Nebraska club rugby senior Tanner Rowe runs with the ball during a match
Nebraska club rugby senior Tanner Rowe runs with the ball during a match

Tanner Rowe relates with the estimated 93% of high school athletes who aren’t fortunate enough to play a varsity sport in college. 

Rowe, a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, played multiple sports at Lexington High School in Lexington, Nebraska before he believed he hung up his cleats for good ahead of his freshman year of college. However, like so many other former high school athletes, Rowe missed the competition that high school sports provided. So, he set out to find another way to express that outlet at UNL. 

Because of his athletic background and impressive frame, as Rowe stands at 6-foot-3 with a sturdy build, he had no trouble finding a club sports home at Nebraska. While he eventually settled on rugby, a sport that ultimately defined his college tenure through trials and tribulations, he didn’t initially play when he started college. Through trying out different club sports that UNL offered, Rowe eventually found his home on the rugby pitch. 

“I was going around and looking at different things,” Rowe said. “I tried jiu-jitsu for a little bit, tried the taekwondo club here on campus, but that didn’t work out.”

After a few unsuccessful attempts to get involved in a club sport, Rowe said he received a tip about trying rugby from a coworker who used to play in her native Sweden. He mentioned that UNL had a club team on campus to her, and her recommendation to give the team a try spurred Rowe forward. According to Rowe, the timing of that conversation lined up perfectly with his need for competition, and a short conversation with some members of the team was all he needed to put his foot in the door.

Despite having no prior rugby experience, Rowe hit the ground running with the team and made an immediate impact. In just his second semester with the Huskers, Nebraska rugby made the 2019 USA Rugby 7s Collegiate Championships, which were held in Tucson, Arizona. Even though the team didn’t fare well, Rowe was extremely appreciative of the experience.

“We didn’t do so hot, but we made it there so that’s an achievement in and of itself,” Rowe said. 

Even after that experience, Rowe described his time as a member of the club as “on-and-off,” as he managed classes, a strength and conditioning internship with the Nebraska athletic department and rugby. He conceded that he hasn’t been the club’s most persistent member and, according to Nebraska club rugby president Brennen Palmer, had to be convinced to come back for the 2022 spring sevens season.

“At the beginning of the year, he told us that he probably wasn’t going to be around much,” Palmer said. “Come spring time, we talked him into playing sevens. It’s good to see him back out there because he’s a great guy for the team.”

Aside from school and work, one of the biggest contributors to Rowe’s inconsistent participation with the team were injuries suffered in games and practices. Rowe suffered a torn labrum during his time with the team and could potentially have another one torn — he said he’s currently waiting on results from an MRI but plans to play through it. He also has battled an ankle injury this year.

The torn labrum was particularly difficult to navigate through, according to Rowe. Even though it came early in his rugby career, the injury largely sidelined him from both rugby and the weight room. 

“I wasn’t really sure what to do with my shoulder,” Rowe said. “There was a good point where I was like ‘Man, I think I’m done with rugby, I don’t think I can do this anymore.’”

Rowe used his background and expertise from the strength and conditioning department to help rehab his shoulder properly. Through extensive research, he said he learned how to manage the injury and nursed his shoulder back to full health and continued having an impact on the team. 

Given the physical nature of rugby, a sport played without helmets or pads that features frequent contact with opposing players, adjusting to avoid contact is a difficult task. However, Rowe said he’s been able to find different ways to adjust his body to make tackles, which lessened the impact on his shoulder but allowed him to make enough contact to both hinder and bring down the opponent. 

Rowe’s persistence and dedication to his craft, even through injury, has made him a valuable member of the club. 

“Tanner is really determined, he’s had both of his labrums go down and he had an ankle injury this year,” Palmer said. “So he’s been fighting through some injuries, but he’s very determined to always come back.”

Rowe also has proven his value through his play on the field. Palmer said he was surprised to learn that Rowe didn’t have much of a background playing contact sports, especially because he was able to fit in right away on the field with his athleticism and physicality. His size helps too, which serves an on-field advantage because he is more difficult to tackle. Rowe’s teammates agreed, and said that the impact he brings to the field goes far beyond the scoreboard. 

“Tanner’s not going to score all the tries or make a crazy pass over four people, but he’s just gonna grind and put the team first,” Nebraska club rugby senior Hunter Sterba said.

Sterba and Palmer noted Rowe’s leadership, approachability, consistent communication and positive attitude as traits that make him a reliable teammate. For Rowe, maintaining those qualities is paramount for being a good teammate, especially given his infrequent relationship with Nebraska rugby. 

“On the field, I try to be the most communicative guy,” Rowe said. “My voice can get pretty loud, which is definitely helpful on the field trying to direct guys… I think I’m one of the tallest guys on the team and the biggest, and one of the quickest, so people look up to me in that regard.”

With all the games, practices and road trips in the rearview mirror, one final opportunity for Rowe to compete as a Husker remains. 

For the second time in four years, Nebraska rugby is headed to nationals for sevens after qualification through the Heart of America Conference Tournament in mid-April. The 2022 USA Rugby 7s Collegiate Championships, held Saturday and Sunday in Atlanta, present not only an opportunity for the Huskers to compete against the best teams in the country but also a chance for Rowe to conclude his incredible journey with the sport.

“This is maybe my last semester playing rugby ever,” Rowe said. “So [the tournament] is going to be kind of emotional, especially towards the end, but I’ll be fired up to play, that’s for sure.”