Drawing from diverse communities, rugby takes root in Anchorage

A boy in a blue shirt runs towars a ball
Conor Gokey, 8, who plays rugby with the Eagle River Blueberries, Alaska Youth Rugby at a clinic with the Indigenous Warriors at the Park Strip in Anchorage on June 10, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

From Marines who started playing while stationed overseas to immigrants from the South Pacific to moms who join the game after watching their kids play, the stories that bring Alaskans to rugby are diverse. 

“Everybody comes from a different background and a different culture, but if you put them together, it’s a rugby culture: Everybody’s gonna get along and we call it one family,” said Fehoko Pulu. He grew up playing rugby with coconuts in Tonga and now serves as head referee for the Alaska Rugby Union.

The sport has broadened dramatically since the Bird Creek Barbarians, the first club team in the state, was formed in 1973. It wasn’t until 2014 that a youth league started and, spurred by the success of Eagle River rugby phenom Alev Kelter, immediately attracted 300 kids. 

“We started with an absolute gun shot,” said David Delozier, who runs the youth and adult rugby leagues. “We were blessed — and still are — with one of the best rugby players on the planet.”

The last two years of wildfire smoke and the COVID-19 pandemic dropped those numbers to 150. The four fields previously used around Anchorage have been consolidated into one main training area on the Park Strip. But Alaska Youth Rugby recently started a program in the Mat-Su, which already has grown to 50 participants.  

A man dodges a kid on a grass field
Xavier Robles, 31, of Sioux City, Mexican heritage — transitioned from college football and the military to rugby because of the brotherhood involved in the sport. Pictured here at the Park Strip in Anchorage on June 10, 2021 (Jeff Chen, Alaska Public Media)

Unlike many sports available in Anchorage, rugby requires no special equipment, Delozier said. Through sponsorships and countless hours of volunteer coaching and officiating, the cost for the entire season for kids is $80. 

“That gives you a winter season indoors and a summer season. And it also gets you a free ball and a free t-shirt,” he said. “So we make it dirt cheap.”

That’s made it an attractive choice for parents around Anchorage. While they may not know much about the game, which is similar to American football but without the pauses — or pads — Delozier said the long-time players are quick to adopt new recruits.

“About half our players now our new have never played and they instantly linked to with this core,” he said, “And they just fell in love with the sport because it’s just it’s a fun thing to do.”

On Thursday afternoon, local kids were invited to the Park Strip to play games and practice drills with an out-of-state club team called the Indigenous Warriors. 

For the Warriors, an all-Indigenous club team made up of players mostly from the American Southwest, Thursday’s clinic was a warm-up for a tournament. The tournament starts Friday and runs into Saturday at the Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds, a palatial field perched at the base of McHugh Peak in the Chugach Mountains. 

Warriors Coach Timaris Montano, who is Mexican and Navajo from the Salt Clan, said giving back to the community is part of the reason they came to Anchorage. 

“We want to be able to share the love that we have for rugby, because rugby has changed a lot of our lives,” said Montano. 

Montano said she thought rugby could be a natural fit for Alaska Native players. The game is similar to American football, but with fewer pauses in the action. Montano said that when introducing rugby in Native American communities in the American Southwest, she compares it to Rezball, a style of basketball played on Native reservations. Basketball is also a favorite sport in Alaska Native communities.

“The young boys grew up playing Rezball, which is kind of similar to King of the Hill. And so I’ve used that as a foundation of rugby and for us to spread this love,” she said. 

On Thursday, she watched as teens practiced their defensive lines with games of Red Rover. But she said it’s also about exchanging culture, which is deeply embedded in the ethos of rugby. 

A white man accepts a gift of a blanket
David Delozier accepts a gift from a player on the Indigenous Warriors team at the Park Strip in Anchorage on June 10, 2021. Gifting, cultural exchange, giving back to youth are a big part of the sport. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“At the end of this we’re going to share our culture, share games, share stories. Sometimes it’s just about the community in itself, because some Native American communities are different than that of mainstream society,” she said.

The public can attend the 25th Annual Midnight Suns Tourney this Friday and Saturday at the Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds. Details can be found on their Facebook page.