At the end of a long college football season, Psalm Wooching’s phone was inundated with messages from agents in the NFL.
He had captained the Washington Huskies to the national championship playoffs, and had an opportunity that most players can only dream of.
But not Wooching. Ever since he was a kid growing up in Hawaii, this burly, tattooed linebacker had harbored dreams of a different kind.
“My passion was rugby,” the 23-year-old tells CNN. “The first time I picked up a ball … that’s when my love for the game started, and ever since then it’s just been gaining.
“I was getting a lot of interest from agents, 20-plus agents would call my phone, connect with me through social media and what-not. I know the thing that attracts most people to NFL is the income, the money and all that, but rugby is like a little brother that kept nagging at me saying, ‘Hey you got to play, you got to play.'”
Wooching now plays rugby union for the Seattle Saracens — which competes in the British Columbia League — and sevens in an invitational, US-based franchise named after Fijian legend Waisale Serevi.
He is still unsure where his future lies. But at 6 foot 4 inches and 241 pounds, his powerful physique is the sort that can wreak havoc in any format of the game.
Though Wooching was born in Hawaii, the influence of his father — who heralds from the rugby-mad island of Samoa — has always weighed strongly on his shoulders.
While most kids are told not to play with fire, Wooching was taught the opposite. As part of his Samoan heritage, he learned fire knife dancing from a young age and still bears the blistering scars from it today.
“It ties into the whole culture thing and how I was raised,” he says. “It’s a Samoan thing. You know, the warriors do it. My dad taught me a lot when I was young, and you learn lessons through it.
“Like the fire — the concept of not keeping your hands on too long. That relates to life and different things that you might come across.”
Then there’s the maze of tattoos spreadeagled across Wooching’s shoulders, torso and limbs.
“Most of my tattoos aren’t finished. They’re still telling the story of my life and as I progress and walk down the road, I’ll keep on adding things to my tattoos to signify big events or stuff like that, family things in my life.”
Wooching’s faith — his Twitter bio refers to himself as a “Soldier of God” — shapes his life on and off the field. He first picked up a rugby ball on a Christian missionary visit to New Zealand and played the game well into his high school years until a coach recommended he try his hand at football.
But he’s always had an ache to return to rugby, something which has been fed by watching highlight reels of Samoa’s Tuilagi brothers. Renowned for making big hits and scoring blistering tries, the five Tuilagis play an all-action brand of rugby Wooching dreams of emulating.
“There’s a whole bunch of them but Alesana and Manu, I really try to mirror my game around them. I love to go into contacts and just be that fearless back taking the ball into tackles and making yards,” he says.
“Those are the two that I generally look up to — some island players who have gone out and made a name for themselves.”
USA: Rugby’s ‘sleeping giant’
Rugby is considered to be the fastest-growing sport in the US. This month’s Las Vegas Sevens attracted record crowds for the seventh year in a row, boasting over 80,000 spectators across the three days.
After a disappointing Olympics, the US team is enjoying its best season in the world series; having finished sixth for the past two seasons, it is fifth ahead of next week’s Hong Kong Sevens. The likes of Perry Baker and Carlin Isles are among the fastest players on the global circuit.
“I think the best athletes in the world are in America,” Wooching says. “It’s just, you know, transitioning those guys into rugby and just gaining the knowledge — upping the knowledge in the game, people learning instead of just relying on pure talent and skill-set.”
For Wooching, the rise of the game in the US is “awesome.” But he’s still unsure about which country he’d represent — the States or Samoa — if the opportunity should arise, nor which format of the game he’d specialize in.
“I’m still trying to get to the top of whatever that may be: 15-aside, sevens, the US sevens, the US 15s, overseas, whatever that might be,” he says.
“I think at the end of the day 15s is what is what I want to do, and if I can get there through sevens then I’ll do that.”
Wooching’s immediate plans are just to get on a rugby field and start pursuing the game he was born to love.
“What attracts me the most is the brotherhood and the stuff like that you build through rugby and the travel and all that,” he says.
“Yeah, oh I’m stoked, I get to run out with all these good players, couple of teams from international places, yeah, I just love it, it just brings a smile to my face.”