By John Arthur
Meeting a professional athlete can be an overwhelming experience, especially for a child. When the athlete is as physically imposing as a Raptors rugby player, the intimidation factor, and the level of inspiration, increases even more. For young people in particular, the experience is often unforgettable, a memory that can shape the way a life is lived. The cultural fabric of rugby is one knit with equal strands of sportsmanship and participation, inclusion and camaraderie. These values mean that every interaction with a Raptors player is a positive, memorable event, the kind that brings an irrepressible smile to the faces of children of all ages.
The Glendale Raptors Rugby Football Club has a storied history of distinction. Founded in 2007, the multiple teams that comprise the organization not only have more than a decade of high-level rugby competition, but also numerous national and divisional championship titles to show for it. Beginning in 2018, the men’s elite Raptors team will join six other founding member teams in the nation’s new professional rugby league, Major League Rugby. Exceptional play isn’t the only thing that sets the Raptors apart from the competition; the team’s inextinguishable spirit and emboldened sense of community make the Raptors extraordinary. From the very beginning, the Raptors have been dedicated ambassadors of rugby, intertwining their love of sport with the people of Glendale and beyond.
The Raptors in the Community program is a unique endeavor: part public relations, part community service. Having players and coaches engaging locals is not new for the Raptors, however, it is a core value espoused since the team’s inception. Mark Bullock, Director of Rugby in Glendale, explains the essential concept behind the Raptors community involvement: “It started as a promise of service, so that our players give back to the people that support us. That is the point of emphasis. We give back to the community that helps us to play the game that we love.”
With the launch of Major League Rugby, the Raptors will continue their long history of community interaction, making appearances in Glendale and beyond, visiting local businesses, greeting fans, and ratcheting up the excitement surrounding the professional league debut. Public relations are only part of Raptors in the Community program, however, and the team sports a laundry list of past and future volunteer engagements.
The Raptors have historically spent time at Children’s Hospital, Kids Running America, the Special Olympics, the Colfax Marathon, and Big Brothers and Big Sisters, among others. The team has volunteered their efforts in the cleaning and maintenance of the Cherry Creek Trail, including trash pick up and graffiti removal. The Glendale club also has substantial involvement with local youth, teaching rugby in schools and offering various youth clinics. In addition to these clinics, the Raptors hold low-cost youth rugby programs nearly every month of the year. Raptors players serve as coaches and mentors at these programs, teaching kids the rules of the game, basic skills, and techniques to ensure safety. Director of Rugby Mark Bullock explains that the extensive volunteer opportunities have even posed a challenge for the team historically: “One of our biggest challenges with community outreach is that we’ve sometimes encountered more requests than we have the time or personnel to accommodate. Many times non-profit events take place while the team is practicing or playing.”
In the coming year, the Raptors will make their presence known in the community through their partnerships with Westerra Credit Union, the official credit union of the professional team, and with local media broadcaster CBS4. Players will make appearances at local Westerra branches and other businesses, handing out team merchandise and giving guests the chance to enter to win tickets to Raptors home games. Raptors in the Community events will be covered by CBS, and the team will employ that network’s long relationship with the Boys and Girls Club to deepen its ties to the local community. Dana Russell, Manager of Marketing and Public Relations for Westerra, noted with excitement the credit union’s involvement with the Raptors: “We’re thrilled to be the official credit union for the professional team, and to work with the Raptors in the Community program. Westerra is proud to announce that we will donate $52.80 to the Boys and Girls Club for each new Glendale Raptors official Visa credit card opened.” In addition to their appearances at Westerra locations, the Raptors will host clinics for Boys and Girls club members during Tuesday and Thursday practices throughout the season. Representatives of the Raptors club also manned a booth at the United States Olympic Committee meeting in Colorado Springs in February, working hard to spread the word about professional rugby in the U.S.
Rugby fosters a culture of giving, inclusion, and involvement. Each of the volunteer and community events that the Raptors attend is the beginning of a chain reaction: as more and more people are affected, the accepting, inviting rugby family will continue to grow. Not only do these events benefit the community, the team also introduces new fans and players to the sport. Director of Rugby Mark Bullock describes the Raptors in the Community as an opportunity to give back, a philosophy that becomes action for the team. The program has the additional benefit of making stronger people out of the players as well. As Bullock puts it: “They learn something about themselves, even if they’re initially hesitant to commit. Something transpires in the process of helping others, of meeting the community that allows us to play the sport we love. It’s a valuable process. We do it, and we get something from it as well. Ultimately it benefits the community, and it benefits the club.”