In the world of local Rugby, Olive Kilifi is already a household name. And the team he plays for – the Seattle Seawolves - are quickly becoming mainstream.
“I have tons of kids that after games they’re like, 'Hey, I want to be a Seawolves player one day.' Which is awesome you know,” Kilifi said.
It’s almost surreal for the 32-year-old national team member who celebrated a Major League Rugby title in its inaugural year - a Seattle-native, who braved the cold five years ago, celebrating a Seahawks Super Bowl title with 700,000 other fans.
“I think that 12th Man mentality that the city has, has definitely transferred over to our team. And the environment that the Starfire Stadium has,” Kilifi said.
It's an environment unimaginable two decades ago, when Kilifi first began playing organized rugby at the age of 13.
“At the time, I was in a rough crowd. I wasn’t making choices that I should’ve at the time," Kilifi said. "It’s sad to say but a majority of those kids that I grew up playing with on that team – they’re either incarcerated or they’ve already passed on.”
But for Kilifi, rugby was an outlet that allowed him to stay out of trouble – it gave him a focus. And, despite growing up hearing about rugby from his parents, who are from Tonga and Samoa where it’s the national sport, he finally got to experience the unique culture himself.
“I mean, everyone’s intense on the field. But off the field, it’s all about camaraderie - brotherhood and friendship," Kilifi said. "I remember after games, we shook each other’s hands and we ate with them and I thought that was so different - that I actually know this guy and he has the same goal as I have and outside of rugby, we’re just trying to be good people. I think that’s the best way I can kind of describe the culture of rugby."
For the last six years, Kilifi has represented US Rugby on the world stage, competing in multiple international events, including the Rugby World Cup.
"I can’t describe the feeling," he said. "Because most of the time you’re in a country that’s foreign. And just to be able to put on the jersey and to know that you’re one of the only people there representing your country and then you hear the national anthem is such a great honor."
And now, it’s all come full circle: A chance to give back to a rugby community from whence he came – but one that’s grown by leaps and bounds.
“I have kids coming up and saying ‘You know, hey, I got a Seawolves poster in my room' and it’s still kind of weird to me," Kilifi said. "I wish I would’ve had something like that at my age, but I’m also grateful that I’m actually here to be a part of it.”