You are here
It all started in the fall of 2006 with one massive personality and some big dreams. From the beginning, they’ve done things differently in Glendale, a tiny hamlet landlocked by Denver, recruiting tactics included.
“I actually answered an ad for open tryouts in the Rocky Mountain News, which is a newspaper that doesn’t even exist anymore,” recalled lock Casey Rock, one of just two original members of the Glendale Raptors still involved as Glendale prepares for its Major League Rugby debut Saturday, when the Austin Elite come to town. Rock had played only a single semester of rugby at Denver's East high school, during which he dislocated his shoulder, but it ruined him on soccer, which he played at Metro State a single season before answering Glendale's ad in the paper.
The other remaining original player is Kieran Browner, who captained that maiden side. The Englishman had played for then-head coach Mark Bullock in Vail before both moved to the Denver area. Now, Browner's the forwards coach. After the inaugural season, Bullock, who together with Mayor Mike Dunafon has shaped Rugbytown USA into what it is today, asked Browner if he’d be interested in coaching, and as Bullock remembers, Browner popped back, ‘Are you saying I am too fat and slow to play?’
“They can’t get rid of me, basically. I think they’ve tried a few times,” joked Browner, looking back on 12 years with the club.
Infinity Park, the first rugby-specific stadium in the country, put the Raptors on the map, but it wasn’t opened until 2008. Before then, Glendale practiced at a local park behind Goodwill.
“We used to wheel out our generator light before practice and gas it up and turn it on,” said Rock. “At the very beginning we were so low on numbers our men’s and women’s team trained together.”
The turnout for that initial player meeting was nothing to brag about, either. But no one told Dunafon, who owned the room (as he does) and made believers out of Browner and Rock.
“Casey can actually, I think, still name everybody that was there. I think there was maybe five or six of us there, and Mike Dunafon was there,” remembered Browner.
“When you meet Mike, he’s an evangelist, so you don’t have to chat to Mike very long to believe whatever he’s preaching. And that was my first time meeting Mike, and he was preaching the gospel of the rugby in Glendale and his vision, and I was like, ‘Right, I’m in’.”
A former Denver Bronco who spent most of his rugby playing years in the British Virgin Islands before moving back to Colorado and jumping into politics, Dunafon drove the origin of the Raptors. He tapped Bullock to run the rugby side of things, and was responsible for the building of Infinity Park. He rebranded Glendale as Rugbytown USA and attracted international fixtures and large domestic events. Playing at Infinty Park became a rite of passage for American rugby players who fancy themselves as having done something, and its built-in pub the place to celebrate championships.
He also pushed for the legalization of recreational marijuana, unsuccessfully ran for Governor, did a music video with former Fugee Wyclef Jean, and married the owner of Shotgun Willie’s, the famed strip club a brisk walk from the stadium. And when pot became legal, he came under fire for assisting his wife in opening a dispensary right next to the strip club.
Glendale enjoyed tremendous success as an amateur club, the men and women winning multiple club national titles. With a stadium to play in, wins racking up and the club embodying the desire of Dunafon and Bullock to act as professionally as possible, rumors of paying players under the table always seemed to swirl. Perhaps the optics of the team being the brainchild of a brash-strip-club-husband-slash-politician didn't help the club's reputation in the eyes of some.
“I think every good rugby club in whatever region they are in America comes up against that stuff, because as soon as you start beating people, the rugby gossip is worse than little old ladies,” said Browner. “I’ve heard every single rumor under the sun about Glendale in my 12 years there.”
Rock was right there for most of it, too, until he blew out his knee playing 7s in 2014, forcing him into early retirement. In 2016, he got restless and came back, just as PRO Rugby was prepping to kick off its only season. Rock played for the Denver Stampede, along with several other current Raptors.
With PRO sinking in a sea of lawsuits and stories of vendors and players going unpaid, it didn’t take long for murmurs of a second professional league to start. Glendale and Austin were present for those earliest conversations, so it’s fitting they’ll play in the league’s first nationally-televised game.
Last spring, Glendale and Austin started actually paying players, like Rock, for the first time. Not much sooner, Browner, formerly a nurse, had transitioned to coaching rugby full-time. Fast forward a year, and really 12 years for Rock, Browner, Bullock and Dunafon, and the Raptors will kick off their first season as a professional rugby team.
“I’ve always been really proud of our accomplishments on the amateur side of the game, so to be a part of this now, and it’s finally picking up steam and getting some recognition in terms of the bigger sports landscape and national broadcast games and things like that, is super exciting,” said Rock.
“It was fun to be able to play professionally for the Stampede, and that was an exciting time. But this is definitely more meaningful, in that I feel a connection to the foundation that we laid for Major League Rugby as a whole, since we were an amateur team leading up to this.”
“When I’m in the stadium, I look down onto the field and what has been constructed here, and I’m totally amazed at the whole thing,” said Bullock, “because what was here before was a piece of crappy ground and crappy apartments. The transformation has been huge. Along with that, we’ve had long discussions to form Major League Rugby. I’m ecstatic.”