Side Stepping The Sports Machine – How It Turned Out

It was almost a decade ago that we made a fateful decision. It felt impulsive even though it wasn’t. It quite literally changed the trajectory of my first child’s life. We’ve since given that same gift to our second daughter and spent 4 years trying to provide it to other well-deserving kids too. Maybe you know someone who could benefit from a similar gift. It’s not easy and the opportunity won’t be there forever…but it’s here now for boys and girls (but maybe more so girls) who have the desire to do something amazing and the grit to get back up when life is hard. It’s a good enough story that it should be in print. It’s a story about a culture disguised as a sport, a network of friends so big that you don’t know most of them and so committed that they will work for your success anyway. The wildest part is, it’s not exclusive at all. It’s not only an open door but one with a small crowd literally standing outside inviting others to take part. Through that door is not only a well-worn path to elite education, but jobs, global experiences and genuine friendship, the kind that can only be forged standing shoulder to shoulder putting it all out there for something you care deeply about. You’ve probably heard me say it 1000 times already, and the punchline this time is the same – rugby football is an unbelievable path to an extraordinary future…if you’ve got athletic kids, but especially daughters, you should step through the door. The rest is just an account of one kid, my first kid, and how her path unfolded.

Early Days

Lindsay and I decided early that our kids would be athletes. Sports had an important impact on each of us and whether it was future health, working in teams or navigating the highs and lows of winning and losing as a primer for life, we felt athletes had an advantage that we wanted for our kids too. Although by no means perfect, we chose soccer. Lindsay had played some in HS and enjoyed it and although I did everything I could to avoid it as a youth (lots of running, no tackling seemed pointless), it was always clear that the “soccer kids” were very fit.

Lauryn showed an early interest and ability. She was tiny compared to her peers but fast…and loved the thrill of scoring a goal enough to work hard at it. She went from recreation soccer to the local “travel” club and continued to excel. She was spotted by another squad with “regional” aspirations, who played somewhere in the middle of the machine that is youth soccer. This meant she would play in one of the top-ish of 3-5 “national leagues”, in one of the top-ish 3 (of a dozen or so) “flights” all of which collected thousands in dues. She was asked to tryout and made the team but was near the bottom of the roster, a place it seemed (no matter the work ethic, rate or success) she would stay.

Into the Machine

If you detect a tone of frustration, it was. Moments of real hurt for her that she had to navigate through which eventually resulted in being cut from the team. Always the believer that “hard work pays off” it wasn’t going to end there, Lindsay and I would make sure of it. With an incomplete sense of the commitment we were making for our entire family, we enrolled her in extra training and she did what she does – worked – and she started to impress. She joined another team on par with the last, continued to do well and eventually made the “2nd team” (of at least 4) of the not-nearly-as-local, well known “academy club” – which means lots of travel and hours working on the craft from a place a few steps closer to the top of the massive heap.

Looking back we laugh a little, but in the moment, it was a very big deal and we were SO proud of and for her. It was going to be great…except it wasn’t always. It was there that we really learned about how the youth-sports machine worked; enough to realize we were paying LOTS of money to be near the action but not quite in it. It didn’t seem to matter what contributions the kiddo made or how hard she worked, she didn’t check the physical attribute boxes of a system that prized size. The running joke on the sideline among some of the other soccer-bankers, eh, Dads was: “need a goal in 3 minutes or less? Send Lauryn in, b/c that’s all she does, scores goals…in the three minutes of playing time she gets”. While it was super-validating in those flashes, and it came with medals and smiles it was hard work not to be daunted by the unfairness of it all. Behind the instant clout and status given in a world that might prize the bumper sticker more than the kid’s mental health, I was starting to realize the path wasn’t for us.

Finding Rugby…Again

I started scanning the landscape for other sports. Fatefully, I showed up on a weekend to help the local youth rugby club (where Andrew was playing the flag version) to take part in a river clean up near their home field. It was a sport Lindsay and I had both played and loved at UConn because it was so much more. It was community and friendships and too many stories that should probably never be told again…I got to talking with a woman who seemed to know everyone there. She told me there was HS Girls team which her daughter played on and husband coached. I took Lauryn to a practice and despite the cold and rainy conditions, it felt like home. As a middle schooler (and a relatively tiny one at that) she looked pretty small among the high school girls, but there was a guy we were told, who was starting a middle school team. “Great!” I thought and distinctly remember being met with a weird look when the first phrase I uttered was the sports-machine-induced reflexive “how much?” with checkbook in hand. The response was kind…”See if she likes it first”…and away we went.

She didn’t, initially. We traveled to Virginia to play the only other middle school team in the region and I had dragged kiddo-2 along with us to help build the roster. At the time, Alissa was still a rising star in the same soccer machine and had a coach who thought she could do no wrong. Not surprising that she wasn’t super enthused by any of this rugby stuff but agreed to try it too. They came off the field after being tackled (and ultimately trounced) and made it clear, this was NOT as fun as I hyped (and hoped). We agreed to give it one more shot in the next and final game of the weekend…and it happened. Someone got the ball to Lauryn who did what I have since seen so many times…side step, side step, accelerate…SCORE. She flashed a look to the sideline. No words were required. Oh this WAS cool. She did it again a few minutes later and when given a game ball at the banquet, she was hooked. Alissa, well, not as much.

