In Glendale, the American Raptors are in the middle of an experiment that could revolutionize the country’s strategy for developing rugby talent.
Infinity Park has been home to amateur or professional rugby of some sort since 2007, but over the past two years the club that plays in “RugbyTown, USA” has revamped itself. The Raptors, formerly known as the Glendale Raptors, are now in the business of turning football players into rugby players while building a roster composed entirely of crossover athletes.
The Raptors’ roster consists of largely ex-college football players who have recently graduated, and whose opportunities didn’t plan out in the NFL, XFL or CFL. In those players, the Raptors get near-premium football talent to convert onto the pitch, where the team is attempting to become a pipeline for the U.S. National Team.
“On the world stage, the United States is a second-tier country in rugby,” explained Mark Bullock, who co-founded the Raptors and now serves as the club’s director. “We have the premise that we have great athletes here in America, and we’d like the sport to perform on a higher level — but we don’t see our elite athletes on the rugby pitch on a national level, and understandably, because the country’s very best athletes are making a significant amount of money in the NFL (and other major pro leagues).
“So our thinking is, can we skim the next level of talent? We go to all kinds of the smaller combines, and pro days, and then we flat-out scour every collegiate football program in the U.S. looking for athletes that fit our parameters for size and athleticism.”
While crossover athletes on the U.S. National Team is nothing new, what is new is a club with a singular focus on crossover recruitment and development for the sport.
That approach has changed the brand of the Raptors, whose second season as a crossover team concluded Saturday afternoon at Infinity Park against Peñarol, a club from Uruguay. The Raptors competed in Major League Rugby for several years prior to that, but Bullock and the City of Glendale (which owns the team) decided to pull out of that league in 2020.
“Part of the emphasis of this club and one of the original goals at its founding was to develop and prepare players who would qualify for the U.S. National Team,” Bullock said. “Then the league went in a different direction, which included basically bringing in a high number of foreign players, in our view to the detriment of American players… We wanted to go in a different direction that fits the goals of the City of Glendale, and promoting foreign players was not one of our goals.”
When Bullock and Raptors general manager Peter Pasque initially started recruiting for the team in 2020, just after the pandemic hit, they started by messaging potential players on social media. One of those recruits was Saginaw Valley State linebacker Devin Still, who had his pro day wiped out by COVID. With that, any chance of signing with an NFL team also went out the door.
Still, a two-year starter for the Cardinals, had nothing to lose by packing his bags for Glendale and becoming a professional in a sport he never played before.
“I missed my opportunity with football, but then the Raptors hit me up with an Instagram message and asked me if I wanted to come out and try rugby,” Still recalled. “I didn’t have anything else to do. I was working at a car dealership at the time, so I took them up on their offer.”
Despite 2021 being a “growth period for me and a lot of the Raptors,” Still blossomed. He earned time with the U.S. Men’s Sevens last year, and this year, toured the globe with the Sevens while asserting himself at wing.
Still is one of the Raptors’ success stories over the past two seasons, along with about a dozen players who have signed with Major League Rugby from the club. One player, Michael Bandy, jumped to the Los Angeles Chargers’ practice squad after spending 2021 in Glendale.
Pasque said recruiting ex-college football standouts “can sometimes take some convincing,” but that the majority of players the Raptors approach at small combines and pro days are willing to listen. Raptors players make a monthly salary ranging from $1,500 to $3,000 during the season and are provided housing in Glendale.
“We just got a recruit in here who went to Michigan State, and it took seven months to get him to finally say yes to coming in for a recruiting day,” Pasque said. “We’ll fly them in for one day, have him meet the coaches, practice with the team. It’s kind of almost like a college recruiting day. Now he’s sold on it, but initially it’s kind of a far-out proposition for a lot of these guys.”
But this is the route that Bullock, Pasque and the City of Glendale believes will make the team sustainable long-term. As Bullock said, the U.S. is “sort of the poor step-child” in the world of rugby. Bringing in talented football players could change that.
The U.S. National Team, known as the Eagles, is a combined 2-21 over its last six World Cups. The U.S. has never advanced past the pool stage, and in the last World Cup in Japan in 2019, the Eagles went 0-4 and were pummeled with a minus-104 scoring margin.
Looking far ahead, there’s hope the sport’s stateside profile — and pool of elite athletes to draw from — will increase from the exposure gained from hosting the 2031 men’s and 2033 women’s Rugby World Cups. Those tournaments were awarded to the U.S. in May, and the 2031 version will be the first men’s Rugby World Cup in the Western Hemisphere.
But for the Raptors to take the next step, they’ll need a bonafide league to play in, instead of scheduling opponents as an independent team as they have the last two seasons. Bullock envisions a league comprising teams from up and down the Americas, where countries are looking to catch up with powerhouses South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and England.
“We’re working on a formation of like-minded teams from North America, and in combination in some way, with the teams from South America who also have a similar goal to promote their national teams without a massive foreign influence on the rosters,” Bullock said.
Pasque hopes that in a decade or so, Glendale will be one of the genesis points for American rugby’s rise to relevance on the international stage.
It would be a fitting contribution, considering the city’s stake in the sport. In 2006, Glendale rebranded itself “RugbyTown USA,” and constructed the 5,500-seat Infinity Park as the first rugby-specific, municipally-owned stadium in the country.
“If you took the University of Alabama football team, and had them play rugby for two years, I think they’d be able to beat a lot of the top teams in the world,” Pasque said. “The fact that we’re getting the opportunity to experiment with that concept here is a dream come true — the sort of stuff that my dad and I talked about when I played rugby in high school (at Ponderosa).
“Hopefully (in 5-10 years) we’re in a legitimate league, we’re playing really high-level rugby, and hopefully a good amount of our players are making it onto the U.S. National Team. And, hopefully, the U.S. National Team is working towards winning a World Cup, and the Raptors will have played a part in that.”