By K.J. Wylie/GCU Staff
Earning a spot to play on a professional sports team is a dream known all too well for most collegiate athletes. Only a minuscule number of players will be rewarded for their blood, sweat and tears that have been poured into their respective sport with this kind of achievement. When it comes to Grand Canyon University’s star rugby player, however, this was a mission he was determined to achieve no matter the difficulty.
Standing 6’1″ and weighing a solid 270 lbs., Nick Kwasniewski has decided to forego his senior season and will instead play for the Glendale Raptors, a professional rugby team located in Glendale, CO. Originally a football player who verbally committed to a Division II school, the Nebraska-native decided to switch sports and play for the Lopes rugby team after touring the campus.
Kwasniewski visited GCU with no intention of coming but said, “I immediately fell in love with the environment on campus and with how friendly all the other students and coaches were,” Kwasniewski said. “I knew I would love playing here and enjoy the campus life so it was easy to make the switch.”
Even though the program was just starting at GCU, Kwasniewski wasted no time in making a name for himself on both a collegiate and international level. In his three-year career, he earned the title of All-American as well as being invited to play in the under U20 national team. It was during his time on the national team where the Raptors began recruiting Kwasniewski. “The strength coach from the Raptors knew me from playing on the U20 national team and once we got in contact everything went from there,” Kwasniewski said.
When asked about the progression Kwasniewski has made as a player over the last three years, assistant coach Ryan Kelly had nothing but high praise for the GCU star, both as a player and student. “We knew right away that he had potential to be something special,” said Kelly. “Nick is an extremely hard worker both on and off the field. He is a big strong guy with incredible skill in passing and catching.”
Coach Kelly’s testament to Kwasniewski’s work ethic was put to test this past year due to a devastating torn ACL, sidelining him the entire season. Major knee injuries can derail all hopes of returning the following season, let alone going pro. Nick expressed just how motivated he was to overcome his setback. “It was tough, mostly because I wasn’t able to play with the team at all and I had high expectations for the season,” Kwasniewski said. “Everyone from my team helped out a lot with my recovery process and I rehabbed every day with the coaches so I could come back even stronger.”
One player who has been side by side with Kwasniewski throughout his journey is teammate Darien Pickett. Having played together since freshman year at GCU and on the U20 national team as well, Pickett received major credit for his teammate’s achievement. “He was with me at all the USA team tryouts and every tournament,” Kwasniewski said. “We have always been able to push each hard and help one another get better. Darien is a big part of my success and my brother for life.” Pickett spoke on the relationship the two have built up to this point and described it as if they had been teammates long before their college playing days. “Kwas is such a great guy with tons of energy; he really dedicated himself to the team and made me work harder every day,” Pickett said. “He’s so quick for his size, I remember teaching him one of my moves in practice and then later he used my own move against me to start beating me.”
After Kwasniewski lost his junior season to the knee injury, Pickett was one of many who witnessed the work ethic of Kwasniewski first hand. “When he got the news he was so hurt because he would do anything for the team and not being able to play was tough,” said Pickett. “But when it came to rehabbing, Kwas didn’t take a single day off. The moment doctors said he was able to lift, he was back in the gym power cleaning. That’s just the kind of guy he is, a minor setback wasn’t about to stop him.”
Both players have high hopes for the rugby program moving forward as they acknowledged that a new door is opened for other members of the team who share the same aspirations to play on the professional level. “By him actually signing a professional contract it lets all of us know that it’s possible,” said Pickett. “And because he came from GCU, the school is going to become more well-known making it easier to get in contact with coaches from pro teams.” As for Kwasniewski, he hopes his newfound success serves as a catalyst for his former teammates to train even harder. “Playing rugby at GCU is a brotherhood for life,” said Kwasniewski. “There is no other campus or program that has a culture like we do and I know they’ll will do big things in the future. There are so many other great players I played with, no doubt that I won’t be the only one who goes pro.”
As Kwasniewski spent this past summer continuing to prepare for the Glendale Raptors, he also prepared himself to continue attending Grand Canyon and earn his bachelor’s degree. While he is the first from GCU to turn pro in rugby, only time will tell if others are able to follow in his footsteps.