the Irish and helped orchestrate a 7-on-7 scrimmage with his current team and the university’s club team between halves on April 21.

Former Irish running back James Aldridge will get one more chance to run loose at Notre Dame Stadium on April 21.

Aldridge is currently living in the mountains of Aspen, Colo., coaching high school football and track. In his spare time he is training for a chance to join the U.S. national rugby team in the near future. He's been learning to play the sport since the summer he graduated. He reached out to Notre Dame's administration last spring to arrange a halftime rugby game this year, and they were quick to embrace the idea.

“I wanted to help the guys and seniors who kept me in the ND rugby system and kind of helped me get into this new sport,” he said. “Also, bring a little more exposure to the sport as well because it could be an [escape] for a lot of athletes. Only 1 percent get in [to the pros]. That leaves a lot of athletes with a lot of athletic drive left that have no sport to play. I just want to kind of get some exposure to it so I can try to help some people out.”

Rugby first popped onto Aldridge’s radar while he was taking summer classes in Europe with football teammate Toryan Smith and saw the game on television. When he failed to make the cut at the Miami Dolphins’ rookie camp the following summer, Aldridge returned to South Bend to train with the school's rugby team during an August camp. There he met Mike Tolkin, now the head coach of the U.S. national team, who loved Aldridge’s athletic ability and offered to take him under his wing.

Tolkin sent Aldridge to Minnesota last winter to work at the Spearhead Academy, a school set up to teach under-privileged high school students how to play rugby. Aldridge helped condition them and served as a mentor. In return, he got to learn more about the culture and rules of the game.

“He came out here just as sort of an immersion,” said Rob Holder, founder of the two-year-old academy in the twin cities’ suburbs. “I would say he has a very noble view on this thing, even a little bit selfless. Even if he himself doesn’t make it he stills enjoys the sport. He’s still going to give back.”

Holder said Aldridge has already made a big impact by setting up a game that will be seen by tens of thousands of fans during halftime. The former Stanford and U.S. Air Force coach said Aldridge has the potential to make a national roster in the future. His athletic ability is more than sufficient, it’s just a matter of being patient enough to learn an entirely new sport after college.

Aldridge seems up to the challenge. He spent three months last spring playing for a team in New Zealand and sees all of the opportunities to travel and give back that rugby provides. He also relishes the chance to play a sport with far less pressure than Notre Dame football.

Aldridge’s career for the Irish did not go as planned. He was ranked as the third-best high school running back in the country in 2006. He started only six games, scored three touchdowns and ran for 962 yards during his four years at Notre Dame. He blew out his knee before his freshman season and was eventually shifted into more of a fullback role.

“It started being business when I was 17, and all the way through,” he said about football. “Don’t get me wrong, that part is fun, and with all the responsibility you get a lot of press and pub[licity] and all the flashiness. The competitive nature is always there, but that genuine fun aspect of running around like you’re a kid gets neglected. Rugby provides that.”

Aldridge said the transition from one sport to another has been fun but it is far from over. The hardest adjustment was changing his conditioning to allow himself to run constantly, instead of in six-second bursts like a football player. He said training in the Rockies has helped him get in the best shape of his life.

He’s excited to show off his new skills along with the rest of his teammates during the scrimmage later this month. Aldridge said he has been very impressed with how athletic some of the players are, and he’s looking forward to more people getting to see what the sport is all about.

“It really is an eye-opening thing and I’m just trying to open more eyes through anyway I can,” he said. "Hopefully it becomes a tradition."

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