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USA Rugby great Phaidra Knight retires after 20-year career

The former player of the decade signs on as NBC Sports analyst

One of American rugby’s greatest players has decided to leave the sport she has dominated and help usher into the American consciousness for the past two decades.

Phaidra Knight, a three-time Rugby World Cup participant and Player of the Decade award winner, announced her plans to retire from professional and international competition, ending a career that began in 1997 and spanned multiple coasts and continents.

The 42-year-old will transition from the field — or pitch, as it’s called in rugby — to the booth, as she signed a broadcasting deal with NBC Sports to serve as a studio analyst during the upcoming Women’s Rugby World Cup in Dublin, Ireland.

“It feels pretty amazing,” Knight said of joining NBC. “I made a choice to discontinue training to prepare for this role. It’s a dream come true. This particular opportunity is an opportunity to tell a story.”

Knight said it was the right time to end her playing career because she’s always wanted to be a TV personality. She had checked off almost every item on her list of career goals, save an Olympic bid. Knight competed in World Cups in 2002, 2006 and 2010, twice being named an All-World Team honoree. As a USA women’s national team member since 1999, Knight earned 35 international caps, or starting appearances, the most of any active U.S. player. In 2010, Rugby Magazine named her the Player of the Decade, calling Knight “one of the most feared players in the back row.”

Knight was born in Irwinton, Georgia, a small rural town 2½ hours southeast of Atlanta. Her father was a farmer and a church deacon, and her mother was a teacher. At Wilkinson County High School, she lettered in basketball and volleyball, surrounded almost completely by white classmates. Wilkinson County is nearly 60 percent white and was at the center of one of the South’s most unheralded atrocities. In 1949, 28-year-old miner Caleb Hill was shot and lynched by a mob, and two weeks later, an all-white jury took just three hours to acquit two white men accused of the murder.

After graduating from high school, Knight followed in the footsteps of her mother (Fort Valley State), father (Johnson C. Smith) and aunt (Tuskegee) by attending historically black Alabama State University. Although she had wanted to attend a Division I school to play basketball, once at Alabama State, she finally “learned about herself” and about people who looked like her.

Rugby player Phaidra Knight walks onstage at the 37th Annual Salute To Women In Sports Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on Oct. 19, 2016, in New York City.

Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Women's Sports Foundation

“They’re of paramount importance, very vital,” she said of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). “For me, it gave me that needed connection to people of color that I hadn’t really experienced. It serves that role for many people. It puts people of color in an environment where they can really be comfortable.

“It provides that cultural element that you don’t experience on non-HBCU campuses.”

She focused on her studies as an undergrad (she received a full-ride academic scholarship). But when she enrolled at Wisconsin’s law school, she had every intention of walking on to the Badgers women’s basketball team. Before she could take one step on the court, though, an acquaintance told her she would be perfect for the school’s club rugby team, and Knight was sold on the sport being a combination of football and soccer. At 5-foot-5, 170 pounds — the Maurice Jones-Drew of women’s rugby — Knight “crushed” the first day of training and would go on to play for the team from 1997 to 2002, staying on an extra few years after earning her law degree in 1999.

For Knight, who was born with premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which causes mood swings, depression and anger, rugby was a release. The sport allowed her to be violent and — legally — plow into someone, she said. The Wisconsin team was also an “accepting community” for a young woman struggling with her sexuality. But in her new, more visible role, Knight doesn’t plan to be a role model solely for the LGBTQ community.

“I want people to be able to see me no matter who they are, what their sexuality is, and be inspired to be themselves, whatever that is,” Knight said. “That’s the bottom line.

“I identify as Phaidra. Although things are characteristics, like rugby player, or being [gay], all these are just characteristics of what makes me up as a whole person.”

Phaidra Knight of the USA is tackled by Claire Molloy of Ireland during the IRB 2010 Women’s Rugby World Cup.

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Since the early 2000s, Knight has played for various rugby clubs across the country, including New York, Madison and San Diego, and has served as a coach at Princeton and Columbia universities. After taking a break from the sport following the 2010 World Cup, Knight took up a sport she had been recruited for since graduating from college: bobsledding. She moved from New York to San Diego in 2012 to prepare for the 2014 Winter Olympics, practicing alongside another transplant, Lolo Jones. Knight eventually missed the cut, but the experience was more about leaving her comfort zone and taking a risk.

“I made that leap, wanted to give something else a try,” she said.

In February, Knight was named head coach of the newly formed Monroe College women’s rugby team in the Bronx, New York. While overall the sport is roughly 65 percent white, according to numbers provided by USA Rugby, the Monroe club is mostly women of color (Monroe College is more than 43 percent black). That’s a stark contrast from Knight’s time with Team USA, when she was the only black woman on the team on multiple occasions.

Because of the structure, love and community that rugby provided her, Knight has worked over the years to introduce young boys and girls to the sport. She’s served as a director and coach of Play Rugby USA, the premier Olympic nonprofit dedicated to reaching kids in underserved communities in New York, and worked with USA Rugby, the sport’s governing body. She also took the sport to the most unlikely of places.

In 2009, Knight began working with teenagers at Austin H. MacCormick Island Academy, the high school located inside the Rikers Island prison. She wanted to reach children already cast aside by society, bringing order and affection to adolescents who lacked both. With little to no equipment, Knight ran the group of boys through various workouts and drills. Because there was no grass — this was the concrete jungle, after all — no tackling was allowed.

While coaching, Knight expected the boys’ attention and respect, not allowing curse words.

“I’d set up certain guidelines: No talking when someone else is talking. ‘You’re going to respect everyone, you’re going to respect me,’ ” she said. “And then we used no profanity during that session.”

With her transition to sports media, Knight hopes to someday return to Rikers to document her training sessions, exposing “where [these kids] come from, how they got there, and how introducing discipline with love and direction … can transform an individual.”

Her ambitions transcend the prison walls. Knight hopes to someday develop a youth rugby program that targets not only underserved communities but affluent ones as well.

“Kids in both environments have the same deficiencies,” Knight said. “Obviously kids in the underserved communities have a whole subset of issues. These kids in these affluent communities and families, there’s still a lack of discipline. And it doesn’t go away.”

Even though Knight is retiring, she doesn’t believe she’s leaving with an empty tank. Last month, after not making the Women’s World Cup team, she participated in a friendly match against Team USA — a 50-0 drubbing — where she was named “man of the match.” It was essentially Knight’s retirement match. But as one door closed, another opened, and Knight can end her career on her own terms, leaving the sport she loves for the career she’s dreamed about.

“It was a little bit of a bittersweet situation,” Knight said about stepping away from her playing days. “But I’m over the bitter and now to the sweet zone.”

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"