Last year, a sprinter and running back named Carlin Isles sent a text message to Nigel Melville, the CEO of USA Rugby. Isles said he wanted to learn to play a sport he'd seen on the Internet.
"Are you fast?" Melville asked him.
"Yeah," Isles replied. "Very fast."
A year later, Isles is an oxymoron: He's an American rugby player with fans. A YouTube video of Isles blowing past tacklers — he runs a 4.2 40-yard dash — has 3.3 million views. With its Pulp Fiction soundtrack, the footage is perfectly calibrated for American NFL fans. If you have no clue what Isles is doing, or how many points a try is worth, you can still appreciate that he is running to daylight and that he is, in some inscrutable way, awesome. "I do feel like a kick returner, like Devin Hester," Isles told me. "I see that space and my eyes light up like silver dollars."
Matt Hawkins, the captain of the U.S. sevens team,1 says novice rugby fans who've seen the video have been offering advice. They want the Eagles to give Isles the ball.
As it happens, Isles arrived just as American rugby was on an upswing. For three decades, the U.S. was known as a "developing" team — mediocre, about equal to Spain, Portugal, Japan, or Zimbabwe. Since 2008, however, the U.S. has been one of 12 core teams, a notch below powers like New Zealand, South Africa, Fiji, and Samoa. "We're right on that outskirt," said Hawkins. "We're hovering right there."
Project Isles is representative of that jingoistic question that arises about every sport (soccer, bobsled) the U.S. doesn't dominate. For decades, the U.S. didn't have a surplus of great rugby players. What the U.S. had was a bunch of sprinters and football players and unemployed athletes with upside who might play and even dominate rugby — if only they had the right enticement. Something like this: Rugby will be in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, breaking a 92-year absence as an Olympic medal sport.
Carlin Isles isn't the first pilgrim to make the leap, but he is the most famous. "Some football and track athletes have reached out to me," Isles said, "people who've never played rugby before."
The question is, what took them so long?
One hundred years ago, rugby was a part of an American athlete's balanced breakfast. Although the putative "birth" of the sport in the U.S. occurred in 1874, when Harvard's team squared off with McGill University,2 historian John Nauright notes that it really took off a quarter-century later, in California. President Teddy Roosevelt was embroiled in a debate about whether American football was too deadly — the same standoff we're now having with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. In 1906, Stanford and Cal decided to chuck football and replace it with rugby, which they reasoned was more gentlemanly and uncorrupted by American greed. (Another way of saying this is that rugby was more British.) The next nine Stanford-Cal "Big Games" were rugby matches.
At the 1920 Summer Olympics, the U.S. rugby team was stocked with California multi-sport stars. Stanford's Morris Kirksey could lay claim to being the world's second-fastest man, having finished just behind Charley Paddock in the 100-meter dash. Like Isles, he changed out of his sprinting clothes and suited up for the rugby team. U.S. rugby also had Dink Templeton, a track star who became a decorated coach, and Swede Righter, an all-conference center on the Stanford basketball team.
The U.S. faced France — the only other country that fielded a team — for the gold medal. In front of 50,000 fans, the U.S. pulled off an 8-0 upset.
Four years later, the Olympics were held in Paris. Again, the Americans brought multi-sport stars like Dudley DeGroot, who was Stanford's football captain. (The sport was back on campus and awaiting future coach Pop Warner.) The Americans opened the Games by crushing Romania, then prepared for a rematch with the French. "Critics in general think that the Americans are stronger and have much more endurance than the French," the New York Times reported, "while the latter have played rugby longer and are more familiar with the technicalities." That dichotomy — France's deep experience vs. America's superior athleticism — is exactly the one presented by Carlin Isles.
The final was a rout. Frenchman Marcel-Frédéric Lubin-Lebrère threw a punch at one of the Americans, and only pleas from the U.S. team kept him from being ejected. But the real battle was in the bleachers, where Paris had turned out, in the words of the Times, "as unfair and unjust a crowd as ever attended a sporting event." French fans clubbed their American counterparts with gold-headed canes. After the Americans won, 17-3, the French booed the U.S. national anthem and gathered outside the stadium, as if waiting for a fight.
After the '24 Olympics, rugby was pulled from the Games for lack of interest. "When rugby went out of the Olympics," said Nauright, "and the NFL grew in the '30s and '40s, there was a natural progression from college into pro football. Professionalism comes to dominate and amateurism declines, and there's no Olympic outcome for rugby." Basically, the U.S. forgot about it.
