Rugby and the crossover athlete

Rugby and the crossover athlete

The crossover athlete is not specific to rugby – or rugby sevens, for that matter.

Michael Jordan tried his hand at professional baseball during his first retirement stint from the National Basketball Association, though he never made it to the Majors.

Heisman Trophy-winner and two-time National Football League Pro Bowler Herschel Walker is in possession of a 2-0 mixed martial arts record with two technical knockouts.

Recently-retired ice hockey player Chris Drury won the 1989 Little League World Series before winning silver medals at the Salt Lake City 2002 and Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games and a National Hockey League Stanley Cup Championship with the Colorado Avalanche.

In rugby, Carlin Isles is perhaps the biggest crossover athlete name. Of course, now it comes with the title of “Fastest Man in World Rugby.” Isles’ track pursuits ended after missing out on the London 2012 Games and the Men’s Eagles Sevens have been the better for it: Isles has scored a total of 28 tries in just 14 events on the IRB HSBC Sevens World Series circuit.

Isles followed in the footsteps of Miles Craigwell, who is now in consideration for both Men’s Eagles Sevens and Men’s Eagles tours after playing American football at Brown University and for a time with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.

Most recently, Green Bay Packers all-time leading rusher Ahman Green stated his interest in pursuing rugby and traveled to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., for a camp with the Eagles.

“My initial goal was to be on the team,” Green said. “I had talked to [former Men’s Eagles Sevens Head Coach] Al Caravelli in 2009 and we corresponded through cell phone and email. Then we lost contact. After I lost contact with Caravelli I didn’t have any other coaches I could contact so I just kept working out.

“It came later than sooner. A few years passed, [USA Rugby President of Rugby Operations] Nigel [Melville] contacted me and finally got the ball rolling.”

“When you actually get out there and have a go it’s totally different,” Melville said of Green’s try-out. “You have to be incredibly fit, you have to run for a long period of time, you have to have great skills. [Ahman’s] probably always played attack, but in rugby you’re playing defense, as well.”

Green’s journey to the rugby pitch did not end with the two-day camp at the OTC. In January, he served as the Eagles’ team liaison during USA Sevens in Las Vegas, where he was able to witness some of the best sevens teams in the world play the newest Olympic sport.

“I had only seen practice but now, seeing the live game action all day, was a lot,” he said. “It actually filled in a lot of gaps for me from a fan standpoint; understanding the game, the tackling, the tries, the concept and the methods to playing good defense and having a good offense.”

Green was not the only non-rugby player looking for a chance to get to the Olympics. Some of the newest athletes in Residency at the OTC are crossover athletes.

Jessica Javelet, who played field hockey at the University of Louisville before joining Ric Suggitt’s Women’s Eagles Sevens, scored seven tries in six matches at Atlanta 7s. Suggitt also brought ice hockey player Alev Kelter and Olympic bobsledder Elana Meyers to the OTC following their trip to Sao Paulo.

“The Olympics is always a draw,” Melville said. “You hear about sprinters who decide to push a bobsled. Some sports lead to it. In the U.K., they get people off the street just because they’re tall and aerobic and they go rowing. It’s a very easy crossover sport. Rugby is a more complex crossover sport. It’s not quite as easy as people think.”

Though he was not given the opportunity to represent the Eagles on the circuit, Green is staying in rugby to help attract some new athletes.

“When I saw the announcement that rugby was going to be in the Olympics, I said, ‘That’s the closest thing that we as American football players will have to play football [in the Olympics],’” Green said. “I know how we look at football as Americans. We’re great at it. We would dominate if they would ever allow football in the Olympics.

“[Rugby] is the next best thing, and the next common sense thing to being allowed. If we have the players, we have the coaches. We kind of have time on our side to get myself and maybe some other athletes that are in my position ready.”

Former San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman, who retired from the NFL in 2013, said he would “love to participate in the Olympics” playing rugby.

Current Cincinnati Bengal Andrew Hawkins also jumped on the rugby sevens bandwagon during the Twitter public’s discussion of Merriman’s tweet.

