Having captained the 1st XV to an 11-win season in 2004, Mr Keenan has returned to the School after a brief fling with American Football. Having always played at fly-half, Keenan spent two years at Fairmont State University as a kicker.
Sharing a field with current Rugby 7s speedster Perry Baker and NFL Safety Dewey McDonald of the Seattle Seahawks, Keenan offered the Hampton Sports Chronicle an insight into the unfamiliar concept of college sport.
“College sport in America, in particular American Football, is very different to University sport here in the UK. There is significantly more attention placed upon college football as whole towns attend games on Saturday afternoons. I really enjoyed my time playing American Football, as a kicker it was a simple role but one that came with a lot of pressure. Your role is solely to kick, on average 5-6 times a game. As a rugby player you do a bit of everything but as a kicker you have five seconds period of intense pressure and that is it.”
“When I played fly-half for Hampton, kicking was something I practised after a training session, or on a separate day – it took a backseat. In America, it was my entire game!”
Making the switch was challenging, Keenan tells me “Personally, I had to learn the game while playing it, my role was very simple, but the game as a whole is infinitely complex and the nuances and game understanding would have made it very difficult for me to have played any other position. A Fly-half could be considered the Quarterback in Rugby but I certainly couldn’t have played Quarterback!”
Mr Keenan also speaks of the differences in the American college system to our University and structure. “Because College Sports create so much income, athletes are given full scholarships, these scholarships pay for your university fees, accommodation, and all costs involved with playing the sport. Comparatively, in England, you normally end up paying to play your sport at University. “
But does the system work, I ask? “I think it does work at a lower level, where there is an equitable trade of free education and accommodation for sporting talent, but at big Division 1 universities it could be argued that the universities are profiteering from student-athletes.”
A number of slightly more notable rugby players have made the transition to American Football. Former Saracens forward Hayden Smith made the switch to play tight-end for the New York Jets, but difficulties in adapting to a new sport meant he made just one catch in five appearances for the seemingly eternal NFL strugglers.
The transition has worked both ways though, Patriots safety Nate forced his way into the USA Olympic Rugby 7s squad and Mr Keenan’s teammate at Fairmont State Perry Baker was the Rugby Sevens World Player of the Year in 2017.
With rugby becoming an Olympic sport, does Keenan think it will catch the eye of other Americans? “I don’t think so,” he says. “Americans are focussed on the Big Four sports (American Football, Basketball, Baseball and Ice-Hockey), and they rarely look beyond those. It’s only since Rugby 7s became an Olympic sport that people started caring about it, there is now a medal on the line!”
Premiership Rugby has recently explored opportunities to grow the sport in America, with Newcastle Falcons facing off against Saracens in the second English domestic rugby game to take place across the pond this year, though Keenan doesn’t think it can rival other American sports: “I still don’t think so. It’s a long process. If you have an eleven-year-old who you can tell has the potential to be a decent athlete, they would take up one of the Big Four – rugby isn’t even on their mind. At the moment Rugby in America doesn’t offer opportunities to develop and eventually turn professional in the same way that other sports do.”
Mr Keenan ends the interview by reflecting on his time in America. “It was a brilliant experience, I would encourage anyone who has to opportunity to study in America and play sport there to go for it! ”