Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
We have all heard of the concept of “finding your purpose in life.” Sometimes we are born knowing exactly what we want to do and be. And other times, we just live our lives and allow “that calling” to organically appear to us. Phaidra Knight, the first Black woman to be inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, is proof of the latter. She walked onto a field of rugby players not even knowing what the sport was or how it was played. And 13 years later, she became rugby’s Player of the Decade.
It was a hot summer afternoon when Knight stepped out of her car in a full sweatsuit and onto the field, where she was tossed a football. She immediately began bobbing and weaving her way to the end zone. “Touch it down!” the players shouted, as they watched Knight become an instant success. “I didn’t even know what to do with the ball.” This was the beginning of an imminently victorious journey.
In the spring of 1997, Knight was approached about the sport. “I was at a law school party and a woman asked me if I had ever played rugby,” says Knight. “I had no idea what it was.” She listened as the woman began describing the sport as a combination of basketball, football and soccer—plus tackling. Then she extended an invitation to a training session a few days later. Knight, who was focused on making the Wisconsin Badgers basketball team, wasn’t very tuned in to the conversation. But the thing that did resonate with her was tackling element of the game.
“I kind of haphazardly took a ride out that Monday, and stopped by [the field],” she says. “I walked up and they were practicing, and they just threw me right in. I was like, ‘Wait. I have no idea what the sport is. I’ve never seen it.’” They told her she would learn as she played. “All I remember is that they tossed me the ball and I ran through everyone and ended up in the try zone [or end zone], and I didn’t know what to do with the ball. They said, ‘You have to touch it down in order to score.’ And that was it. I just fell in love with it.”
The diversity of the rugby club was appealing to Knight, too. She grew up in Irwinton, Ga., and attended Alabama State for undergrad. So being on a team of …….