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Baltimore Flamingos play rugby and make friends, not necessarily in that order

After moving to Baltimore City in 2016, Darrell Coffey felt there were not enough spaces for the LGBTQ community. So, he launched the Baltimore Flamingos rugby club that summer.

The initiative began with him and his friend, Xero Coto, tossing balls around on a field and learning the basics of rugby. Now, the club has about 50 players.

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The Baltimore Flamingos rugby club is more than a sports team. It’s also a place to connect with friends.
The Baltimore Flamingos rugby club is more than a sports team. It’s also a place to connect with friends.

Players must be 18 and vaccinated against COVID-19. The club, which doesn’t require previous rugby experience, was primarily founded for the LGBTQ community, but all are welcome, Coffey said.

Practice is held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at public parks, including Riverside Park in Fed Hill in South Baltimore and Carroll Park in Pigtown in Southwest Baltimore.

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Joining the club costs $80 per season, but scholarships are offered. Scholarships are made available — in part — through fundraisers, including the yearly drag performance Don’t Ruck it Up, which usually draws a crowd of up to 300 and raises at least $4,000.

The Flamingos, who play spring and fall seasons, stopped when the pandemic started shutting things down last year. Play began again this spring and the current fall season runs through November.

But for some, it’s more than just a club. It’s a place to connect with friends.

Coffey, the club’s former president, said he’s gay and came out at 13. Now 33, he said growing up he didn’t have sports teams available for people like him.

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“I’m so happy the Baltimore Flamingos are still thriving and being able to provide [a space] for the community – especially since the pandemic has taken the toll that it has,” he said.

Val Pizzo joined the Flamingos during its founding season in 2016. He played rugby both in high school and college. When it came time to relocate from New York in 2016, he picked Waverly in North Baltimore because of the Flamingos.

Pizzo is a middle and high school computer science teacher at Sheppard Pratt School and Residential Treatment Center in Townson in Baltimore County. Even prior to the pandemic, he said, the Flamingos helped him deal with stress from work. But the connections he’d made with players really helped him during the pandemic, he said.

“These friends I could count on even though we didn’t have the sport,” he said. “When things started opening back up, it was one of the first activities I started doing again. [It’s] definitely helpful for my mental health — something I was eagerly waiting to come back.”

Pizzo, 28, is bisexual and transgender. The LGBTQ culture can sometimes revolve around bars and clubs, he said, so he appreciates the Flamingos for giving people who want something different a space to call their own.

Others shared similar stories. The night that Michael Humes, president of the Flamingos since July 2020, was approached at the Baltimore Eagle Bar & Nightclub by coach Peter Cornell, he made at least six friends.

“I’m a transplant in Baltimore. Moving here, I knew no one. I’m an introvert. It’s sometimes hard for me to make friends,” he said. “What I love is that [the Flamingos] is a great group of people. There’s always an open door — people who are willing to listen to you especially if you don’t have family in Baltimore.”

Humes is originally from Union City, Pennsylvania. He accepted an architect job at Mahan Rykiel Associates in Hampden in 2014.

In addition to the Flamingos, Baltimore City has a Stonewall kickball team offered through Stonewall Sports Baltimore, which is part of a national network, said Nikhil Gupta, founder and commissioner of the Baltimore chapter.

The name of the club derived from the Stonewall Riots started in 1969 after police raided the gay club Stonewall Inn in New York.

“Spaces for queer people should be everywhere — not just in [buildings] but in sports teams,” Coffey said.

This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at khigh@baltsun.com.

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