Born in Catania, Sicily in 1976, 6 ft and 250 lb of muscles, Andrea Lo Cicero started his athletic career as a rower, that is, until his legs were too big to fit in the canoe. Then at the age of 17 he found his perfect fit in rugby. Over the years he has introduced this tough sport to many young people, transmitting his passion for it, teaching good values and the courage to face life’s big challenges. On the pitch he’s a fearless warrior, outside he is a kind man, UNICEF ambassador and gardening enthusiast. On this beautiful autumn day I have the pleasure to meet him in Rome and get to know this champion of Italian rugby.
How did you start playing rugby?
It was through my uncle and a teacher at school. When I was 15 I was in water polo, swimming, wrestling and canoe, which was the most popular sport at the time. Then I started doing canoe and rugby at the same time, I was always on the water during the summer. At first I was doing Olympic canoeing, then my legs started getting thicker and thicker, and the canoe smaller and smaller, till I couldn’t fit anymore! I remember Antonio Rossi and the guys started making fun of me, I felt kind of ridiculous, so I stopped and poured all my energies into rugby. Starting from Catania, to Paris, then around the world.
Rugby made me realize I have a very high threshold for pain, which means I could never really tell whether I suffered a serious or mild injury. The way I was raised, if you make a commitment in sports, you want to follow through and finish the game. Sharing everything with your teammates, even the pain, is priceless. Rugby teaches respect, for your teammates, for what you’re doing, for yourself. You can pretty much expect to find the same values in the people you’re playing with, and not be faced with foul play on the pitch or in real life.
Have you ever experienced foul play that left a mark?
Once I was hit on my back with a knee, my lung was pierced and I spent seven days in ICU, but not until I played the remaining 80 minutes of the match. It hurt but I didn’t think it was such a serious injury, I only found out after the game was over. I wanted to show myself and the player who hit me that sure, you can hurt me, but I will still stand and fight till the whistle blows.
What are the physical characteristics an athlete needs to start playing rugby, other than a thick body of course?
Everyone thinks it takes a thick body, but rugby is a sport for all builds, for all people. Sure, as you get to higher levels the build counts, but when you’re young anyone can play. I used to be a heavy kid, I’d get bullied when I was 15, but I had the strength to keep my head high and not let it get to me. So that’s the strength I think a kid needs. To be self-confident, keep on walking, and if you’re big, that’s an advantage. I like to teach kids to turn their problems into strengths, to face the challenges both in life and sports. I teach them the values and principles of safe and correct team play.
Where do you get your nickname from, the Baron?
From my noble origins that a reporter brought up, but that’s the past. I never talk about that because regardless of your origins, it’s the present that counts and shapes the person.
How popular is rugby in Italy?
Unlike what many think, rugby has gained a lot of popularity in Italy compared to when I started. When I told my grandpa I was going to be a professional player, I remember him saying “are you crazy?” because back then it was an unknown, underpaid sport. Now we’ve managed to show people the values of rugby, maybe also because of the bad reputation of soccer from the scandal of calciopoli a few years ago. Many young people wanted to try it, their parents saw how healthy it is as a sport, and now it’s become very popular. Just think of work, those who have played rugby struggle less to find a job because they’re used to playing in a team and respecting strict rules.
What was your biggest accomplishment?
Representing my Country and never letting down young people.
Who’s lucky enough to play at high levels like me but detaches from real life makes a big mistake. We are role models and if a champion behaves inappropriately, kids are the first ones to follow that negative lead, so we have a big responsibility. Unfortunately we see that in soccer, the number one sport in popularity, but sometimes full of bad examples. I talk about kids because I’m an ambassador of UNICEF and because they’re our future.
What are the differences with rugby in the USA?
Rugby and football are two different sports. The only thing they have in common is that they’re contact sports, but in football they have protections and we don’t. If I had played with protections, I’d have probably ended up going against the cars on the highway or rhinos! (laughing) Football has 11 players on the field, we have 15. Rugby matches are 80 minutes, but if the players keep the ball in the game after those eighty minutes, the ref lets them play up to 5-10 more minutes.
What does it mean to you being an ambassador of UNICEF?
It’s a big commitment because you’re dealing with children. What happens on a world scale you can see it in your neighborhood in the eyes of suffering children. UNICEF tries to provide assistance through projects developed by the populations themselves, collecting funds, creating favorable working conditions. Wells for example, for drinking water. Latrines in villages that don’t have bathrooms. A while back I visited Eritrea and saw for myself what has been done for those populations.
What is success to you?
To me it’s simply having the chance to do something I love, making a living through it and being independent. We all need personal satisfaction in life. I think anyone who doesn’t do at least one or two things they like in a day, even hobbies, will hardly feel happy or satisfied.
What do you think about brain drain from Italy?
It’s not just the brains, unfortunately. Merit doesn’t get you far here, and our sand soil is falling apart under our feet. Young people leave Italy because they’re tired of not being considered, especially after years of studying and sacrificing, themselves and their families. I hate to say it because I love my Country, but the risk in Italy is to waste time and it makes me mad to see how Italians abroad excel and succeed in many sectors, while here we’re stuck! Why stay if elsewhere you can thrive and be happy? It’s time we started supporting our youth and our talented people.
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