Can American football talent become rugby gold? One Colorado city says yes

Gelen Robinson, once a defensive tackle in the XFL, gets used to passing a rugby ball.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn
Mandel Dixon
  • Position
    Tight End
  • Height
    6-2
  • Weight
    240
  • Class
    Senior
  • Hometown
    Dallas, Texas
  • Highschool
    Red Oak

once a defensive tackle in the XFL, gets used to passing a rugby ball.

Many have dreamt of making linemen into props and tight ends into locks. In ‘RugbyTown USA’, they think they’ve found a way.

“To be honest,” says Garrald McDowell, “I thought it was, like, a scam.”

Someone contacted him via Instagram last year, to ask if he was interested in becoming a professional rugby union player. It was a genuine question, never mind that McDowell is a former college American football player who knew nothing about the game.

Now he has swapped touchdowns for tries and scrums as part of a grand experiment in a tiny Colorado city run by a rugby-besotted former Denver Broncos NFL player who has duetted with Wyclef Jean on a pro-cannabis rap.

The RugbyTown Crossover Academy aims to mould raw recruits into promising players in a matter of months. Athletic excellence is a must but rugby experience is not required. The lofty ambition is to build a pipeline to the US national team and a squad capable of competing against European clubs.

McDowell, from Louisiana, was a defensive lineman at college and signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League before the 2020 season was cancelled. The 26-year-old is training to become a tighthead prop in Glendale, which has long branded itself as RugbyTown USA, after impressing at a camp last November.

“Every day I just got better and better and I just fell in love with it,” he says. “So far, I’m just perfecting my craft with some great coaches. The bond with the teammates, all that stuff is coming along.”

The multi-billion dollar industry that is US college sports develops thousands of exceptional athletes each year but the vast majority do not forge professional careers. There are notably few opportunities in American football beyond the NFL.

The academy’s backers – who until last year ran the Colorado Raptors team in Major League Rugby (MLR) – are betting that skills are transferable to rugby through a systematic, rigorous training programme, and that there is vast growth potential in a nation of about 330 million that is ranked 16th in the world.

The academy has recruited 27 players so far, with trials ongoing. Most have played college football. Taniela Tupou – who shares his name with an Australian rugby international – was on the books of three NFL teams. DJ Stewart has a background in bobsleigh.

Before the pandemic, Gelen Robinson was a defensive tackle for the Dallas Renegades of the XFL. As well as playing football he was a wrestler and shot-putter at college. In Colorado the 25-year-old is learning front row positions, studying footage of the New Zealand All Blacks for inspiration and education – and coping without helmets and pads.

“If you try to tackle like a football player you could end up seriously hurting yourself or getting knocked out,” he says. “Thankfully, with my wrestling background it’s a little easier to pick it up. Scrum is very new to me but I picked it up extremely fast.”

‘They’ll be physically dominant’

Patrick Guthrie, Glendale’s director of sports broadcast and development, had a minority stake in the city’s MLR team – and has spoken to the Guardian before about what he felt went wrong.

Chase Stehling, formerly of the offensive line for Western Carolina University, on the charge.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn
Chase Stehling, formerly of the offensive line for Western Carolina University, on the charge.

Of his new project with the academy, he said: “I think that we’ll by 2023 we’ll safely produce five to 10 players for the US national team who will be the standout players in the team. They will be the game-breakers, they’ll be the guys who, like [USA sevens star and former wide receiver] Perry Baker, if they get the ball they’ll run away from everyone else. They’ll just be physically dominant.

“Even further down the road from that, our ambition is to win the Rugby World Cup in 2027. That’s it, full stop. We’re not there to make up the numbers.”

This, clearly, is a tall order. The Eagles have not played since the 2019 World Cup, when they lost to England, France, Argentina and Tonga. But Guthrie hopes the academy could reach pro standard after a couple of years honing its skills against youth and B-team opposition, perhaps even joining the Pro14 and competing against teams from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Italy and South Africa.

“We’ve had [brief, preliminary] discussions with Martin Anayi about perhaps joining the Pro14 at some point maybe in ’23 or ’24,” Guthrie says.

Anayi, the Pro14 chief executive, has explored US expansion before, in talks with groups from Washington and Houston in 2017. Contacted for this article, a Pro14 spokesman did not provide comment.