As the next few months unfolded, we juggled both soccer and rugby. I told some of the soccer-dads I was thinking about making a switch. They laughed it off but then, after driving from Richmond, VA (soccer for Alissa) to Boston, MA to watch Lauryn not even step on the field in the last game of the season, I knew it was time. This time, I tapped out. It wasn’t angry or even loud, I just simply said to the coach and team manager that we were done and asked for her card so she could decide what she’d do that Summer. Lauryn was surprised but not particularly let down in the 5 hour ride home…but it was clear over the next few days/weeks, her identity was fractured some. She had been a “soccer player” since she was 6, even if she had played rugby some, it’s all she really knew and that’s no easy thing for a pre-teen to have to rebuild.

It Only Takes a Moment

We got through it and by freshman-Fall had decided to keep juggling both. Soccer for the HS team and club rugby, esp in the Spring. It turned out the coach’s very successful daughter and niece had both gone to the same HS. He took a liking to Lauryn and gave her great opportunities even though she was only a freshman. Her confidence grew and she started to learn the game.

By the Spring of her Sophomore year she was starting to excel. New coaches and new opportunities but ultimately the same trajectory – upward. Not yet fully reformed from being “machined” we eventually found ourselves at “nationals” against a big/strong team from California. It was a familiar environment and Lauryn was super disappointed not to get the start. I could see her on the other side of the field just itching to get in, pacing like a caged animal, she had been here before. The score was locked, the game was being played “between the 22’s” as they say in rugby (mostly in the middle of the field) and the time was dwindling. Lauryn was still pacing. I started pacing. She finally got into the game and I shouted to her “demand the ball, you can score”. She nodded, focused. She got it once and made a nice run and it sparked something. The team was moving forward now. Being my most literal child, I shouldn’t have been surprised…now she DEMANDED the ball…loudly. The squad got it to her. Side step…side step…SCORE. The final whistle sounded. They won.

I lost my mind. It was like years of pent up sports-machine bullshit exploded out of me. A woman watching the game very kindly asked me if I knew that player…I said I did and we chatted a bit. Turned out she was the coach at a school in Maine I wasn’t sure I had even heard of. She was interested in Lauryn. I started doing my homework. I actually did know that school, they were the Polar Bears, a really strong team who had beaten up on Lindsay’s UConn team many years ago. This same woman was the coach then, something of a legend in the space. The academics were off the charts and the rugby was strong, it all seemed too good to be true. After seeing Lauryn play again a few months later the coach kept calling.

As we got closer and closer to the campus for her official visit I just knew. It would be like going to school at a country club. I texted Lindsay and asked “do you want me to try to talk her out of this?”. She responded “out of what?” and I said, “as soon as she sees the campus she is going to want to go here”…and she did…even with the price tag we couldn’t afford and the prospect of loans stretching into forever…she did.

By midway through Junior year in HS, when all of her friends were worried and scrambling about the future, Lauryn was feeling secure, waiting for a few final checkoffs. Things were on track and besides the typical HS ebbs and flows, there were no major complaints. Then this little global health thing happened…and happened…and happened.

The Pandemic Pause

Senior year was going to be mostly a bust. School life would be marked by fits and starts, sports would happen with masks on (or not at all) and graduation was to be outdoors, 6 feet apart, in the hot sun. Parties would be of the “drive by” variety and there’d be a whole lot of talk about testing and vaccines and virtual college and other memories in place of the promise of “the best years of your life” kind of stuff.

We eventually got to Maine and were faced with the fact that moving our first born into college would consist of getting a long swab shoved in her nose, dropping her and a bunch of crates on a curb, giving her a final hug and watching from inside the car as she carried her items inside. There would be no “seeing the dorm”. There would be no rugby games. There would be no upperclassman (who were relegated to virtual school from home). There would barely be classes – also virtual from inside the dorm room. It was going to be lonely and it was TOUGH leaving her there. But she did what she does – worked. She gritted through and by Spring semester, now being sent home for virtual classes, she was on her way to the end of a very unceremonious “first year” experience.

And now, year 2

By Sophomore year things were looking up. She was going to have actual classes, actual rugby and maybe, just maybe an actual college experience. Exactly 20 years after the World Trade Center fell and exactly 20 years and 7 days since the kid came into the world, on September 11th 2021, Andrew and I trekked to Vermont to watch Bowdoin play Norwich in her college opener. It was alumni day there and the crowd tried to be loud but the Polar Bears were more than up to the task. We watched as they pulled away. We watched a few good runs from the unproven Sophomore with the 15 on her back. We watched side step…side step…SCORE and the world felt right for the first time in a long time. We gave her a hug and jumped back on the road with hopes to do it again as often as we could. The long drives were no longer a chore but a weekend plan – because we knew this time would go fast.

