Wisconsin native Jamey Kohlbeck developed love for rugby late, and the sport has changed his life
Because of rugby, and through the lifelong friends he has made playing it, Jamey Kohlbeck has traveled the world, landed a job that he loves and - speaking of true love - was introduced to his future wife.
All of which prompts the question: Where would Jamey Kohlbeck be without rugby?
Rugby isn’t a mainstream sport in the United States, but for Kohlbeck it’s king. He grew up in rural Wisconsin and competed in football, basketball and baseball. Rugby wasn’t even a blip on his radar until after arriving at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Today, Kohlbeck, 42, is a 20-year veteran of the sport and the athletic director at the Metropolis Rugby Football Club in Minneapolis. “I had never considered playing rugby growing up,” Kohlbeck said. “I was from a small town in Wisconsin (Pittsville, population 839), so we certainly didn’t have it as an option. In college one of my friends was playing and had asked me to play for years. I tried out for the team and fell in love with the sport and haven’t stopped since.”
More than two years into Kohlbeck’s collegiate career at UW-Eau Claire, the marketing major had yet to step onto a rugby pitch. Enter Dave Heebner, a 1997 UW-Eau Claire graduate who became friends with Kohlbeck through the pair’s mutual interest in weight training and intramural sports. Heebner – already a seasoned player on the Blugolds club rugby team – began hounding Kohlbeck to join the team.
“I would just kind of pester him, ‘You should come out, you should come out,’ Heebner said. “I saw this big athletic knucklehead that should be playing rugby, and I felt it was my duty to make sure he played rugby.”
Finally, by the spring of 1997 Kohlbeck obliged. He joined the Blugolds squad for both his junior and senior seasons and was hooked. Following graduation in 1998, Kohlbeck made the move to Minneapolis. Naturally, the Metropolis Rugby Football Club was a great fit to continue his rugby career.
According to the club’s website, the Metropolis RFC was founded in 1992 following a merger of the Minneapolis Rugby Football Club and the Metro Rugby Football Club. When Kohlbeck joined the team in 1999, Metropolis only had a team at the Division 2 level. The club now fields teams at the Division 1, Division 2 and Division 4 levels for 15’s Rugby (played with 15 players on the field for each team) and one team for 7’s Rugby (played with seven athletes a side).
Kohlbeck joined Heebner on the Division 2 squad in 1999 and later moved up to Division 1 in 2004 when Metropolis was promoted to that level after a deep run in the club’s league playoffs. Kohlbeck’s impact was felt immediately on the field, and he was eventually elected captain in the fall of 2006 – a role he held for five years.
“Jamey is a natural leader,” Heebner said. “I think people listen to him not only because he is tall, has a deep voice, and Popeye forearms, but because he’s very calm and funny at the same time. His contributions at Metropolis were immediate -- he had wheels for a tall guy. It was tough to tackle Jamey and then he also had these big ol’ meat hooks on him where he was able to bring down guys on the other team pretty easily. He had a motor on him and he never quit.”
Name: Jamey Kohlbeck | Age: 42
Resides in: New Hope, Minnesota
Family: Wife, Libby, and son, Jake (8)
Job: Regional sales manager, SportsEngine
Interests: Playing and coaching rugby. Coaching his son Jake in his various sports endeavors. Traveling with his wife Libby and eating anything she cooks. The Green Bay Packers, whiskey, and making people laugh.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a degree in Marketing in 1998, Kohlbeck, a native of Pittsville, Wisconsin, moved to Minneapolis where his passion for rugby has continued to flourish. Before taking a job as Florida territory manager for SportsEngine in 2012, Kohlbeck worked for a variety of companies in business development or as an account manager. During this time, he also played his most competitive rugby. Starting in 2004 he played for Metropolis’ Division 1 squad and traveled across the Midwest competing in tournaments. He was elected captain of the team in the fall of 2006 and held that honor until the spring of 2010. Today, Kohlbeck still resides in the Twin Cities area and works as regional sales manager for SportsEngine. He remains heavily involved with Metropolis through playing and coaching rugby and serving as the club’s athletic director. When he’s not playing rugby, Kohlbeck enjoys lifting weights, coaching his son Jake’s youth sports teams and spending time with his family.
Q: You’ve gotten to travel quite a lot for rugby. What’s your favorite out-of-town tournament?
A: The Singapore 7s Rugby Tournament. In 2002 I was selected to play for a U.S. All-Star team. It was a great experience and a wonderful country. I played with guys from all over the U.S. and against teams from all over the world.
Q: When will you stop playing rugby?
A: I’d like to play until I’m at least 61. That will give me 40 years of rugby. Maybe then I’ll try golf.
Q: Your teammates say you’re a pretty good trash talker. Any favorite lines?
A: Not too many that I can print here. One that comes to mind is against a guy that I played against for many years in Milwaukee. He went to UW-Milwaukee and we played the same position. He then played for the Milwaukee Barbarians, a rival of ours once I got to Metropolis. They were leading us late in a game and he was trash talking me after they scored. I looked at him and said, "You have never beaten me. Not in college, not with Metropolis … and you’re not going to beat me today. We scored a last minute try to win the game. When I shook his hand I said, “I told you, you will never beat me.” He never has.
