King Diaries: Shaniyat Chowdhury

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I can still feel the sweat dripping down my face. My heart was racing before I could even reach for the ball. I felt my body tense up as the ball hit the ground, bounced, and rolled back behind me.

Photos: Davey Wilson Photography

As I picked the ball up, a player from the opposing team screamed, “get him!” In that moment, I knew I was going to take my first hit in rugby league. A wave of purple and white jerseys crashed into me as soon as I was able to grip the ball. The hit had woken me up from the deep sleep I entered from not having played a full contact sport in four years. It was the adrenaline rush that I needed. It was a calling to come back home to the field.

As I reminiscence on the inaugural season for the Brooklyn Kings in 2014, I remembered not knowing what to expect. My good friend, Odain Brown, had only just introduced me to the game. He heard about the new team in Brooklyn and wanted me to be involved. Odain already had two years of experience playing rugby league. He kept telling me, “this game is made for you.” I didn’t know much about the game and had already started spring training for soccer at my university. The last sport I played at a competitive level was good old American football in my senior year of high school in 2010. I fell short of playing at the college level which was disappointing, since all I wanted to do growing up was to one day play at the professional level. I saw college football as a key to achieving that dream. Once I realized college football was out of my reach, I explored other opportunities which led me to the next chapter of my life. I decided to join the United States Marine Corps since I came from a military family background. My experience with the USMC didn’t allow me the time to balance playing a sport.

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At a very young age, it was important to me to be responsible. I strived for independence from my parents, financial stability, and academic success on my journey contributing to society. While the Marine Corps brought me closer to my goals, I was still left unfulfilled. At 21 years old, I knew that I needed to play a sport again.

I became curious about the idea of playing rugby league. As with many of my other passions, I became consumed with researching the game. One video after another led to my admiration of players, such as Billy “the kid” Slater, Shaun Johnson, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, and more. It occurred to me that this game could really be for me.

My first year playing was certainly a learning experience. The only thing I was certain of was the fact I wanted the ball in my hands whenever possible. I hoped to approach every game like an artist, aiming to carve a masterpiece on the turf. All eyes are on the runner when he has the ball. The defense creeps in and the crowd holds their breath in anticipation of a big moment. Although I finished the season with just one try, a few big runs and the number of mistakes I learned from made me feel like everything was going to be alright.

The team had become a mix of rookies, American rugby league veterans, legends, and Aussie imports. The more experienced players were excellent teachers of the game. Curtis Cunz brought leadership experience from his successful tenure with the Connecticut Wildcats and the 2013 USA squad. CJ Cortalano was the best game manager there was. David Fauonuku and Daniel Sandell-Hay from Australia were two of the toughest guys I’ve ever met. Their experience, along with many others, was invaluable to the team that year. I listened and incorporated their wisdom as much as I could into my game. Though we didn’t make the playoffs, as a team we were able to learn from our first year and carry those lessons onto the next season.

Throughout the 2014 offseason, like many players I had an itch to hit the pitch again. The long 10-month period allowed me time to reflect, study the game, and work harder in the gym and on the field. Talk of the Rugby League World Cup was in the air and I smiled at the thought of it. I had to be hungrier than the next man. I wanted it however; my main focus was to help propel the Kings to an elite Rugby League status.

With the start of the 2015 season, I predicted I’d be playing the wing position. In retrospect, I don’t think Coach Richardson completely believed I was ready to have a go at fullback. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed, but I had to consider the team first and foremost. I consider the responsibility of the fullback position to be like no other. It is an important position that I thought I was prepared to undertake. As I was playing wing in the beginning of the season, I was then told that I’d be starting at fullback in the second game against the Boston 13’s. I told myself that I was going to take this moment and not look back. It was the best loss we had as a team. After that game, we went on a four game winning streak that helped us get into the playoffs. I proudly finished the season with eight tries. It was unfortunate we were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, but the team’s spirit was higher than ever. It was becoming clear that something special was going on in Brooklyn and we were all excited about it.

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Following our playoffs loss in Rhode Island, I headed to Connecticut the next morning to participate in a combine for the US Hawks National Team and the USARL all-star game. There, I met some players for the first time from other teams. It was a privilege competing with and against with a talented group of athletes for an opportunity to play at the next level.

It would be months before I’d hear back from the Hawks. It was disappointing to not have been selected to play for the Rugby League World Cup qualifiers. I had put in hard work and energy into the game and wondered if my rugby league career was close to an end. I thought so for a moment, but realized I had been a receiving a tremendous amount of support from the people around me up to this point. One of my biggest supporters has been my father who has taught me to work hard for what I wanted because tomorrow is never promised. He immigrated to this country at the age of 17 from Bangladesh to provide for his family back home and had always been my hero. I can only hope to reward his hard work with my success. My mother, who has been my rock, has been suffering from epilepsy for several years now, can’t live her life like she once did. At least she’s not supposed to under the doctor’s discretion, but that’s my mother for you. Despite her physical limitations, her will is stronger than ever. She wasn’t going to let anything or anyone bring her down. In a way, I’m a lot like my parents but have been awarded more opportunities than they had growing up. With my parents as my biggest motivation, I knew that I could not give up.

The opportunity I had been waiting for came again and I made sure I took advantage of it. The US Hawks was going to select players for a match against the UK Super League champions, the Leeds Rhinos. I completed the mandatory fitness test that was needed for consideration with a purpose. It was all I could think about for days. I was listening to music on the drive from school to the gym and I could hear the lyrics, “have you ever prayed for something your whole life? I mean all you ever dreamed about that one thing. You know it’s coming. Sometimes you second guess yourself.”  Ironically, I received congratulations and my now US Hawks teammates were contacting me about the game against Leeds. I pulled over and read the list of the players who had been selected. My name was finally there.

A year and a half later after I started playing rugby league, the first thing I do every morning is reread the players who have been selected to play on the Hawks national team. As I scan the list, the sight of my name brings serenity into the room. It’s been almost a month since I found out, but I still take a moment to appreciate every aspect of the opportunity. Then, I get up and tell myself that it is time to put in more work than yesterday.

Less than a week away from one of the biggest games of my life, it’s starting to hit me now that this is not even close to being over. It is just the beginning. New Yorkers experience a unique view of the world due to the diversity in the Big Apple. I grew up with friends from all different parts of the world, with different cultures, colors, lifestyles, but one common thread. We all shared the dream of making it to the top. As a son of Bengali immigrants, a U.S. Marine, a native New Yorker, and a Brooklyn King, I hope to prove to others that anything is possible.

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