Fifteen years ago this month, Darin Barner was in the basement of the student center making copies of information for what could very well have been the only meeting for the formation of a rugby club at Wayne State College.
A Wayne State alum and former football player, Barner picked up the sport after his college days while working as a pilot for Northwest Airlines out of Dallas, Texas. Playing with the Fort Worth Rugby Club, he was part of a team that won a national championship and developed an unbending passion for the sport – a sport that, he thought, would be successful at his alma mater.
Still, he wasn’t sure if there would be enough interest. In fact – he was prepared for the worst.
“There was a big article in The Wayne Stater that I was coming up for this meeting, and my thinking was that if there weren’t at least 40 kids at the meeting, I wasn’t come back,” he said. “It was a one-time deal.”
And what a deal it turned out to be.
A friend and former Fort Worth teammate had come to Wayne to help Barner out with the first meeting, and as Barner was getting his copies made, the friend came down with a suggestion.
“Make sure you’ve got 90 copies,” he told Barner.
“It shocked me,” he said. “I was guessing 40 going in and had planned on making 40 copies, and he came down and said there were 90 in the room waiting.”
That was the birth of Wayne State’s rugby program in November of 2001, and the rugby program has quickly established itself as one of the top college rugby clubs in the United States with a men’s program that is traditionally competitive and a women’s program that has earned five national titles in as many years.
It wasn’t easy to get the club going, especially for Barner. Although he had the help of Shane O’Connor, a student at the college who helped recruit the first bunch of kids that Barner calls “The Originals,” Barner had to make a trip from Dallas to Wayne three times a week, flying from Dallas to Omaha and then driving to Wayne for practice before making the return trip the next day.
“It was a great perk for an employee of the airline,” Barner said. “I could fly to and from Dallas for 10 bucks. I couldn’t do that today.”
As the rugby club began to establish itself, Barner said it piqued the interest of local businessman Rod Tompkins, who was amazed that all of this was being done without any support from the college or its athletic department.
“He found out that we were a non-varsity team and weren’t being funded by the athletic department,” Barner said. “When he talked to me and I told him we didn’t have any place to play a home game and we needed a field that was 76 yards wide (NOTE: a regulation size rugby field is 120 yards long by 76 yards wide), he promised me he would find us a place to play games.”
Barner – who eventually moved back to the area and now lives in Laurel – was hoping for one field, or maybe space to make a second field to give them an opportunity to host a small tournament. What he got, instead, was what is now known as Wayne Rugby Park, a five-field setup that now plays host to one of the biggest rugby tournaments in the country.
Barner said the Tompkins worked with local city officials to develop land near the Wayne Summer Sports Complex that had been auctioned off every year for farming purposes. A bowl-like setup was carved into the land, with seating on the west side set up for the main field. Two adjacent fields are on either side of the main field to the east and west, and a clubhouse was built through a joint effort between Sand Creek Post & Beam and Tompkins’ Heritage Industries. A makeshift press box built from an old bank drive-in window facility and a video/radio tower have also been built.
All of that has helped create a unique sporting atmosphere that not only serves as Wayne State rugby’s home field, but is the center point of the annual March Mayhem tournament that regularly brings players to Wayne from all over North America.
“That first tournament in 2002 had 12 teams, and it’s grown to as many as 90 for our 10-year anniversary,” Barner said. “We had teams from 17 states and Canada that year, and now we average about 75-80, so it’s one of the biggest in the United States.”
As the rugby program established itself and the women’s team started its run of national championships (winning the 15-on-15 title in 2012 and 2013 and currently the three-time 7-on-7 champions with titles in 2014, 2015 and 2016), Wayne State College has seen the value of the club and is now getting more support, especially from the administration.
“President Rames is a big supporter of the sport and she’s really looking at the sport’s growth at the high school level and looking at this club as a chance to bring more students to Wayne State,” Barner said. “More high school kids are playing rugby and looking to go somewhere to get a college education and continue to play high-end rugby, and we want to be on those kids’ radar.”
More than 70 would-be Wayne Staters will be in town this weekend for the NSCRO regional men’s and women’s tournaments at the Wayne Rugby Park on Saturday and Sunday. Both Wayne State teams are playing for a chance to advance to a potential national championship game, and Barner said students from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska will be coming to Wayne to tour the campus, check out the community and watch some championship-caliber rugby.
Wayne is also being looked at as a potential host site for a 32-team national high school girls tournament in the spring of 2018, a three-day tournament that would draw as many as 1,800 people to town.
It’s all above and beyond where Barner thought the sport would be when he first introduced it to that eager group of 90 college students 15 years ago this month.
“I thought we would be playing out in a pasture a mile outside of town somewhere,” he said, laughing. “The kids who have been a part of this program and have supported it and with all the work that’s been done to make this happen, we’ve gone from that to where the kids get to travel on chartered buses and we’re playing for a chance to win a sixth national title. I never would have guessed this is where we’d be 15 years later, and it’s going to get even better.”