‘You have to be creative’

The crossover concept might be heretical to purists – but Glendale is a heterodox sort of place. That an enclave of about 5,000 inhabitants over 369 acres near downtown Denver can claim to be the capital of US rugby is thanks to the vision of its characterful mayor, Mike Dunafon. The former Broncos player discovered rugby in the Caribbean in 1978 and later oversaw construction of Infinity Park, a complex with a 5,000-capacity stadium.

Head coach Peter Borlase, a former prop for Canterbury in New Zealand, works with his new charges.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn
Head coach Peter Borlase, a former prop for Canterbury in New Zealand, works with his new charges.

Crossover Academy players are paid $1,500 a month and given rent-free use of two-bedroom apartments, three meals a day and insurance coverage. The city is funding the estimated $3m annual cost of the project and seeking sponsors.

“You have to be creative in coming up with ways to bring people into your city and for Glendale that way has been to build a rugby stadium and to produce rugby programming here,” says Linda Cassaday, the city manager.

The academy is fostering relations with USA Rugby and has invited the Eagles’ coach, Gary Gold, to sessions. USA Rugby’s governing body is also based in Glendale. Its chief executive, Ross Young, is understood to be watching with interest, open to any initiative that might help deepen the talent pool.

MLR, the 12-team competition that began play in 2018, would seem to be the most logical incubator. But Glendale’s split with the league was not an amicable one, driven by divisions over politics and finance, and the academy’s backers argue that MLR’s international recruitment strategy restricts opportunities for domestic players.

“Our goal is not to support the development of the MLR in any way,” Guthrie says. “Not that we’re against the MLR, but it’s just the MLR have gone a different direction.”

There are a lot of domestic players in MLR – and a lot of foreign talent. Guthrie contends the academy’s recruits are “better athletes to begin with than the MLR players. What I think is far more likely is that they’ll be recruited by the leading European sides because they will be viewed as game-changers athletically.”

MLR did not return a request for comment.

‘They adapt quickly’

Glendale’s director of rugby, Mark Bullock, is himself a football-to-rugby convert.

Glendale director of rugby Mark Bullock explains the big idea behind the crossover academy.

“They’ve not played rugby and some of them never really have seen it,” he says of his new charges, “and what we’re finding is we’ll introduce an activity or a drill and the first part of the drill is pretty messy. Across the board, forwards and backs, they pick up what we’re doing really quickly.”

Their first game is scheduled for 6 March against an academy side from the LA Giltinis – an expansion team due to join MLR when it kicks off season four later that month. There are tentative plans to face youth teams from Welsh and Irish clubs later in the year.

“I know that it can be done,” says Bullock. “No one’s ever done this in a concerted effort, like an organised effort.”

To Gelen Robinson, out on the field, learning to tackle and scrummage, “There are guys out there who want to compete but they don’t know about the game of rugby. There is so much talent out there that is untapped.”

WHO IS GERALD MCDOWELL

2018 Football Roster

Garrald McDowell
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn
8 Garrald McDowell
  • Position
    Defensive End
  • Ht./Wt.
    6-2 / 259
  • Class
    Senior
  • Hometown
    Covington, La.
  • High School
    Covington
  • Prev School
    Ole Miss

