Kilifi and Peter Smith show off the team's uniforms during a press conference at the Washington Athletic Club on Feb. 26. Photo by Joe Veyera
Kilifi and Peter Smith show off the team's uniforms during a press conference at the Washington Athletic Club on Feb. 26. Photo by Joe Veyera

Olive Kilifi grew up a Seattle sports fan.

He fondly recalls going to Mariners games with his dad, and watched the likes of Matt Hasselbeck and Walter Jones suit up for the Seahawks as a kid.

“I idolized those athletes,” he said.

Aspiring young fans may now be looking to Kilifi in the same way, as he takes the field in April as a member of the city’s newest professional sports team.

2018 marks the inaugural season of Major League Rugby, with the Seattle Seawolves one of the seven founding franchises across the country that will play an eight-game regular season, with two semifinal matches and a championship game.

“Rugby’s a very unique game,” Kilifi said. “It took me all over the world.”

As the team readies for its April 22 opener against the San Diego Legion at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila, it hosted its first press conference Monday at the Washington Athletic Club.

Time and again, panelists came back to the same word as they made the case for what sets rugby apart from the other pro sports in the region: Community.

Seawolves co-owner Shane Skinner was hooked by rugby in college. Though he was intrigued by the tough, action-packed, strategic play he saw a few fields over from where he was on the soccer pitch, it was once he got to know the people on the field that it all clicked.

“That’s when I learned rugby was special not for what was happening on the pitch, but what was happening off the pitch,” he said. “It was a culture of teamwork, respecting others, inclusion, and camaraderie.”

Head coach Tony Healy, who spent nearly a decade playing professionally in Europe, said the sport is built on family and inclusion.

“If any of you pick up a pair of boots and decide you want to be a rugby player, you will find friends in every corner of the world,” he said. “It is unlike any other sport in that way. It’s a game that’s played by 7-year olds and 70-year olds. By girls and boys. Men and women … It is a universal sport.”

To that end, he said the team made a point of recruiting players of strong character, as they look to build a lasting culture from the ground up.

That meant additions like U.S. National Teamer Kilifi — who said his, “mind was already made up,” when they approached him with the opportunity to play in his hometown — and Australian fly half Peter Smith. 

Smith emphasized the importance of a domestic league not just for the development of the sport, but to give young players something to work toward.

“Right now we’ve got really good kids coming out of high school and college, and there’s not much of a pathway for them in rugby unless they were to get a call-up from the national team,” he said.

Kilifi has already seen first hand how much the sport has grown in the Puget Sound, saying he’s seen the number of youth teams grow drastically since he was a young player. He can also attest to what the game can mean for kids.

Though, “everyone plays rugby,” where his mom and dad are from — Samoa and Tonga, respectively — he didn’t pick up the sport until middle school.

“At the time, I was in a rough crowd,” he said. I wasn’t making choices that I should have.”

He credits Finau Puloka for starting a youth team in White Center, that helped put him on a path to where he is today.

“From it, I’ve learned things like community and giving back,” he said. ”And I learned that I was actually good at it, which was something that changed the direction in my life. I started to take it more seriously.”

There are already signs that the city is embracing the new franchise.

With two months to go before the season opener, Skinner said more than half the stadium has been sold, and he’s “very confident,” they’ll sell out all four games.

Kilifi encouraged people to give the game a try, and was confident that if they did, they’d be back for more.

“I guarantee you if you see the first game, you’ll be interested and hooked,” he said.

To learn more about the Seattle Seawolves, or to purchase tickets, visit www.seattleseawolves.com