As a part of the Division 1 Metropolis team, Kohlbeck was awarded the opportunity to travel all of over the Midwest, including stops in Chicago, Cincinnati and Kansas City for league play. Outside of league competition, he has also trekked to Singapore – a self-proclaimed highlight of his rugby pursuits – as a member of Atlantis, a United States select team, and England with the Metropolis Club.
The rugby culture was one aspect Kohlbeck highlighted when speaking about his affinity for the sport. Invented in England, rugby tradition includes a handshake between teams after the game and often a social event involving competitors from both sides.
“The tradition was the same way in Singapore,” Kohlebeck said. “You don’t always speak the same language, but the tradition holds. There was a party afterwards and you get to know guys from other parts of the world. It’s a great sport to get to know other people and you have this immediate bond.”
A Family Affair
In looking back at his journey into rugby, his job at SportsEngine and marriage, Kohlbeck jokingly says that Heebner was either to blame or to credit for many of the most important aspects of his life.
Outside of the introduction to rugby, years later, Heebner, a former SportsEngine employee, was also responsible for introducing Kohlbeck to his wife, Libby – a business development representative at SportEngine – and for helping Kohlbeck obtain a job at SportsEngine in 2012.
“The day I started at SportsEngine and met Libby, I thought, ‘Oh man I have got to introduce her to Jamey Kohlbeck,’ ” Heebner said.
According to Libby Kohlbeck, she and Jamey were introduced by Heebner in 2012 before Jamey started working at SportsEngine. The pair began dating in 2013. Kohlbeck was quick to communicate to his future wife the importance of rugby in his life.
“When we started dating it was one of the first things he said to me, and we kind of joke about it now,” Libby said. “He said, ‘Just so you know, I have rugby twice a week, every weekend, and I’m on the board, so I have a meeting once a month, and that will never change.’ ”
Libby was unsure what to expect from the sport at first but now considers herself a Metropolis superfan. During the season, she attends all the Metropolis home games even if Jamey is traveling for coaching or playing duties – she even won an award from the club for her fanhood.
She pointed to the family approach the club takes as a major draw and something she and the couple’s now 8-year-old son Jake have grown to love.
“When it comes to family, I’ve never had as close friends so fast as I have in joining the Metropolis family,” Libby said. “They try and dedicate days and events to the wives and kids because they know that it’s such a time commitment. They want to make sure that all the families are welcome and that they have reasons to come out to the pitch. They don’t want it to be just the guys, they want to get everyone involved. They really take the time to acknowledge everybody, not just the athletes.”
Playing Until Sixty
Although Kohlbeck no longer plays on the Division 1 team, he occasionally plays with the Division 2 squad and frequently competes with the Division 4 team. Division 4 is a combination of newcomers to the sport and “Old Boys,” described by Kohlbeck as a term reserved for rugby players near the 35-plus age range.
Kohlbeck was recently derailed for six months due to a shoulder surgery and says he no longer has the talent to keep up with top-shape 25-year-olds, but he considers a rugby a lifelong sport and doesn’t anticipate retirement coming anytime soon.
Even at slower speeds and with less ferocious contact, to Kohlbeck, the Old Boy games still carry the level of competition he relishes.
“As I tell my wife, I’ll never stop playing,” Kohlbeck said. “I’m 42, so I’ve been at it for 20 years. I’ve got friends that are 60 years old and still playing. I’m 20 years in, and I might as well go for another 20. It’s still competitive just like anyone else playing a sport. If you’re going to play, you might as well win the damn thing.”
Libby Kohlbeck has grown more accustomed to her husband taking hits that come with the game and is comfortable that Kohlbeck has realized his limitations as he ages. The couple has recently started exposing their son Jake to the sport, and they practice throwing the ball with him in their backyard.
“Jake likes watching and has gone to camps,” Libby said. “At his first football practice, he grabbed a football and threw it like a rugby ball. That’s a more natural throw for him at eight years old than a football is.”
The Kohlbecks’ travel commitments have decreased as Jamey has grown older, but he still continues to serve Metropolis as the club’s athletic director and as a coach. As athletic director, he’s responsible for building the club’s schedule, hiring coaches and making sure the club is prepared to start its season.
I hadn’t heard of (rugby) until I was 21, now there are kids playing when they are five to six years old."
- Jamey Kohlbeck
He’s optimistic about the domestic growth of rugby both in the United States and Minnesota and hopes Metropolis will soon field a high school team once players in its youth program matriculate from middle school. He’s proud of the fact Metropolis and other clubs around the United States are providing opportunities for young athletes to participate in rugby – an opportunity he didn’t have.
“Twenty years ago, you probably wouldn’t have had the chance to play until college,” Kohlbeck said. “I hadn’t heard of (rugby) until I was 21, now there are kids playing when they are five to six years old.
“If I was to tell a young kid or a parent about the sport, I’d say you need all shapes and sizes in rugby. It’s a sport where no matter your build or stature, we’ll find a spot for you. It’s given me a chance to meet a lot of people and to travel the country and the world. It’s a chance to meet a lot of friends and to have a lot of fun.”