The year was 1978 and fortuitous happenstance – some may even call it Fate – found Mike Dunafon on the Caribbean island paradise of Tortola being introduced to rugby. As a former football player, kept out of the NFL by injuries – Fate at work again, perhaps? – Dunafon immediately fell in love with the continuous play of the game and the camaraderie between players. As most people do, he quickly realized that rugby is more than a sport; it’s an extended family that spans the globe. In rugby, when you’re in, you are in.
Dream Big or Go Home
Fast forward to 2001, Dunafon is back in his home state of Colorado and has become Mayor pro-tem of the City of Glendale. He’s leading the charge on a strategic planning initiative that will give Glendale a new identity and fortify a strong sense of community. At the center of the revitalization effort is the proposal for Infinity Park, America’s first sports complex dedicated to rugby.
The dream boasted a 4,000-seat stadium, a state-of-the-art event center, an elite-level training center, a community sports center, and a regulation-size practice pitch – all to be built over the next 36 months. The vision went further, creating the nation’s premier rugby facility, which would house men’s, women’s, high school, and youth programs, a location for international matches to be held, and second-to-none recovery and training facilities for those athletes.
“Rugby has had an incredible impact on my life; it’s an extended family that welcomed me instantly as I took to the pitch for the first time and it has since instilled in me an inherent respect and acceptance for people,” said Dunafon, who is now Glendale’s mayor. “I knew that if I could share that experience with my community, we could create something truly extraordinary that exceeds the bounds of race, religion, sex, and economic standing.”
He and the Glendale Chamber worked tirelessly to collaborate with key stakeholders, secure funding, building permits, engineers and contractors to make his dream a reality. Finally, in May of 2007, everyone watched as ground was officially broken on the construction of the Infinity Park complex.
On May 30, 2007, Gov. Bill Ritter even proclaimed Glendale the Rugby Capital of Colorado.
Mike Dunafon’s dream of breathing new life in the small suburban corner of Denver had staunch supporters, funding, and partner organizations dedicated to making it happen – the dream had become a reality, and the rugby stadium was just the beginning.
Introducing the Glendale Raptors
In tandem with the events leading up to groundbreaking of the stadium, the City of Glendale needed to find a rugby club willing to call Infinity Park home.
Interestingly enough, it was the women’s team – formerly known as the Harlequin Olde Girls – who actually signed on to join Glendale first. For the Olde Girls, swapping out their trademarked hot pink jerseys for royal blue and white seemed like a fairly natural decision to make. They were already a highly competitive and well-known Division I women’s team and signing on as Glendale Raptors gave them more funding and support – not to mention a permanent place to call home.
On the men’s side of the sport things were not as simple. The Denver Barbarians were originally contacted to see if their club would be interested in moving to the stadium complex.
The Barbos are the oldest men’s rugby club in Colorado and have called Shea Stadium in Highlands Ranch home for quite some time. At the time of the groundbreaking for Infinity Park stadium, they were strong contenders in the Super League, and had several divisional accolades to their name.
Call it Fate – again – but the Barbos organization turned down the offer to move their club to Infinity Park. While there were several other men’s rugby clubs in the Denver area, the inspiration came about to create a new men’s club to bring additional competition to the region. Director of Rugby Mark Bullock placed an advertisement in the local newspaper announcing that tryouts would be held in the spring of 2007.
If not for the Barbos declining to move their home pitch from Shea Stadium to Glendale, one of the best rivalries in American rugby would not be in place today. The Barbos and Raptors face off at least once per season in perpetually heated, hard-fought battles, that are well-attended by fans of both sides.
The Glendale Raptors men’s team joined their female counterparts on the pitch for the 2007 spring season. Per USA Rugby – the governing body for the sport – they needed to play at least one season non-competitively in order to prove that they were dedicated to advancing the sport.
The Raptors passed with flying colors, and just four months after construction began on the stadium at Infinity Park, both teams kicked off the fall season with a Grand Opening ceremony on September 22 in their new home.
A seemingly impossible transformation took place in Glendale in 2007. Construction crews were able to transform a baseball pitch into a one-of-a-kind 4,000-seat rugby stadium in just a few short months. A new men’s rugby club was founded, and a long-standing women’s team added a new chapter to their history. The Governor of Colorado even set forth a proclamation naming the city Colorado’s Rugby Capital. The most exciting aspect of it all – RugbyTown’s legacy was only just beginning.