ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — After James Aldridge failed to make the Miami Dolphins’ roster this summer, he turned to rugby, a sport he had seen only on television while traveling in Europe.

Aldridge had the athleticism for the sport, but the former Notre Dame running back needed to develop his skills in order to become an elite player.

That’s where Spearhead Rugby Academy came in.

Launched in August by West Lakeland Township resident Rob Holder, Spearhead is a nonprofit organization that provides rugby training for athletes like Aldridge. Players who make it through the academy could make an elite college or professional team.

Although Spearhead is the first of its kind in Minnesota, rugby academies can be found elsewhere in the U.S. and overseas. The Santa Barbara Rugby Academy in California is a similar concept, with players enrolling full time and training five days a week.

But Holder said Spearhead is distinct from other American academies because the players live together, immersing themselves in rugby and providing support for each other. Nine of the 10 players now enrolled live together in a duplex in the Merriam Park neighborhood of St. Paul.

“I believe that to reach the level these kids are capable of, they can’t do it alone,” Holder said. “That’s the foundation of the program.”

Holder, a native of Austin, Minn., moved back to Minnesota from California last summer with his wife, Ann, whose Medtronic job was relocated here. Holder played rugby while stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany, coached the U.S. Air Force rugby team and directed the rugby program at Stanford University. But it was his experience with the East Palo Alto club team in California that gave him the idea for Spearhead. He saw the need for inner-city youths to have a chance at an education through the sport, much like they do with football.

“They were fantastic athletes with no shot of taking their rugby to the next level because they couldn’t get into the top schools,” Holder said. “Football found a way to do it, and that’s what I’m trying to do with Spearhead.” As part of the two-year program at Spearhead, players are eligible to receive a scholarship to St. Paul College that covers part of their tuition and all of their room and board. About half the players are on scholarship, and those who have already graduated find paid work while being enrolled full time in the academy. They practice at various St. Paul parks.

Holder said private donations to Spearhead come from rugby enthusiasts and from people who want to help players get an education. But for the program to get off the ground, the Holders had to reach into their own pockets.

Holder said he recognizes the financial risks of starting a unique program in tough economic conditions, but called it a “leap of faith.”

“That’s really the reason I’m doing it — I feel called to do it,” Holder said. “While it’s risky … it’s more of a calling than a job.”

If a player from Spearhead makes a professional team, it will likely be in Europe, Australia or New Zealand, where the sport is more popular. There are several semi-professional teams in the U.S., but the chances of making a living on one are slim.

To Americans, the sport looks like football because it uses a similar ball and players tackle each other but different because play is continuous and forward passes are illegal.

Holder said he’s focusing on developing American-born players. He hopes that will help the sport grow in the United States. Signs of the sport’s growth are already apparent. Rugby will be an Olympic sport for the first time in 86 years when the games are held in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The U.S. won the gold medal the last time rugby was played in the Olympic games — in 1924.

The sport was relatively dormant in America after the gold-medal win until USA Rugby was founded in 1975. In 2005, there were 62,000 men and women players registered with USA Rugby. Today, there are more than 92,000, a majority of whom are younger than 21.

Although rugby is more popular on the West Coast than in the Midwest, there are several avenues for amateur and college rugby players in Minnesota.

According to the Minnesota Amateur Rugby Foundation, there were six high school rugby teams in 2000 and 23 this year.

On the college level, there are 23 men’s and 16 women’s teams, including one of each at the University of Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Rugby Football Union.

The highest level of amateur rugby in the state is the Metropolis RFC team. Some of its players are likely to be on the U.S. National Team.

For the U.S. team to have a chance to beat countries with richer rugby traditions, programs like Spearhead are essential, said Loren Lemke, men’s rugby coach at the University of Minnesota and president of the Minnesota Rugby Football Union.

“Because they’re living and they’re breathing rugby, their skills will expand,” Lemke said. “It’s going to pay huge dividends.”

Although Aldridge, a lifetime football player, only played rugby for a month before enrolling in Spearhead, he hopes making the Olympic team is in his future.

For now, though, he’s concentrating on improving his skills at Spearhead.

“If it happens, it happens, and I’ll be grateful if it does,” Aldridge said. “This is something new for me … and I feel like this is a breath of fresh air.”

St. Paul Pioneer Press

(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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