CLEMSON — Jason Damm loved playing football throughout his young life.
By the time his senior year at Nation Ford High arrived, however, Damm knew he wanted to come to Clemson University more than he wanted to continue his career on the gridiron.
A friend’s invitation last spring would lead to Damm adopting rugby and exceling in his first year in college.
“I knew I was going to miss (football),” Damm said, “but rugby was the right thing at the right time for me.”
From an early age, Damm was addicted to football: his mother, Cathy, once found a paper he wrote in third grade that said he would play in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Over the past 10 years, Damm has played some level of football, culminating in a four-year career with the Falcons.
His heart, however, was with the orange and purple of Clemson.
Damm’s father, David, was in the military, so the family would move often – from California to North Carolina and Georgia (where Damm was born). Cathy said that once the family landed in South Carolina – where David, a Marine, would eventually become principal of both Fort Mill and Nation Ford high schools – Jason had a decision to make.
“When you move here, you have to make a decision if you want to be a Gamecock or a Tiger,” Cathy Damm said. “He has friends who’d take him to tailgate parties and games at Clemson. His sister (Arielle) graduated from there, so he was attracted to them from the beginning.”
Jason’s last season as a left tackle for the Falcons ended in late fall 2012, but he felt he needed another extracurricular activity to stay active leading to graduation.
His friend Aaron Keers provided just the opportunity. Keers, who had played with Damm as Nation Ford’s kicker, invited Damm to play on the Carolina Dragons rugby team. The Dragons, a Fort Mill-based club, were ready to play their inaugural season that spring and needed a stocky addition.
“We needed a couple of bigger guys, so I kept joking to Jason that he should come out to a practice, and he actually did,” Keers said. “I think it’s the thing about how everyone touches the ball in rugby that attracts football players. As a big guy on the (offensive line), he rarely got that chance.”
Damm says he’s glad Keers was so “forceful” in bringing him into the game. Damm’s bulky frame made him a perfect fit for the “eighth-man” position – where players are expected to burst through heavy defensive lines while carrying the ball.
While Keers dominated as a kicker, Damm made an immediate scoring impact and proved instrumental as the Dragons went 7-0 in the club’s first regular season.
“It’s something I had always been interested in, with the intensity and physicality of the sport,” Damm said. “I played football and basketball a lot when I was younger. I guess I like hitting people more than I like making baskets.”
Although Damm can’t continue his football career in college, he did fulfill his biggest dream: to be called a Clemson Tiger athlete. In fall, he joined a freshman class of 32 on the university’s official rugby team, one of the school’s oldest clubs.
The club plays in fall and spring each year; the Tigers compete in the Atlantic Coast Rugby League. Damm’s squad went undefeated in conference play before losing to favorites Penn State, 27-26, in the quarterfinals of the American Collegiate Rugby Championships.
For his efforts on the conference-championship-winning team, Damm took Freshman of the Year honors for the ACRL, while Keers won Honorable Mention.
As Clemson prepares for its spring season (and a chance at the Varsity Cup), Keers is sure Damm can get better with every chance to play.
“He’s got potential to be something quite special and quite good,” Keers said. “With his pure size and athleticism, all we had to do was teach him the game.”
With the friendly Blue Ridge Mountains just outside his residence-hall window, Damm is just where he wants to be, doing just what he wants to do on the field. As Clemson rugby gains notoriety on the East Coast, so will Damm’s name – which is all right by him.
“I’m blessed to be around the people I was,” Damm said. “I had coaches who were very helpful, a good buddy who made the transition a lot easier and I got put into the right place at the right time.”