Rita French sat at the table adjacent to her kitchen and, between talk about how proud she is of her son Zach and everything he's been able to accomplish in rugby, worried about sending him to Atlanta alone.
The next room - likely a den, but much more like the French family sports hall of fame - has dozens of pictures of Zach. There he is running with a rugby ball, dragging the boy trying to tackle him. There's another of him, a locomotive of a flanker, sending some overmatched player flying. And then there's a family favorite: Zach, charging, seemingly unfazed by the two guys attached to each arm and the third one who, in an ill-fated attempt to grab him by the waist, has been upended.
"He's my baby, you know?" Rita French said fondly. It's all too easy to forget that Zach, an incoming senior at East Islip High School, is only 17. He has a compact, powerful build and is thoroughly bumped and bruised from the rigors of one of sports' most physical pastimes.
And as much as the healing cut on his left bicep or the bruises on his legs, Atlanta is something of a rite of passage. Zach, who was named All-American earlier this month, was invited to Life University's summer rugby camp. It's more than just a place for the best-of-the-best to ravage each other; it represents the biggest challenge of Zach's burgeoning career. The camp is by invitation only and is also a tryout for the U.S. under-17 national side. That group will compete against Canada in a December series.
"It's an honor," Zach said. "I'm coming from a small place like Long Island. I'll go and no one knows where Long Island is . . . When they ask me where I'm from, I have to say Long Island or New York, because they don't know where East Islip is."
It's East Islip, though, that helped Zach get his start. In ninth grade and fed up with football, Zach, then a linebacker, was encouraged to join the rugby club. Coached by Rob Fioresi and playing with bigger, older boys, it wasn't long before Zach started making progress.
"Everyone plays football around here," Zach said. "[Rugby] had a lot more hitting and it was a lot more violent."
The first time he played, "I caught the ball, started running and I got hit in the face and started bleeding."
With no pads and nothing but kicky striped shirts between him and the big hits, Zach had found his niche.
In his three years of play, he was named East Islip captain, made MetNY17, the New York/New Jersey under-17 All Star team, and was named Man of the Match in a Delaware scrimmage and in the first game of the Potomac Challenge Cup, a Northeast-wide All-Star tournament in Pittsburgh. He was also named tournament MVP.
"We're all in the hotel and we're so nervous," before the match, Rita French said. "He's the new kid on the block and a few seconds in, he scores a try. I'm like, 'we may have something here.' "
Others noticed, too.
"Zach French is what I would call a raw talent," said Tom Feury, Zach's MetNY17 coach. "His actual rugby skills . . . are average, but . . . he has plenty of time to raise to that level. What Zach does have that can't be taught is a lot of heart and a high work ethic."
Justin Hickey, the All-American scout who spotted Zach called him a "very hardworking, aggressive player."
Zach, said Feury, is a prime candidate for a D-I school. Penn State has shown interest, as well as Life University and Stony Brook.
Before he goes anywhere else, there's Atlanta on July 30. With rugby making its Olympic debut in 2016 and with Zach considered one of the top 80 young players in the nation, the possibilities are staggering. The first step, though, is acing the tryout. Though Zach will make the trek to Georgia alone, the trip north will be a family affair, Rita French said.
"I have a feeling I'll be going to Canada in December."