Donor Spotlight: Meet Tom Pirelli

What is your rugby background?

The first rugby game I ever saw, I was playing in it. I first stumbled across the Princeton University Rugby Club as an 18-year-old freshman back in 1965. At an early spring practice, the team was doing push-ups in the snow and proceeded to play what looked like “kill the guy with the ball.” I was hooked. I played rugby all four undergraduate years at Princeton. My former Princeton teammates are my closest friends to this day.

In 1975, I founded the Princeton Athletic Club (the PAC) and became the team’s first captain. In the late ’70s I played for the Chicago Lions, the Grey Lions and the USA Owls with the infamous Dick Smith.

In the summers I played in 7s Tournaments with the Michigan Rugby team because many of my former Princeton teammates were in grad school at Michigan. While living in Chicago, I became the head coach for the Great Lakes Naval Station Rugby team and I coached them for several years.

In 1974 I led a team of Princeton Old Boys on a grand rugby tour of England where we played against the London Bobbies and the legendary London Welsh, with J.P.R. Williams and other international stars on the squad. In 1977, I took another Princeton Old Boys team on a tour of the Caribbean where we played the Bahamas National Team and the Cayman Islands National Team.

I played my last rugby match was when I was 50 years old at the Golden Oldies Tournament in Vancouver, B.C. with the USA Owls. When I had to be loaded on the plane to Chicago in a wheelchair, my wife made me hang up the cleats.

During a long and enjoyable rugby career I participated as a player, a high school coach (Lawrenceville Prep in NJ), a college team coach, a military team coach, a referee, and an administrator. Now I participate as a volunteer with USA Rugby.

Why do you continue to love the sport?

I think that rugby is the greatest team sport in the world. I have particularly enjoyed the development of the fast moving 7-a-side version of the game. Attending the USA 7s Tournament every year has been a highlight activity.

The announcement that 7s rugby would be included in the 2016 Olympics was a call to action for me. I had a discussion with the new Eagles 7s coach at the time, Alex Magleby, about what a group of veteran rugby players could do to help. The result was that Alex and I formed the Golden Eagles, which is a small group of dedicated volunteers who do fundraising for the 7s program and provide support to the team in other ways.

As an example, software specialists from my company have developed a High Performance Player Database which keeps track of detailed information on several hundred candidates for the Eagles 7s team. This includes height, weight, current team, camps attended, passport info, 40 meter dash times, Yo Yo test scores, passing and tackling ratings, coaches’ notes and much more.

The data is securely stored in the Cloud with different permission levels for access to the information. For example, a coach of a local team is only able to look at information for players on his team, whereas the national coaches can see data on every player in the country who is in the database.

The app runs on an iPad where the coaches can use a Bluetooth headset and Siri voice recognition to dictate their player notes and evaluations from the sideline while play is going on. Hopefully, this new tool will help USA Rugby’s national team administrators and coaches keep abreast of emerging rugby talent across this big country of ours.

What rugby event or memory has been the most influential/monumental to you?

Tom Pirelli (left) and Princeton Old Boys teammates on tour in the Cayman Islands in 1977

One rugby memory that stands out for me was the 1968 Thanksgiving Washington 7s Tournament in Washington, D.C. when I was a senior in college. The Princeton RFC had never entered a 7s tournament and none of us had even seen a 7s match.

This was a time long before YouTube, the Internet, or even videotape. We had no place to look up the rules and how to play. We guessed correctly that it would have to be 3 players in the scrum and 4 in the backs.

Most of our team had gone home for Thanksgiving, but we were able to round up 7 players. It never occurred to us that if we had injuries or kept winning, we would want substitutes. As it turned out, our guys were quick learners, and we improved with each match. In our fourth match of the day, we had to get past the host and defending champions, the Washington RFC, which we did in a very tough match.

For our fifth match of the day, against the Wheeling RFC, we were dismayed to learn that our beat-up, tired bodies had to play 10 minute halves instead of the usual 7. Fortunately, we had a brilliant and motivating captain in Terry Larrimer. Terry led by example and managed to get every last ounce of energy out of us into the match. We carried the Championship trophy back to Princeton after winning the first 7’s tournament we ever entered.

An important lesson learned: never take just 7 guys to a 7s tournament!

Why do you give back?

I owe whatever success in life and in business I have had to rugby. I learned about teamwork, getting along with people, endurance, perseverance, and true friendship from my rugby experiences and teammates.

I want to help ensure that new generations of young ruggers have the opportunity to have the enjoyment that I had and to learn those important life skills.

Why is rugby in the US important, and how can we support and help grow the sport in the future?

We have an epidemic of obesity in this country, including our kids. If we can get youngsters involved with Rookie Rugby at an early age, it will have a positive impact on their health. They will also learn the joy of a team sport and the exhilaration of being fit and competitive in sport.

Through rugby, our kids can learn teamwork and sportsmanship. We need to foster “Education through Rugby” in our schools. All of us old ruggers need to get involved with youth rugby. I am currently working with a number of local (Florida) high school rugby coaches on a variety of projects to improve the quality of play and to form new teams.

I am sure that other retired ruggers will also enjoy actively supporting youth rugby and our national teams over the coming years.