American football players are some of the most in-shape athletes on the planet. Isles was quoted as saying rugby 15s players were “way, way bigger than the guys who play on sevens. I’ve seen some of those guys on TV and some of them are straight animals – some of them are as big as in the NFL . . .”

At 37 years old (36 at the time of his tryout at the Olympic Training Center), Green is still a model of the NFL regimen.

Merriman, 29, is also staying in shape despite having retired from the gridiron game, and could prove to be an asset for the Men’s Eagles Sevens. Though the switch from American football to rugby is not the easiest – nor is it the toughest – Melville thinks an athlete of Merriman’s caliber could add to any rugby team.

“It’s a new challenge for them and they’re great athletes,” Melville said of potential NFL crossovers. “There’s no doubt about their athleticism, just that they’ve been built in different ways. They haven’t been built like rugby players – they’ve been built for football.”

In 2013, Melville attempted to entice Tim Tebow to make the switch to rugby.

Following his release from the New England Patriots, Tebow found himself without a job. His representatives declined the offer from USA Rugby, though thousands of fans on social media tried to persuade the former Florida Gator to pick up a rugby ball.

Should he decide to take up rugby, Green thinks a future in the NFL would not be out of the question for the young quarterback.

“We want interest at least,” Green said. “Is he interested in keeping his athleticism up for the NFL or is he looking to get a gold medal? If you’re on a national rugby team and you end up with the gold, silver or bronze, trust me: an NFL team’s going to show some interest. Any NFL coach or scout that knows rugby or understands rugby like I know it, they’ll respect that.”

Others criticized USA Rugby for targeting an NFL player when thousands of young men playing the game at the collegiate and club level have put in the time to warrant a look at the national team.

While the United States has plenty of talented rugby players of age, those younger players who go on to the NFL, NBA and NHL should also be included in the talent pool.

Green saw firsthand the abilities on display by the Boys High School All-Americans, sponsored by Aircraft Charter Solutions, at the Las Vegas Invitational during USA Sevens. Head Coach Salty Thompson fielded two HSAA teams. The first team won the competition, while the second team took home the Plate.

The HSAAs have had similar success in recent travels around the world, including a competitive series against the Argentina national team and the best American result at Rosslyn Park Sevens last March.

“The High School sevens team was very good,” Green said. “So taking the kids coming up on that scene and guys who are in my age span just ready to go and help out in any way we can, we have a legit chance.”

Age grade coaches are worried their best prospects will be snagged by the allure of a professional contract in another sport. Thretton Palamo, who was the youngest player ever to represent his country at the IRB Rugby World Cup, stopped playing rugby to focus on American football at the University of Utah. Earlier this year, however, Palamo finished his football career for the Utes and was offered a Residency contract at the OTC.

Nate Ebner was a member of the AIG Men’s Junior All-Americans at the IRB Junior World Championship in 2008, but quit club rugby at Ohio State to join the Buckeyes’ football team. The New England Patriots drafted him in 2012.

Haloti Ngata was a standout rugby player in Utah prior to his signing a contract with the Baltimore Ravens, and who can forget Hayden Smith leaving Aviva Premiership’s Saracens for the New York Jets?

“[Ebner] crossed the other way,” Melville said. “So football doesn’t need our players? They’ve been trying to get Carlin to go.”

“You be honest,” Green said of persuading young ruggers to stay with the 80-minute game. “Don’t hide anything about it. That’s how I learned when I was recruited in high school for football. The recruiter that came to town that was honest with me about what I was getting into? I decided to go to that school. Just shoot straight. That’s how you convince a player, because then they’re making up their own mind.

“They’ll realize what they’ve already experienced through rugby – the travelling they get to have, first-hand, real life situations. You travel the world. You’re in places most people don’t get a lifetime to go to. But at 16, 17, 18, you’re there meeting people, talking to people, learning how to socialize with people from another country. That in itself is a great experience. It gives the kids an opportunity to grow as a person and a human being.”

American football and rugby are closer than some realize, and Green believes both sports could benefit from collaboration.

