In the character of an athletic champion lies the makings of civic distinction.
So thought the ancient Greeks, inventors of democratic society, and so we are reminded by last month's senseless slaying of Graham Downes, the OMBAC test prop and noted San Diego architect.
The second of four boys, Downes earned a degree in architecture at the University of Natal and captained the South African province before coming to southern California in 1986. He intended to stay only one season, but instead became a core member of American rugby's team of the '90s, and went on play a key role in reshaping the USA's eighth-largest city.
With standouts Mike Saunders and Brian Vizard already on scene, OMBAC had captured the inaugural club 7s championship in 1985. Soon Bing Dawson's men would supplant San Francisco's Old Blues as the team to beat, ringing up six national titles from 1988 to 1996. Four of the club's front rowers, including Downes, would become Eagles, and a different quartet of San Diegans would have a spell at the national team's helm.
Downes, widely known as 'Basher', did not need to be team captain to be persuasive. Contemporaries credit him with boosting OMBAC's training standard, and also reorienting an antagonistic, football-style attitude toward opponents into a respectfulness that fueled an urgent need to outprepare rivals. Friend and foe recall him as a ferocious competitor and model sportsman.
Though a career loosehead, at OMBAC Downes took the number three jersey because it was best for the team. There is little question of his skill on either side. Thanks to some administrative sleight of hand, Downes was whisked into the Pacific Coast's 1986 tour to Argentina and joined its 1988 trip to South Africa. Such was his stature that he was asked to lead the Grizzlies against his former team at King's Park, logging a 19-17 victory.
Downes initially lacked a green card, and as international eligibility regulations were then not so simple as the current three-year residency qualification, he was not immediately regarded a national team contender. Eventually he was brought into the 1991 World Cup squad as an injury replacement, without taking the field, and finally gained his one and only cap against Hong Kong in 1992.
A year later, well into his 30s, he hung up his boots. Downes then helped coach OMBAC for three seasons, two of them national title campaigns, before turning to full-time pursuit of business interests.
Known often to return to work after practice, Downes started an architecture firm with the proverbial credit card. By the time of his passing, he had succeeded in retail, hotel, and so-called mixed use projects throughout southern California, Nevada, Arizona, and Hawaii. Inevitably, he had branched into real estate development, with as many as 40 staff at offices in San Diego, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.
In his adopted home, Downes' best-known work included the Hard Rock Hotel and Tower 23. More broadly, his vision was considered a 'catalyst for neighborhood renaissance' in downtown San Diego as well as the Barrio Logan and Banker’s Hill districts.
OMBAC and San Diego bear Downes' legacy. For the rest of us, not all rugby players will become champions and internationals, but everyone who competes may broaden his horizons of the world beyond the game.