Bernard Cantorna recognized in State College the Magazine
Bernie Cantorna sits behind his oversized desk and recrosses his legs. We are in a lawyer’s zone, piled high with everything one would expect — an old-style tape recorder with extra cassettes, neatly stacked manila folders and a pile of notebooks rubber-banded together. The shelves above Cantorna hold a mix of books, old and new family photos and signed and framed team photos. Behind him hangs a framed copy of a newspaper story that credits him with the largest civil jury verdict in the county, $1.75 million.
His manner is smoothly confident, and he measures the inquiries and his responses carefully. He is simultaneously thoughtful and off-the-cuff as he considers the line of questioning, rarely breaking eye contact, with a hint of a smirk emerging. We’re here to talk about him, but he’s clearly more accustomed to speaking about and for others. He’s a trial lawyer — skilled in unwinding and relaying the narrative of the story — whatever the story may be. This time, however, the tale leads toward connecting his passion for work and his passion for a game that’s often misunderstood in this country — rugby.
As coach of the State College Area High School Girls Rugby Club and defensive coach for the top-ranked Penn State Women’s Rugby team, the full-time lawyer (in practice since 1998 with partner Jim Bryant) is a bit curious about the connective tissue between his past and his present.
His early years were challenging, and there’s a sense, although he doesn’t quite come out and say it, that there was a longing for something. Of being seen? Of belonging? He grew up on the south side of Chicago, the oldest of seven kids. His dad was a pediatrician who emigrated from Cuba, and his mom was first generation Irish. “I was a troublemaker, a solid C/D student at a large, all-boys Roman Catholic school,” he says. With an enrollment of roughly 2,500 boys, spots on sports teams were very limited. “I wasn’t confident enough to put myself out there, and I was kind of a contrarian.”
Perhaps it was exactly that mix — a contrarian style, coupled with teenage angst and a desire to be a part of something bigger — that eventually led him to law school, which led to the rugby pitch at age 22. Once he started playing rugby while attending the University of Wisconsin Law School, a switch was flipped. This was a sport that offered inclusion and camaraderie. “It was pure, unadulterated fun,” he says. “I never missed a game.”
And through the sport, he found himself. With rugby, he uncovered the power of the individual to make a difference for the whole. He experienced the value of mind and body when tested. Now, he’s paying it forward.
Cantorna began coaching the high school team three years ago. That first year, the team finished the season 3-3. Two years ago, they were 4-2 in league play, advanced through the state finals and finished as runner up to the state champions. Last year, the team record was 5-0-1. The team was ranked No. 1 after league play and traveled to the nationals in the spring. It’s clear that his attention and efforts are paying off.
Rugby, by its nature, is a sport that everyone can play. Unlike traditional American sports, it is player centered and directed. There is a position for every body type and every level of athleticism. And because it is a club at State High, the girls who come out to practice get to play in the games. Every time. There are no tryouts, no cuts. Some players come from soccer, some from field hockey and a few from basketball. But the most interesting players are the ones who were not considered athletic — by themselves or by their families.