Biography

Ole Miss (2015-17)
Appeared in six games during the 2017 season … Tallied six tackles and two TFLs … Made his 2017 debut at No. 12 Auburn (10/7/17), where he recorded one TFL … Had two tackles in the win over Vandy (10/14/17) … Made one tackle in the win at Kentucky (11/4/17), a sack for a loss of four yards … Had two stops in the win over Louisiana (11/11/17) … Played in 11 games, during the 2016 season, as a backup DE and on special teams … Totaled 16 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1.0 sack and a forced fumble on the year … Earned second letter … vs. Wofford (9/10/16): Made four tackles (two solo), including 0.5 TFL … vs. #11 Georgia (9/24/16): Mae four tackles (two solo) with his first career sack, forced fumble and QB hurry … vs. Memphis (10/1/16): Posted a solo stop and a QB hurry … at #22 Arkansas (10/15/16): Made three tackles (two solo) … vs. Georgia Southern (11/5/16): Posted one tackle … at #8 Texas A&M (11/12/16): Made two tackles (one solo) … vs. Mississippi State (11/26/16): Posted one tackle … In 2015, McDowell played in nine games as a reserve D-lineman and on special teams … Totaled 11 tackles and a QB hurry on the year … Earned first letter … vs. UT Martin (9/5/15): Made his college debut and collected three tackles … vs. Fresno State (9/12/15): Made three stops (one solo) … vs. New Mexico State (10/10/15): Posted three tackles (two solo) and a QB hurry … vs. #15 LSU (11/21/15): Made one solo tackle … Sugar Bowl vs. #16 Oklahoma State (1/1/16): Posted one solo stop … Did not see action during the 2014 season and was redshirted … Member of the 2014 signing class.High School
First-team All-State selection as a junior. …First-team All-Metro selection as a junior…Invited to “The Opening”, an all-star summer prospect camp held on the Nike Campus…..An Under Armour All-America selection … Made two tackles and a half sack in the Under Armour All-America game … A consensus 4-star prospect by all the major recruiting services … Ranked the No. 111 recruit in the nation by ESPN.com and also a member of the Rivals250 … Listed as the nation’s No. 8 defensive tackle by ESPN.com and No. 17 by Rivals.com … Listed as the No. 12 strongside defensive end by 247Sports.com … ESPN.com rates him as the 11th-best prospect in Louisiana … A first team Class 5A All-State selection by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association and a two-time All-Metro pick by The Times-Picayune … Listed No. 15 on The Times-Picayune Nifty 50 … Named the District 6-5A Defensive MVP as a senior after recording 128 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, nine sacks, six pass breakups, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries … Also rushed 24 times for 94 yards and eight touchdowns along with a TD reception … Helped Covington to the Class 5A state semifinals for the first time since 1987 … Registered 84 tackles, 18 TFLs and 10.5 sacks as a junior … Coached in high school by Greg Salter.Personal
Son of Vanessa McDowell and Willie Smith … Full name is Garrald Darrell McDowell … Born: Nov. 18, 1994 … Majoring in general studies.
WHO IS Mandel Dixon
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn
Mandel Dixon
  • Position
    Tight End
  • Height
    6-2
  • Weight
    240
  • Class
    Senior
  • Hometown
    Dallas, Texas
  • Highschool
    Red Oak
Mandel Dixon played football at Pittsburgh State University in Pittsburg, Kansas before transferring to Tulsa to finish out his last two years of eligibility. During his two years at Pittsburg State, Dixon scored seven touchdowns on 16 carries and helped the Gorillas win the 2011 National Championship. In 19 games at Tulsa, Dixon carried the ball seven times for 17 yards and one touchdown while also catching 10 passes for 91 yards and a touchdown. Dixon had stints with the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Carolina Panthers, and The Spring League before trying his hand at rugby.
WHO IS GELEN ROBINSON
Gelen Robinson played defensive end at Purdue University from 2014-2017. During his four years at Purdue, Robinson totaled 164 total tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, one pick-six, three batted ball, three forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery in 46 career games. In addition to playing football, Robinson wrestled for a year in college after winning back-to-back state titles in his junior and senior years of high school. After tryouts with several different NFL teams, Robinson played for the San Diego Fleet of the Alliance of American Football and the Dallas Renegades of the XFL. His father, Glenn Robinson, played in the NBA from 1994-2005 and his older brother, Glenn Robinson III, currently plays for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Purdue Football: Gelen Robinson NFL Draft

NCAA Football: Purdue at Minnesota
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn

Name: Gelen Robinson

Position: Defensive Line

Size: 6’1, 280 Pounds

College Career Stats: 164 Tackles, 35 TFL, 12.5 Sacks, 1 Interception, 1 Touchdown

What Experts Say: Some have Gelen going undrafted next week. Some have him from a 5th to 7th round selection. The one prediction I will cling on to is draftsite.com they have him going to Atlanta in the 6th round of the draft. Gelen projects as an interior lineman, as that is where he was most effective at this past season.

My Opinion: I do think Gelen gets drafted, he is a heck of an athlete. He ran a 4.9 forty, which is not that bad for an interior lineman. It took him 4 years to find the position he was best at and particularly a coaching staff that new what the hell they were doing.

He started as an OLB, then a stand up Rush End, then a hand in the dirt End, then finally he mainly played the 3 tech this past season, where he should have been all along. I do believe that Gelen will get drafted, but it will be on the 3rd day of the draft, which is fine, he just needs an opportunity. Best of luck next week, Gelen!