Of rugby and other rough tackles

How coach Saif Ullah Khan’s Delhi Wolves made sports inclusive, transformed lives, and brought hope for all—starting with himself
 The Delhi Wolves team
The Delhi Wolves team

Aslam, a 22-year-old from Nizamuddin, took up rugby at 13 after his father left him and his mother. Struggling to cope, he turned to drugs until he found rugby, a sport that became a medium to cope. “I thought I’d try it for a few days and quit, but after the first game, I felt a change. It became my outlet for all the frustration,” he says. Now a trainer at Delhi Wolves Rugby Football Club, Aslam helps children from Delhi’s slums to learn the sport. Currently, the club has over 50 children enrolled, who start their training at 8am sharp at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose sports complex in Jasola. The sport gave him hope, and to many others, all thanks to Saif Ullah Khan, the founder of Delhi Wolves.

Rugby to the rescue

Khan’s journey began in Jamia Nagar when he was in the 11th standard. In spite of his parents’ efforts to send him to an ICSE-board school, he struggled to fit in, leading to frustration and drug abuse. “I came from a ghetto, so it was very difficult for me to blend in. So, I started taking

drugs and became a bully because I didn’t have a way to channel my frustration,” Khan recalls.

Delhi Hurricanes, a rugby club, introduced rugby at his school around the same time, when his sports teacher suggested he join the team. Rugby’s aggressive nature allowed Khan to channel his frustration. Khan was mentored by none other than Nasser Hussain, the former captain of the national Rugby Union team. “My entire focus shifted. Even though rugby is very aggressive, it teaches you self-control; this helped me get rid of my drug problem,” he says.

Khan soon qualified for the under-19 trials, winning gold in the 60th National School Games Rugby Tournament in 2015. His achievements led to his representing the national rugby team and securing another gold in the 83rd All India South Asia Rugby Championship in 2016. “My friends were impressed, and I no longer felt the need to fit in. They spoke highly of me. They began introducing me at their workplaces,” he recalls.

Saif Ullah Khan (centre) at the Delhi Hurricanes Ground
Saif Ullah Khan (centre) at the Delhi Hurricanes Ground

During one such interaction, Khan met children at an NGO workshop led by a friend. “These kids had nothing—no shoes, no money for school—but they had immense potential. That’s when I decided to do something for them,” he says. And that is how Delhi Wolves started.

In 2019, Khan officially registered Delhi Wolves as a club. The club not only teaches rugby but also essential life skills. “Sports saved me. If not for rugby, I wouldn’t be where I am today. That’s why I wanted to give back to these kids,” he explains.

Indeed, the Delhi Wolves transformed many lives.

Sakshi, 19, from Badarpur, too, found solace in rugby after her father’s demise when she was 12. The sport taught her to channel her anger and frustration. “I used all my anger into charging towards a player—this helped me gain control of my emotions,” she says. She is now a national-level rugby player and has played in 2021 in Odisha for the Senior Nationals Rugby Championship.

A second chance

“Rugby and Saif sir gave me and many like me, a second chance at life,” says Sakshi.

In 2016, Atul Wadhane, now 32, had a spinal injury. Initially paralysed from the waist down, his condition worsened, leaving all four limbs paralysed. Today, he travels independently, all thanks to rugby. Wadhane participated in the first-ever quadriplegic rugby tournament at Jawaharlal Nehru University in April, organised by the Wheelchair Rugby Federation of India (WRFI), of which Khan is the joint-secretary.

“I was introduced to wheelchair rugby through a friend in Delhi, who was already on the team. Seeing players like me motivated me to do something with my life. I decided to join the team last year,” Wadhane says. From being someone who doctors had given up on, telling him he would be immobile, and certainly without support, he travelled “all the way from Mumbai to Delhi alone” for the tournament, he says.

Sports for all

Khan’s involvement with the WRFI also has an inspiring story. In 2022, while riding his bike, he was hit by a car and then by a truck, resulting in two broken vertebrae. “I had to be in a wheelchair for seven months, but I still went to train my kids. That’s when I realised how challenging it is for wheelchair rugby players. That made me take interest in wheelchair rugby,” he recalls.

His research revealed significant challenges. “I noticed that the players didn’t have the best equipment. The wheelchairs players use in their day-to-day lives are very different from the ones used in the game. These are very costly as they need to be customised. I also noticed that whenever they played somewhere, there were no ramps provided; they had to be lifted. I wanted to change this, so I joined the WRFI,” he says.

Khan strongly believes in the transformative power of sports. Currently, in Pune, he is promoting the sport in Maharashtra and seeking sponsors for the wheelchair rugby team that is preparing to compete in Malaysia for an international tournament in July.

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The New Indian Express