Glendale? Rugby? Why not?

From ColoradoBiz, circa 2007, I’m resurrecting this column that attempts to explain why there’s a giant rugby field in this odd little Denver offshoot.

Mike Dunafon has lived life every bit as large as his barrel-thick chest suggests: He’s an avowed libertarian who grew up working ranches, tried out for the Broncos in 1976 and 1977 after lettering four years at Northern Colorado, chilled out after a divorce sailing to the Virgin Islands, and once recruited strippers from Shotgun Willie’s to march around in their skivvies and register voters in a sort of comically ribald takeover of the Glendale city government.

But on this Wednesday evening in October, with his royal blue shirt streaked with sweat and his face pink from exertion, he’s just another guy with sore legs.

“Where does it hurt?” I asked Dunafon, who moments before was coaching kids on the pristine rugby playing surface that is Dunafon’s windmill-dream of a civic project.
“Everywhere,” he said.

Aching quads are worth it to Dunafon, who can’t help himself from returning to the “pitch,” which is what rugby players call their field of play. Dunafon started playing in high school, and like most anybody who has ever taken up the game, can’t seem to give it up, even though the 54-year-old grandfather in him wants to protest otherwise. Plus, it’s his baby, this vast blanket of green grass ringed by bleachers and lorded over by a scoreboard you can see blocks away from its Tennessee Avenue home.

Infinity Field in Glendale is the latest metro-area sports facility you’ve never heard of, a monument to a game most people have never seen or played. To Dunafon, it’s the transcendent vessel that will vault tiny Glendale, home to beer joints and 24-year-olds with first jobs, into prominence. And put rugby on the map. And give kids a place to play. And pretty much restore a sense of humanity to a cold world. You know, little things like that.

When Dunafon first presented the idea for plowing $22 million of taxpayer-backed bonds into a rugby complex, he got silent stares of disbelief. But then he reared back and gave his own pitch: how rugby is growing like mad (it’s behind only soccer as the world’s most-watched sport), how Glendale could attract world-class teams by building the finest stadium in the United States and how Glendale’s hotel rooms would fill up with visitors while nearby property values shoot up.

Dunafon, Glendale’s mayor pro tem, willfully courted the press during his participation in the 1998 “Glendale Tea Party” movement that ousted the city’s former elected officials. Now he’s taking a yen for visibility to a new level. He’s proud in particular of racks of high-tech equipment tied to fiber optic lines that snake their way under the building. It’s meant to make it easy for TV crews to pull up their trucks and televise games. Even before most of the metropolis even knows there’s a team called the Glendale Raptors, Glendale is televising games live via an Internet portal.

But is the U.S. really ready to embrace rugby as a spectator sport? Maybe. Nearly 2,500 people showed up for the Raptors’ Infinity Park opener, and as a recent Saturday morning match dominated by Glendale’s Olde Girls team displayed, the game features plenty of action and breakaway plays reminiscent of a last-gasp series of laterals in American football.

“It’s a fantastic game,” says Dan O’Leary, a veteran coach who led the Regis High School boys’ and girls’ teams to state titles last year. He thinks rugby’s rising popularity is related to its democracy: Every player on the field at some point touches the ball.

But there are doubters, too. Scott Bredehoeft , chairman of the Denver Highlanders, a 38-year-old Premier Division 1 rugby team, thinks part of rugby’s appeal is a quiet spirit of community support — the Highlanders stage a series of events each year for Children’s Hospital patients — that may not translate to the world of JumboTrons and televised night games.

Dunafon attacks that theory like a forward battling in a scrum. He says Infinity Park is all about community. He thinks rugby is the one game that can restore inter-generational bonds between older mentors and younger players. True enough, Denver-area YMCA kids already are taking to Infinity Field for practices on the same surface where the French national team recently played.

Except, to YMCA players like 10-year-old Dagne Milashute, the fancy stadium and the JumboTron aren’t nearly as important as the game’s essential appeal.

“I like the pushing part,” she says.