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Homegrown Talent Fuels Washington's Major League Rugby Debut

Rugby may seem like a niche sport in the United States now, but Washington's big talent pool is ripe for a pro team

Editor's Note: Washington, D.C.'s brand-new rugby team, Old Glory, plays their first professional game in D.C. Sunday, May 19 at 5 p.m. at Catholic University.

As it turns out, D.C. doesn’t need some behind-the-scenes wrangling to bring full-contact sports back within city limits: Major League Rugby team Old Glory DC will be playing exhibition games in Washington as soon as May. Even better: Many of their players will be talent homegrown in the Greater Washington area.

At their only Washington-area combine, almost 200 players from the DMV area and around the world tried out for the team. Many were enthusiastic about the chance to represent their hometown team.

Brandon Drummond, who grew up in Columbia, Maryland, and went to school at the University of Maryland, started playing at the age of seven after his father got him into the sport. He says it's a good feeling to be able to try out for a professional team so close to home.

"Ten years ago, you never would even dream of this oppotunity, so now that it's here it's amazing," Drummond said.

Already, Old Glory DC has recruited multiple players who grew up in Maryland and Virginia.

Ryan Burroughs, who grew up in Manassas, Virginia, will be playing center or wing for Old Glory. Burroughs became known as Captain America during his time in the U.S. Army for his athletic skill, serving in the Army’s Elite Athlete Program, but at the time he bounced between semi-professional football and mixed martial arts.

It wasn't until his friend Chris Frazier, a local rugby athlete in his own right, convinced Burroughs to play a pickup game that he truly caught the bug.

"I had always said no, I was kind of being closed-minded," Burroughs said. "He asked me enough — he's a bit of a pest — and said all you have to do is catch the ball and run."

Burroughs scored a try in his very first possession, and from then it wasn't long before a team from Australia came calling to recruit Burroughs. He says he was hesitant to sign with them until an intervention from his brother convinced Burroughs to pursue rugby seriously.

"My brother and I, we had a pretty long conversation as to why I should do it," Burroughs said. "He basically said, 'Ryan you're really good at a lot of things. Pick one thing and go be great at it.'"

Burroughs quickly became one of the best Americans playing the sport, travelling to play for teams internationally and joining the 2016 Rugby League World Cup qualifying Team USA. But after moving around the world to play in Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada, Burroughs is thrilled to finally come play professionally for his home team.

"I was kind of in between deciding to go back overseas and stay here and I didn't really know what to do," Burroughs said, "and I just prayed one night for direction and I’ll be damned if two minutes later [Operations Manager] Tim Brown didn’t send me a message and I just took that as a sign."

Rugby may seem like a niche sport in the United States now, but interest has been growing for years. Owners Paul Sheehy and Chris Dunlavey say there are more than enough players and fans on a local and national level to sustain a team.

"I think the timing is really good for this," Sheehy said. "We think we can draw on a lot of the resources from a lot of great things that people have been doing for a long time."

Dunlavey agrees, and argues that Washington is one of the best markets in the country for rugby.

"I think we're lucky in this region that the rugby community is as rich and dense and active as it is," Dunlavey said. "I wish that all of the MLR cities had that same benefit, but honestly they don’t. We happen to be in one of the hottest rugby markets in the country."

Statistics from several rugby organizations appear to back Dunlavey up. In a "Meet the Owners" webinar, Sheehy and Dunlavey cite Capital Union rugby’s count of 190 active rugby clubs and more than 7,500 active rugby players in the Washington and Eastern Pennsylvania areas, both of which are considered part of Old Glory’s talent pool.

The two owners know the pool well, too — Sheehy and Dunlavey have played for Washington Rugby Club and Washington Irish Rugby Club themselves, respectively. Already, Old Glory has begun outreach to clubs across the metropolitan area, and the team has received positive feedback from many of them.

"It’s got all of us invigorated,” Sheehy said. “There’s a lot of people doing some great things in USA Rugby and now is the opportunity for us to move to the next level."

Sheehy and Dunlavey say they are working toward a "Christmas tree model" in rugby engagement, where the most participation in rugby occurs at the base level, with youth, and steadily tapers along each age group until they reach the professional team at the top.

People from across Old Glory — players, coaches and owners — are committed to growing interest in rugby at the youth level. The organization hopes that when its own dedicated rugby facility gets built, other clubs and teams from the area can use their facilities to strengthen ties between organizations at all age levels.

"We certainly want to work with all the local clubs to build out that pyramid, that base, and each club has a role in that channel," Sheehy said.

Everyone involved in the sport acknowledges that rugby union faces stiff competition from other professional sports. They acknowledge that for many, rugby is considered an alternative to the dominance of American football.

"Every kid in America wants to go to the NFL, but when that doesn’t happen [rugby] is a good outlet," Burroughs said.

Burroughs knows that more than anyone. He says he can still remember an incident in middle school when a coach told him that he had a great attitude, but he just wasn’t big enough to play football.

"That stuck in the back of my mind," Burroughs said. "I'm still in the back of my mind playing like I'm this little kid who didn't get picked."

It’s exactly that chip on his shoulder, though, that has propelled Burroughs to success as one of the top rugby players from the United States. And now he has the opportunity once again to prove doubters wrong by joining an expansion team on a professional rugby team that’s just getting started.

That’s exactly where he wants to be.

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