Interview with Dan Gertsacov (OJ), the Gentle Brazilian Giant

Last year, Harbus started a series interviewing students who had played sport at the highest level. This week, we talk to Dan Gertsacov (OJ), co-Captain of the HBS Rugby team, who played rugby with the national team of Brazil just prior to starting school.

Harbus: Let’s start with the obvious question; how does an American end up playing for Brazil?

Gertsacov: Good question. I moved to Brazil for work in February 2000 and immediately got involved with one of the local Rugby Teams in Sao Paulo. That’s one of the best things about rugby – wherever you go in the world, you can link up with a local team and immediately find both a good workout and a great group of friends. I played that first season and apparently did well enough to get invited to the tryouts for the National Team, which was in formation to compete in the World Cup. Officially, you need 3 years of residency to get a “cap” (rugby term for an appearance in an international match), but since I already had my residency via my work arrangement, they made an exception for me to practice with the team that first year and play the subsequent year. It probably helped that by that point I had earned the nickname “gringo maluco (“Crazy Gringo”) for my aggressive style of play.

Harbus: How did the team do?

Gertsacov: We advanced further in the Rugby World Cup qualifiers than Brazil had ever done before. We won the South America B division against other countries who, like Brazil, don’t have a strong culture for rugby – Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and then beat the winners of the Caribbean division, Trinidad and Tobago, in a very close match. We thought we might be the “Cinderella” story to qualify for the World Cup, but we ended up getting beaten handily by Chile, who had improved a great deal since I had played in Chile while living there in 1998. If we had qualified, I probably would have tried to defer coming to HBS – couldn’t miss out on a chance of a lifetime to play in the Rugby World Cup in Australia this October!

Harbus: Rugby’s beer and pie culture is fast disappearing in the
professional era. Can you describe the Brazilian set-up?

Gertsacov: Brazil doesn’t have a strong history or culture for rugby; only Argentina and Uruguay in South America have ever competed at the international level with the likes of true rugby nations like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England. That being said, there are still some great players in Brazil and a great camaraderie among the players. The popularity of the sport is growing quickly in Brazil, as it is in the United States, but most people in Brazil have no idea that there even is a National team. That’s probably why I got to play – it wasn’t as if I beat out Ronaldo for a spot on their soccer team!

Harbus: When did you start playing?

Gertsacov: I never saw a rugby ball until my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Richmond. I grew up playing ice hockey and wrestled in high school, so took to the sport quickly. I really liked the nature of the sport and the social activities associated with it, so I continued to play throughout college and ended up captaining the team in my last two years. Since graduation in 1997, I’ve played competitively in the top leagues in Chile and for a semi-professional club in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Old Blues.

Harbus: Is size important…for rugby?

Gertsacov: It might sound trite, but it’s really the size of the player’s heart that matters to be a good rugby player. I’ve seen some of the smallest guys be the hardest hitters and some of the biggest guys be the easiest to take down. Of course, size, speed and agility can only help you, but I think the most important is to develop a genuine passion for the game and then keep in shape to avoid the possibility of injury. It also helps to be able to sing rugby songs while drinking large quantities of beer.

Harbus: You seem to enjoy ‘Le big hit’ as the French call it. How do they
compare with hockey hits?

Gertsacov: Unfortunately, the HBS Ice Hockey league does not allow checking, so it can’t really compare to rugby at this level. However, I’ve been known to cause an inadvertent collision or two in my time on the ice. My tendency towards the big hit is actually spiritually motivated – getting out my aggressions in rugby and ice hockey allow me to be a pacifist in my day-to-day life.

Harbus: The photographer always seems to catch your tackles on film. Have you slipped him some cash?

Gertsacov: No comment. And I won’t comment on the cash I had to slip you a few weeks ago to grace the cover of this rag. In the footsteps of an illustrious HBS alum, Kenneth Lay, I’ll have to plead the Fifth Amendment under any further questioning.

Harbus: Have you ever been on the receiving end of a dump truck tackle yourself?

Gertsacov: In rugby, as in life, what comes around goes around. Sure, I’ve had my bell rung a few times, but I guess I’ve survived to tell the tale. That may be why beer is such a soothing, magical elixir throughout our post-game festivities; you begin to stop feeling any pain, except until the next morning of course.

Harbus: How’s the HBS team doing?

Gertsacov: We’re off to a great start. We’ve got close to 60 players on the roster, which has to be the best turnout in recent history. We were lucky to find a good group of new players and integrate them quickly with a strong squad of veterans and two new external coaches. We lost a close first match to the Boston Irish, but we’re gearing up for a big game this weekend vs MIT and then an MBA tournament at Wharton in Mid-October, which should be the best competition we see before the Duke Tourney.

Harbus: What’s the goal for this year?

Gertsacov: Our goal is to win both the League and the MBA World Championships this year. Last year, we lost to the Australian Graduate School of Management in overtime of the tournament quarterfinal, so I think we’ve got a great shot at it this year. We’re also forming a HBS Women’s Touch Rugby team to go down to Duke with us and beat the pants off other girls teams from around the world (not literally of course).

Harbus: What’s the new crop of first years like?

Gertsacov: It’s still a little too early to tell, but we’re really satisfied with our recruiting efforts. Some of these new guys have played a lot before and some of them have never seen the game, but they all look like great guys and that’s what matters most. We also involve Grad Students from across Harvard, so it’s great to get to know some of the guys from the Law School, Kennedy School, etc. We’re still accepting new players, so I encourage anyone to come out to give it a shot. We’re also looking for fan support, so come out to cheer and party with us no matter what!