Hear Ahman Green discuss the opportunity for NFL players to train with rugby players in the offseason:

The Men’s Eagles Sevens are currently in 14th in the 2013-14 IRB HSBC Sevens World Series standings after five of the nine tournament stops. They finished the 2012-13 Series in 11th to remain a core team, but their performances will have to improve if they hope to qualify for the Rio 2016 Games.

The IRB announced the qualification process for the Olympics, and a top-four finish on the Series next year will clinch it. A regional qualification tournament would be the next chance to qualify, then finally the repechage.

Former Eagles Sevens included current Eagles 15s players Todd Clever, Takudzwa Ngwenya and Chris Wyles, as well as former players Paul Emerick and Kevin Swiryn. Some of the current crop of Eagles will surely be looking for an opportunity to medal at the Olympic Games, but should NFL players not also have the same chance?

The United States possesses some of the world’s greatest athletes. Should a few more start passing the ball backwards, America could very well turn into the next “rugby superpower.”

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Comments (13)

  • Guest - Grant Cole

    Difficult to believe that three days have passed without a comment on this article, especially given so many "hard feelings" about cross-over players in the community.

    Initially, I was not in favor of courting the cross-over athlete. However, I think that the US rugby community needs the push. We've got some great athletes already. But, many of those athletes need to push to compete that some former professionals would provide (if they were so dedicated). Ahman Green (or Rashard Mendenhall, who retired from the NFL yesterday) might or might not ever grace an Eagles jersey in a test. But, even if they made the attempt, their work ethic would push a couple of ruggers to work that much harder to maintain their position on a team or get better to beat those guys out of a spot. The US rugby community needs that push.

  • Guest - Matt Manley

    Rugby in the US needs the best athletes. Period.

    For too long, we have had the "take what you can get" mentality. It is the reason we are in the position we are in now: #14 in 7s, #18 in XVs. The American rugby community, who as been loyal to a fault, needs to raise our collective expectations and demand more.

    I am a fan of the crossover athletes, if for no other reason that they raise the profile of rugby in the US. This is what we need. If a young person sees rugby as an option to college football or the NFL, then we need to grasp that with both hands. Have the confidence in rugby that players will return when their time in football is over. Rugby is a sport for life.

    Sadly, the sport we need to be pursuing players in is basketball. Football players don't bring much to rugby other than athleticism. Rugby actually does more for the football player than the other way around. Basketball players, on the other hand, have the potential to impact rugby because they naturally look for space, handle a ball with both hands, and transition between offense and defense instinctively.

    Ultimately, there is no need for jealousy towards athletes that "crossover" and get immediate elevation to the Eagles. Simply put, all of us in America are "crossover" players as many of us picked up the sport later in life, as these players are doing. Athleticism is simply that important when competing internationally. I have already seen the improvement of the calibre of athlete getting involved in rugby, but we still have a long ways to go. Support youth rugby and success will follow!

  • Guest - Frank Dunlevy's

    I have recently written n e mail to all the Sr USA Rugby folks suggesting we go after the three returning Olympic Bob Sledders, 2 have NFL experience! one is a legit 4.4 40 yd dash guy, and a third member of the team is an ex running back and tight end at Nebraska. All three are extremely fit, explosive by definition and strong upper body , 6.1' , 225 lbs. The. Dream player is just retired from the NFL, Devin Hester , a 4.3 40 yd dash guy, devestating tackler, and explosive broken field runner, with him on one wing and Carlin on the other we might get up into the second tier ( 5-8 ) teams. If we could recruit 5-6 more pro typical ( defensive backs who also return punts) we would have a chance to contend for a medal in Rio. Someone should cal Hester's agent today!!!!!!??

  • Guest - Paul

    I think it is great, however the work has to be put in and the culture learnt. Rugby has a culture that is needed to win on the field.nit is a culture that is not learnt in most traditional American Sports. These players need to be emerged in the entire game and understand the very basics. Rugby you cannot play phase to phase, you have yo understand what, why and how each phase can effect the outcome. Speed, strength and agility are all huge benefits but most of rugby is played in the mind and as a family. You have to play for the glory of your country and your team mate. "I" does not belong in the game, the worlds top teams have shown that individuals cannot win Championships. TEAM.
    No doubt though phenomenal athletes with the right mental , skill and strength training would be amazing.
    They should have to work like anyone else, after all what made them great in the NFL was defying odds through discipline and hard work to get there.