Four decades later, rugby staged a mini-comeback when it was discovered by children of the '60s. "In the '60s, rugby was a counter-culture," one devotee explained. You could knock heads without playing Tricky Dick's game! In the '80s, more and more women began playing rugby when they were denied spots on the football team. Rugby became the stuff of feminist literature.
As with soccer, the U.S. exported a handful of rugby stars to play overseas. But rugby was stuck in the same netherworld as Ultimate Frisbee — it was the sport that your college roommate used to make new friends, the one he was always trying to get you to play, too.
In 1982, Melville surveyed the American rugby scene as a player on an English squad. "It was very different from what we were used to," he said with polite understatement.
I asked Miles Craigwell, who was a linebacker at Brown before converting to rugby, what he knew about the sport as a child. "Growing up, honestly the only thing I knew about rugby was walking through Boston on Saturday mornings," Craigwell said. "I'd see old guys, probably hungover, smashing into each other. That's what I thought rugby was."
In most of America, that was what rugby was.
In 2012, it looked like Carlin Isles wouldn't have a field to run on. Isles had tried football at Ashland University, a school with 2,200 undergraduates in his home state of Ohio. At 5-foot-8 and 157 pounds, he was slight even for a Division II running back.
But Isles was blazing fast. "I don't know how many guys are on a rugby field," his coach, Lee Owens, said, "but we had 21 guys running at one speed and one guy in another gear." Isles found a niche as a kick returner, setting Ashland's record for return yards in a game (174, still standing) and taking a fourth-quarter kickoff 85 yards in 2008 to put the team in the playoffs. "He'd never run where he was supposed to run or where the play was designed to run," Owens said. "But he was fast enough to just circle the other team."
Isles left football after two seasons to focus on track. He was very fast — he ran 10.24 in the 100 meters, 10.13 with the wind — but realized he wasn't going to beat Justin Gatlin. But rugby — there was a path to Rio. If not for the lure of the Olympics, Isles told me, he might not have changed sports. As Rugby Magazine pointed out, this is essentially the plot of Cool Runnings.
So why wasn't this happening more often? Why not take the 35th best sprinter and 100th best kick returner in the United States and transform them into rugby players?
First, there's an aerobic problem. In the summer of 2010, in the midst of his conversion into a rugby player, Miles Craigwell played in his first match in New York. "I was so drained, so tired," he remembered. "I ran track in college and played football in college. The feeling I felt after the first game, there was no comparison." After the match, Craigwell told his teammates he'd see them next week. They informed Craigwell he was scheduled to play five more matches that day.
Rugby sevens requires not just continuous movement but continuous thinking. There are few chances for a coach to stop play and tell a novice what he should do. As Hawkins, the U.S. rugby sevens captain, put it, "If you took 20 rugby guys and said, 'OK, you guys are going to play a football game,' the difference is that you'd have a playbook. It's a lot more structured. Football is coach-driven. Rugby, and specifically sevens, is player-driven. In our sport, we've got 14 minutes" — the length of a match — "and that's it."
Hawkins also pointed out that rugby newcomers suffer from the lack of youth leagues in the United States. If Isles were trying his hand at baseball, he'd at least have some muscle memory from the YMCA. "I had never touched a rugby ball nor even seen one," Isles said.
"If we get guys like Carlin that can absolutely torch people on the field, we'd be stupid not to invite them into our family," Hawkins said. But an even better spot for Isles over the next few months would be a developmental club where he could learn the nuances of the game. "Carlin is trying to develop on the national team," Hawkins said, "and for a guy like him, that really doesn't make sense. He's not going to get the basics he really needs to learn and grow."
"I've seen the guys from football come and go," Hawkins continued. "I've seen six or seven guys. They've got great talent, and rugby requires athletic talent. But it also requires intellectual talent. If I tell you tomorrow you're going to speak Spanish, you can't do that." A football player in his first rugby match is like Herschel Walker in a bobsled.
"The other side is money," explained Nigel Melville. "They're expecting huge money like the NFL, and we don't have that kind of money." Outside of endorsements and win bonuses, Isles receives a stipend of about $20,000 per year. Like Lolo Jones in a bobsled.
A chance at the Olympics gives American rugby a payoff it hasn't had since 1924. Unbelievably, the U.S. is still the reigning Olympic champion.
"I wanted to make a name for myself and tell my story," Isles said. When it becomes a nexus of athleticism and self-invention, rugby begins to sound truly American.