Why Team USA’s rugby players are perfect poster boys to spread the sevens gospel at home
Nate Ebner, Carlin Isles, Danny Barrett and Madison Hughes are testament to the Eagles’ professionalism on and off the field as they dream of medal success in Rio
Nate Ebner is an NFL player who took a leap of faith on his love for rugby, Carlin Isles is a sprinter who could have easily been challenging Usain Bolt for the title of world’s fastest man, Danny Barrett is pioneer-like in his vision to emulate US heroes of the past – missing only the Davy Crockett coonskin cap – and Madison Hughes is the captain fantastic who came from London to pursue his American dream.
Team USA PR people could not have chosen better ambassadors to promote their Rio Olympics cause than these four at their press conference this week. They play well, speak well and are true personalities. Each one of them has a story to tell.
No wonder World Rugby wants the US to be the focal point for the growth of the sevens game. Not only do they have massive market potential to sell the sport to American fans watching the Rio Games, they have in the Eagles squad, the men and women with the charisma, conviction and skills to act as willing role models.
Ebner’s story is well known since he made the US squad for the Hong Kong Sevens in April. Having grown up playing rugby, Ebner went on to play for NFL’s New England Patriots as a safety, winning a Super Bowl ring in 2014.
He said it was an emotional moment when he made the squad for the Olympic Games, with joy mixed with sadness for the players who had missed out.
“There were a lot of different emotions when I made the squad,” he said. “Obviously, I was extremely happy. I gave this everything I had and seeing my name on that roster was confirmation of that and it was a great feeling.
“But there was not only good feelings, but also heartbreak for the guys who didn’t make the team who gave everything they had and who had been on that roster for years. There were a lot of good feelings and bad feelings but I’m excited to represent the United States in the Olympics.”
Isles was homeless as a child and drew strength from his struggles to succeed in sport. An email made in hope to a US rugby chief resulted in Isles eventually making the Eagles Olympic team and earning the tag as “fastest man in rugby”.
“The childhood I had gave me the determination to keep going,” said Isles, who is reported to be faster than Bolt for 20 metres off the blocks because of his acceleration from a standing start. “I was homeless and it was a struggle. I wanted to be somebody and not a statistic. It was about finding deep inside your faith that self motivation. I taught myself that.
“The struggles kind of helped me. I have that drive to never stop.”
Barrett grew up playing rugby in the United States, playing for the University of California and making his national sevens debut in 2014.
The 26-year-old speaks passionately about taking rugby to the people and draws inspiration from the US team who won gold at the 1924 Olympics.
“We know a little bit about the team, we’ve been given some history on them,” said Barrett. “There were a couple of physical games, definitely more physical than nowadays and the rules were a little bit different.
“I know a lot of the guys were from Cal Stanford and the captain was a UC Davis grad, but I mean the big part of it was it was a group of guys who came together, who used to be enemies on the field ... I played against Madison and against Nate, and played with Carlin before coming to the national team.
“It’s about a group that comes together and gets the job done. For us, that’s our goal and that’s what the boys back in the 20s did and to be here with them and get that job done, that is what we relish.”
Hughes has captained the US since 2014 and helped his team win the London Sevens in 2015 – a tournament that truly announced the Americans on the world stage. He led the World Sevens Series in points and conversions in 2015-16 with 331 and 108.
He is passionate about popularising rugby in the United States and believes the Olympics can be key to converting the American public.
“I really think the Olympics has massive potential for the growth of rugby sevens,” said Hughes. “It’s an attractive sport even if you don’t really know the intricacies of rugby. There are a lot of elements of the more popular sports in the US in rugby sevens.
“I’m sure people will see sevens at the Olympics and think that’s awesome and want to see more of it. A lot of people in the US watch the Olympics and they will see the sevens and hopefully kids will say that’s the sport I want to play.
“I can see massive growth for sevens and many years down the line we can look back at 2016 as the turning point for rugby sevens.”