By Mark Janzen
For one weekend, Dion Crowder was absorbed into the vibrant spirituality of Rugby Sevens’ most resplendent beating heart. He witnessed firsthand the early morning prayers, the unencumbered melodic harmonies, and the magic of Fijian Sevens.
For one weekend, Crowder, who hails from Chicago Heights, Illinois, played alongside Olympic gold medalists like Vatemo Ravouvou, Jasa Veremalua, and Apisai Domolailai, as well as former World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year Samisoni Viriviri and, if you can believe it, a then-49-year-old Waisale Serevi himself.
In 2017, Crowder was at the RugbyTown 7s event in Glendale, Colorado on an invitation from Serevi, who he knew through his time playing in Seattle with the Saracens; he was invited to join the Viti Barbarians.
The Fijian side took the title, and Crowder scored two tries in the final.
“That was crazy,” Crowder says. “Getting to play with Olympians – I think I played the best Sevens rugby I have ever played that weekend. They made it so effortless to play off them. And it was so cool to be immersed in their culture.”
At the time, it had only been four years since Crowder had first picked up a rugby ball. Yet, there he was at Infinity Park running and singing with the soul of Rugby Sevens.
It was a snippet of his dream.
Crowder, 26, spent most of his childhood living in Chicago Heights. A southern suburb of Chicago, Crowder describes it like this: “Half of west side is pretty decent. The further you go east, the worse it gets.” To dial in the focus, Crowder grew up near the eastern-most border between Chicago Heights and Ford Heights. He admits it was littered with liquor stores and boarded-up homes. He suggests it’s getting a bit better now, but that wasn’t the case when Crowder was a child.
It wasn’t until Grade 8 when he experienced organized sports for the first time, joining his school’s basketball team.
However, with high school on the horizon, Crowder moved in with an aunt who lived 20 minutes down the road in Lansing, Illinois, so he could attend Thornton Fractional South High School. It was here that Crowder found his passions – where his athleticism, his creativity, and his academics all flourished. At different points in his four years at Thornton Fractional South, he joined the drama club, the chess club, and the National Honor Society.
“That definitely steered me down the right path,” Crowder recalls. “My aunt is a no-nonsense figure in my life. She always made sure I did what I needed to do as far as school and being committed. She helped push me outside of my comfort zone.”
Athletically, he became an esteemed wrestler, joining the team in his first year at Thornton Fractional South after being cut from the basketball team.
“I like to try to different things and I enjoy interacting with different types of people,” he says.
With an affinity for inclusivity, Crowder had a personality tailor-made for rugby. He just didn’t know it yet. And he still wouldn’t grab a rugby ball for another couple years. At the time, the name Serevi meant nothing.
Graduating high school in 2011, he’d carved out a path distinctly his own, going from Chicago Heights to Lansing, to West Lafayette, Indiana, where he enrolled at Purdue University as a walk-on with the wrestling team. After a year with the club side, he spent a season in 2012-13 with the varsity team. He finished the year with a 4-8 record. Crowder can claim to have once wrestled Ed Ruth, a former three-time NCAA Division I champion who is now a welterweight mixed-martial-arts fighter with Bellator. He lost, but still… kinda cool.
However, it was after that year when the now 5-foot-9, 190-pound Crowder turned to rugby. Let’s call it the classic “American Rugby Dream.” Someone told him to give rugby a shot. He tried it. He loved it. And he loved the people. In Crowder’s specific case, a brother from his fraternity convinced the speedy Dion to give it a whirl.
In his first game, he scored a try. Immediately after touching down, a slightly less than in-form Crowder hurled.
“Yeah, yeah, I kept playing,” he recalls with a laugh. “There was something about (that moment) that I was just like, ‘I love this sport.’”
His natural athleticism and his tidy footwork – his girlfriend of six years, Leona Fergusson, is quick to explain that it was his dance moves that first caught her attention – helped him earn almost immediate success with Purdue’s rugby team.
It wasn’t long before a dream began to percolate.
“He really enjoys pushing himself to see how much better he can get,” says Fergusson, who was attending Purdue as an exchange student from Glasgow, Scotland. “He’s always trying to get to the next level. He really loves setting a goal for himself and then trying to beat it.”
After graduating from Purdue with a Degree in Organizational Leadership, his goal was singular: become an Eagle.
That’s what brought him to Seattle, where he joined the Saracens in 2016.
Following his first season with the Saracens, he joined the Washington Athletic Club and helped the team finish third at the 2017 Club 7s National Championship. His performance with WAC Rugby helped inspire the call from Serevi to join the Fijian side in Glendale later that summer.
A return to the Saracens that fall set Crowder up to eventually sign a contract with the Major League Rugby based Seattle Seawolves. He’s now completed two years with Seattle and, of course, has been part of two league championships.
Crowder’s overarching dream remains, but the success he’s already uncovered is a testament to his work ethic and, perhaps equally as important, his motivation.
“He is always focused on making his mom proud and his aunt proud,” Fergusson says. “He loves being able to go back (to Chicago Heights). He doesn’t talk a lot about where he comes from and he never complains about it or uses it as an excuse, but he’s very conscious about trying to be a positive male role model.”
With a return to the Club 7s National Championship with WAC this weekend, he’ll be seeking more hardware and he’ll be on a stage with the chance to impress more than a few important on-lookers.
“We’re going out to win a national championship,” he says, expressing the main goal first. “And yeah, I’ll be balling out this week.”
Seawolves teammate and WAC 7s coach Shalom Suniula, who is capped with both USA’s Sevens and 15s teams, has seen Crowder’s potential from the front row.
“He brings a lot of will power,” Suniula says. “There is plenty of room for growth with Dion to express himself. As an athlete, he’s probably the most athletic guy we have on the (WAC) squad. He brings a lot of raw athleticism and if we harness it right, he’ll be able to perform at his best.”
As a wrestler – something Crowder still dabbles with, training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu last summer – he honed his drive and determination.
“One of the main things I learned from wrestling is being able to push yourself past your comfort zone and past what you think you’re able to do,” Crowder says.
For his rugby dreams to come to fruition, it might just be a matter of time.
“He’s very quick, very explosive and very powerful, and he’s great on defence,” Suniula says. “He definitely has potential. At this stage, it’s fine-tuning specific skill sets and then it’s game understanding. He just needs to get more experience playing rugby and that’s what he’s getting with WAC 7s at the moment.”
Crowder has witnessed the very best from the inside. Of this, there is no doubt. He’s seen the dream.
Now the kid from the southern suburbs of Chicago just needs to ball out.