Courtesy of Weber Shih, USA National Rugby Team
National Rugby Report, Spring 2000Kurt Shuman has quietly become a fixture for the Eagles.
The 26-year-old has amassed fifteen caps in little more than two seasons and by the end of last year was clearly the USA’s first choice fullback with an unerring ability to make the crucial tackles and an increasingly dangerous counter-attack.
It has been a steady rise through the ranks for the Penn State product, a progression from college stand-out to All-American, from National Team squad member, to Oxford Blue and Eagle incumbent.
It is certainly a long way from freshman year on the Nittany Lions’ fifth side. Wait a minute—fifths? “We had a big squad that year,” recalls Shuman. “I played fifth side, then thirds and then seconds by the end of the semester.”
Penn State’s then head coach Bruce Hale recalls: “I remember taking the B-C side down to play a division two club side. Kurt played his first game on a C side with about 10 other kids who had never played before. A ball was kicked to him and he proceeded to perform a perfect pop kick to himself in full stride and beat several defenders into the corner. Right then, I knew he had special ability—he had never really practiced that kick much or used it in scrimmages.”
By his senior year, Shuman was captaining the first side from the flyhalf position and was clearly one of the standouts in the 1997 championship tournament, claiming the national Woodley Award as collegiate player of the year. The 6’1 utility back earned his first cap only weeks later, coming off the bench for the Eagles in a Pacific Rim match against Hong Kong.
You might think life on the fast track would be a bit nerve-wracking, that there would be pressure from coaches, from friends, from family and from within. But Shuman can’t think of any. “Mostly, everyone was really surprised as I made my steps up the ladder. First, it was suggested that I try out for the Mid-West side and when I was selected I thought ‘That’s an accomplishment,’ but I left it at that.
“I started thinking about the All-American team, but it seemed a little way off so there was no pressure. When I made that side, it took me by surprise. Each of the steps did. I was just working really hard to be a better player anyway.”
The Rockville, Maryland native hit a speed bump in the ‘98 season when a series of knee injuries slowed his ascent. It started with an MCL sprain in December of ‘97. Shuman was out for five weeks and, in his first game back, did the other knee. “I thought it was a real bummer, but now, having dealt with it on several occasions, an MCL sprain is not the end of the world,” he says in typically laid-back fashion.
“It did cost me a trip to Portugal and Spain with the Eagles,” he remembers, “which must have set me back for the Pacific Rim Championship. Without those injuries, it might have been a breakout year for me rather than ‘99.”
Still, if you’re going to have a stand out season, a Rugby World Cup year is as good as any. “Getting on to the field against Ireland was pretty wonderful,” Shuman acknowledges. “The Rugby World Cup has to be the pinnacle of any player’s career.” The fullback scored a try against Romania too, his first in international rugby, and of course, the team’s performance against Australia was a source of pride.
The year had one heck of a finish when Shuman’s Oxford team beat Cambridge in the Varsity Match. It took a rain-drenched second half comeback and a 78th minute try for the Blues to claim their first win in six years. “It was one of the most exciting victories I have ever had, especially in front of so many people in such a renown game,” says Shuman. For a man not given to hyperbole, that description is about as good as it gets.
Shuman walked away from Oxford with his victory and a master’s degree in ‘Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management,’ a complement to his undergraduate degree in Finance & International Business. Now he’s back in the USA, working for an ‘investigative consulting’ firm in New York. “James Bond meets Wall Street,” says Shuman of the company that provides background checks and security audits. The Eagle claims to be on the administrative side, but it is probably a cover story.
In addition a niche in mid-town Manhattan, the good news is an employer who understands Shuman’s commitment to rugby. “The founders are former FBI & DEA and are big into fitness. My first interview was a 6 mile run through Central Park. They offered me the flexibility to travel, so it was a no-brainer to take the offer.”
As his employment choice illustrates, rugby remains a priority for Shuman who has slotted onto the New York Athletic Club’s side this season. “I would love to stay involved with the US team as long as I can,” he says. “That’s an over-riding goal.”
The way Shuman has reached--hell exceeded--his rugby goals to date, there's a good chance he will be with the Eagles for a while yet--firmly fixed in place if he gets his way. A fixture.