Let’s face it … it’s tough being a sports fan in Jacksonville sometimes. With a struggling NFL team, a last place minor league baseball team, a subpar arena football team and yet another last place soccer team, it’s difficult to find that passion to root a team on when, let’s be honest, they’re probably going to lose.
But then there’s the Jacksonville Axemen. “The who?” you ask. The Axemen.
The Axemen are Jacksonville’s semi-pro rugby team that plays in the USA Rugby League, and unlike the aforementioned sports squads, the Axemen are winners. The Axemen have made it to the USA Rugby League national championship game in five of the last seven seasons, and they’ve won the league twice.
They’re no scrubs.
One of the key players to all the Axemen’s success is Jon Defau. “Schmee,” as he’s nicknamed, has been with the team for nine seasons, and he’s now going into his 10th. So, he’s been doing this for awhile, but rugby isn’t exactly a sport he grew up with.
In high school, Schmee was a sports dude. He played baseball for a travel team, he was on the school’s wrestling team, he played football and he was on the track and field team. But rugby didn’t come along until college while he was at a party. An “anything but clothes goes” party at that. It was awhile ago, so Schmee isn’t quite sure what he was wearing, but he thinks it was some kind of bathrobe or a towel or something to use as a toga. One of his friends wore a backpack.
What Schmee didn’t know was that while he was going out with his boys on a typical Thursday night out, his life was about to be changed. He was about to be introduced to the sport he loves so much.
“It was freshman year, and a guy came up to me and was like ‘Are you a rugby player?’ and I was like, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said, ‘You gotta meet my fraternity brother Rich.’”
Schmee didn’t really know what to think. There he was, standing in a toga as a random guy he had never met before asked him if he had ever played a sport he knew absolutely nothing about. But Schmee was open to it, so accepted an invitation to come out to a practice for UNF’s rugby team “the Deadbirds,” and it was love at first sight.
“I just fell in love with it, man. I caught the bug,” Schmee said.
The more Schmee played, the more he enjoyed it. He started playing for the Axemen while he was still at UNF, and now, long after graduation, he continues to play for the Axemen. Since Schmee has been on the team for so long, he’s earned the respect of his teammates.
“He’s very determined,” Jon Purnell from the Axemen said. “He really gets his teammates going. No nonsense. He’s all business. He’s always doing anything the team needs him to do despite him being so experienced with the Axemen. I don’t know if I’ve been around somebody more dedicated.”
“Schmee is like a running bull out there,” teammate Joe Eichner added. “He doesn’t really shy away from the hitting, he actually looks forward to it.”
The Axemen are a semi-pro team, meaning they don’t get paid for playing. Their travel and hotels are paid for when they have away games, but all the players still have normal jobs. Schmee is an operations manager for Hickory Transportation Services. It’s not easy balancing a full-time career with being a semi-professional athlete.
“It’s tough,” Schmee said. “It requires a lot of hours and a lot of attention. To go all day there [work] and then immediately there [work] from training sometimes, it’s tough.”
Here’s a typical Tuesday for Schmee during the season:
- 5:30 a.m. – wake up
- 6 a.m. – leave for work
- 6:30 a.m. – arrive at work
- 4:30 p.m. – leave work (if everything goes as planned … some days, he’s there later)
- 7 p.m. – rugby practice
- 11 p.m. – go to bed
That’s not how every day goes as different days of the week are designated for various types of training, but regardless, it’s difficult to fit into one day.
The long nights of practice, years of playing sports, as well as a few injuries, have all slowed Schmee down a little bit. He admits he’s getting toward the end of his career, but there was no way he could call it quits after losing in the national championship game last year and having just gone through an undefeated regular season. Also, he’s determined to play at least 10 seasons.
The Axemen start their 2017 season next summer, and their home games are at Hodges Stadium at UNF. So, if you love winning teams and the other Jacksonville sports squads just aren’t cutting it for you, the Axemen are your team.
By Patrick Lloyd | UNF Communication Student
Photos provided by Jon Defau