2 months later she was helping her team to win a National Championship at the historic USMA West Point, a place that couldn’t recruit her because of an allergy of all things…she beamed. She even found her way to a D3 All American nod. A year later it was a second ring, this time gained at Dartmouth where she came up one side-step short of her personal goal of 100 points in a season (96). Six or so months later and back at it with a new coach to replace the retired legend she was now at the helm as captain, with the same goal in mind. Then, six or so months ago from today it was once again against Norwich in the national semifinals that she put a stamp on the season and broke the 100 point mark, setting the single season record for her team (+/- 120) on her way to a third national championship ring…

5 months after that, and just a few weeks ago, I was back in the car, this time from Philly to DC to watch her cross one more goal off her list and grind down the final chip, the one many D3 athletes carry – to do well against other, bigger programs and show that hers didn’t need the qualifier – they weren’t a good “D3” team…they were a good team.

It turns out…it turned out

By the end of that weekend, the little school in Maine of less than 2,000 marched into the arena with 16 of the biggest (e.g. U Mich) and most storied (e.g. Penn State, USMA, Brown) programs in the sport. They came out 5th…and Lauryn, after leading her team in scoring (second overall in the premier women’s division) was named to the all-tourney squad, an impressive honor and an amazing way to finish a career. It turns out…it turned out…better than OK.

She has since finished up classes, walked in graduation and signed on to an entry level role with a well-respected law firm, a great spot at the starting line of “real life”.

And while this kind of ending might seem like a storybook, it’s not so surprising when you move from machine to community. When the firm you’re interviewing with just happens to be run by a rugby player and Bowdoin alumnus who recognizes your name as a rugby player he’s been cheering on for a few years it gets less surprising, but no less amazing. He offered to buy her a cup of coffee, had an informal meeting where they reminisced about rugby and what life after Bowdoin might look like for her and got the wheels turning for a great first job.

This one is so amazing and simple at the same time – sports CAN be the adventure and springboard we all hope for. It has the power to quite literally shape the next generation of leaders…but so often it doesn’t, falling short of its bigger mission and chewing up young athletes and families in the gears.

We feel nothing short of blessed that we found this sport and followed this path…again. If you too are raising athletic daughters, there are UNTHINKABLE opportunities. If nothing else, just scroll through the IG posts from our local Highschool Club and see where these athletes are headed to college and beyond…nothing short of stunning…every, single, year.

As for Lauryn, she will be home for a bit while getting from this finish line to the next starting line. With any luck she will be ready to both cheer on her sister (who, now also firmly a “rugger” has an equally amazing adventure being written) and pay it forward for the next generation of athletes in the sport that has given her so much.

Let me know if you need help getting started.

Mike E.


  • Tom Feury

    Well written Mike.
    As I used to tell players and parents:
    “Give rugby a try, you will be surprised how far it can take you. Even Mia Hamm might not be Mia Hamm today, but the opportunities in woman’s rugby would allow decent athletes to be her on the rugby pitch”

  • Wendy Thomas

    Wow, Mike, this left me teary eyed! We, too, were part of the machine with travel soccer and AAU basketball for years – it wasn’t a great experience for us, but it wasn’t about us, and as long as our daughter wanted to play, we would support her. My husband happend upon a girls rugby coach at his chiropractor’s office, and she told him to bring the girls out to see a game. Our oldest (7th grade at the time) finished the soccer season and kept playing AAU. She played her first season at the ripe old age of 13 on the high school team, because there wasn’t a middle school team. She had more time playing for opposing teams than her own team, but she didn’t care. She was playing and the other girls were treating her like part of the team. Couldn’t say that about soccer, ever (my husband had to warm her up before games, because she hadn’t aged up with the rest of the players), and she was obviously a second thought to the coach as the goalie. Fast forward 11 years, and she became a HSAA, has two high school national championships behind her, played in college, and now coaches. We are thankful for rugby EVERY DAY!

  • Linda Roth

    Truly a remarkable story and ending to her next journey. You and Lindsay are perfect supportive parents. I’ve worked with your Mom and have seen the fine supportive parents that you’ve had. It doesn’t surprise me how this story unfolded with such role models you had. Although there are tears in my eyes, I know there are more stories to share around the Eisenhart household.

  • Marc Rubenstein

    I’ve heard bits and pieces of this wonderful story from you and via social media. It’s a great read as a parent and a health and well-being junkie. Lauryn’s story is the epitome of one of your favorite words, “endure”. Also, I love how the rugby community embraced your family and was like a perfect fit. And finally, I applaud you and your family for giving back so others could experience something similar. As parents, you just want your kids to be happy and have an opportunity to excel- kudos for being brave to find something different.

  • Connie Johnson

    This journey sounds exactly like my sons with rowing: he ended up on U23 Us National rowing team and those years shaped him, the rowing world is small too and he runs into people in his professional worlds. Beautiful.