Burrowed behind a ridge just north of the playground area at Columbia Park sits a small, nondescript rock with a plaque on it.
The rock came from Rugby, England — the ancestral home of the sport that now bears its name — and, aside from the field goal posts that sit on either end of the adjacent field, it is the only sign that one of the country’s largest rugby teams calls this corner of the Northeast Minneapolis park their home.
At least, that is, until the players begin to stream forth onto the field, their above-the-knees shorts, loose T-shirts and occasional leather helmet a collective signal that this is no ordinary day in the park, and that this is no ordinary group of men.
It would be an imposing, arresting sight if a visitor didn’t know why the group was there or that most of the men taking the field are working professionals — doctors, lawyers, laborers — who, when engaged in conversation, are affable, engaging and eager to explain their passion for the sport.
This is the Metropolis Rugby Club, one of the most successful yet unknown sports teams in Minneapolis.
“I think there are people who live just over the hill who have no idea that we’re even here,” club president Dave Heebner said on a recent weeknight, as players ran, scrummed and scrimmaged over the course of a two-hour practice.
“We would like to do more outreach into the community, but right now most of the people who come to our games are friends and family,” said Heebner, a retired rugby player who has served as club president for nearly two years. “Well, them and the fox that comes out from the woods.”
There are plenty of reasons to take interest in the team, he and other club members suggest.
The club’s division one team was among the top 20 in the nation last year and had lost just one match as of early October, and was poised to obtain the home field advantage in November’s playoffs, which they have regularly attended in recent years.
The club’s division three team — think of it like a developmental team, or a minor league affiliate — won a national championship in 2010. It was the first rugby National Championship in Minnesota history, at any level.
“Just think of it like winning the Super Bowl or the World Series,” said Kurt Siudzinski, the club’s vice president. “It’s the highest level you can obtain.”
There are intrinsic reasons to watch, too: players describe the sport as a unique display of athleticism and team play. Without pads, players can’t use their heads as weapons. Because there is no stoppage in play, they must have endurance in addition to brute strength.
“I can’t even watch football anymore,” said Wade McInroy, the team captain and a nine-year club veteran. “I see rugby as the only pure sport left in the world.”
McInroy, 36, is a daunting presence — a former middle linebacker who now serves as the team’s eight man, a sort of all-purpose, enforcer position.
But even if Metropolis garners few fans, plays on a bare bones field and is largely self-financed, there are signs that rugby’s profile is growing locally and around the country.
Rugby will debut in the 2016 Rio Olympics and is being broadcast more frequently on television. High school clubs are cropping up around the country, including more than two dozen in the Twin Cities.
A report by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association released in September found the number of rugby players in the United States jumped 51 percent between 2009 and 2010, to 1.1 million. The poll was based on a survey of 15,000 individuals.
“It will probably always be a niche sport, but the U.S. is finally starting to catch on,” said Heebner, the club president.
Metropolis, the only division one rugby team in Minnesota, has benefited from the sport’s rising profile.
Club membership has more than tripled over the last decade, and there are now more than 300 boosters, active players and retired athletes who associate with the club.
It is now one of the largest clubs not just in Minnesota, but in the entire country.
Most of the players are in their early- to mid-20s; several are ex-football players who either became disenchanted with the sport or sought something new to take its place when school was over.
They were recruited by chance — through a friend-of-a-friend, or a chance encounter in the community — or by targeted solicitation. Many were coached by team members while in high school, and have stayed with the sport.
Several of the players also come from the Spearhead Rugby Academy in St. Paul, which attracts international talent and fosters the players while they are in the United States. Metropolis players from the academy this year come from England and Mexico.
“It’s in the blood,” said Charlie Baleirara, an English player who said he has been playing since he was four-years-old. “I grew up with a rugby ball.”
Baleirara is playing for Metropolis this year while taking a break from international club play. He will join a team in South Africa next year.
Heebner, who fell into the sport while in college, said almost everyone who plays rugby in the United States is an “unlikely player,” and a quick survey of the field proves the point.
Adam Dilley, a grocer, has played for the last 11 years. He took it up after a friend prodded him to consider playing, knowing nothing of the sport. He said he continues to come back because of the camaraderie, a common attraction among many of the players.
Though rugby players have been stigmatized as party animals, the reality is far different, he said. The team volunteers in the community, organizes trips to support other Minnesota rugby teams and travels to games in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois.
The cohesion built up on the field often bleeds into other aspects of player’s lives, he and other team members say.
“It’s a hooligan sport, sure, but it’s played by gentlemen,” Dilley said.
The hope now is that the team will continue to find success — and new fans in the process. Anyone interested in going beyond spectator status shouldn’t be intimidated, either, team leaders say.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen a rugby ball before in your life,” Heebner said. “If you’ve got a pair of gym shorts and a shirt, come on out.”
Reach Drew Kerr at firstname.lastname@example.org.