  • Guest - Football to rugby guy

    The strongest and fastest athletes in the USA are football players. And until there's enough money made in rugby for players to make wealth, rugby will always be a second thought to many of the best athletes growing up. However, once guys do cross-over I think they should be welcomed with open arms. I myself was part welcomed, part rejected when I crossed over a couple of years ago. Imagine a guy like J.J. Watt getting super-fit and playing in the USA forward pack. Imagine Cam Chancellor playing fullback. Imagine a guy like Adrian Peterson at outside center. We could suffocate countries with our athleticism and toughness. It'll take a long time before we reach the level of the All Blacks, Springbocks, etc., but we should be able to beat teams like Tonga, Argentina, Canada etc. if there was a true push to get some of that football talent into the rugby pool. And now with the concussion issue in the NFL, a lot of parents are looking to put their children in other sports. If USA Rugby is smart, they'll begin a real marketing push to snatch up young athletes and get them ingrained in rugby from a young age. There's just too much talent in this country for the poor performances we display. Our 7s team could literally be filled with speed merchants like Carlin Isles if USA Rugby would only go after them. Our 15s side could be the fastest, strongest team in the world, despite perhaps not being the most skillful. And this is not to discredit the guys that have played rugby their whole lives, but competition breeds success, and those guys will also have to raise their game to earn a roster spot which will help the whole sport in general.

  • Guest - Mitchell

    In reply to: Guest - Football to rugby guy

    Mate Argentina is not to ne taken lightly, they are a top team who beat the Wallabies recently though Australia has had big problems with the Administration to fix up the organisation of the squad and be back to being the best when Australia was the only team to take on the All Blacks.

    But still Argentina is now a top level team with an impressive squad that I don't the USA could beat plus American Football is different as the top athletes only use burst of power for a short amount of time then stop for nearly 30 seconds which is much easier when its a stop and start game plus other players help by stopping the opposition from tackling the person with the ball.

    Where Rugby you don't have that assistance so those NFL players you said will not have an easy time running through as they would be going against people roughly the same height, weight and fitness and unless your talking about Sevens Rugby the best players don't play that but will probably for the Olympics there used to continuously playing, tackling plus they don't have helmets and paddings so no using the helmet as a weapon you got use your body effectively by tackling properly as well as more than one skill as in American Football you train for that one position and skill set where Rugby you have to be good at more than one skill to succeed.

  • Guest - Verne Greene

    It might just be that American belief in the athletic abilities of football players is nothing more than a kind of jingoism. As a high school coach I have seen too many football players give rugby a try then quite after a few days because the game of rugby is just too difficult. Only a handful of football players on any team ever really handle the ball. Most of them couldn't catch a cold. Every rugby player must be able to catch and pass. And don't get started on fitness. Football is a game where players are encouraged to be 50 pounds overweight. Most NFL and college football linemen would take years to get into reasonable rugby shape, and it would take that long for them to learn many other rugby skills. If it were as easy as you say, it would have already happened.

  • Guest - Kurt Scholz

    Having marquee players with brand-recognition names is a two-edged sword: these athletes have the potential to push rugby into the mainstream of American consciousness, and the sport will undoubtedly benefit. However, rugby has always been a club sport, playing for the love of the game, enjoying the social aspects of the club, and the special camaraderie of those who play. I'd hate to see it go professional and corporate like the NFL or the NBA, and spoil that aspect of the game.

  • Guest - Brad

    Next common sense 'thing' to American football, that 'thing' being rugby as new Olympic sport... really? American football? who does this guy think plays the sport besides the USA? Canadians have played a similar game as long as the States (Grey Cup has around 75 years on the Superbowl), though even athletes in that country have a few other sports to choose from. Other then those '2' nations, who else plays? is it really that popular of a sport around the world? Sure it has probably more fans then ice hockey, but again, that sport is played in a number of evenly matched countries - don't know what this guy is taking about.

  • Guest - rudolf

    I am having difficulty to understand what rugby can learn from American Football. Seems like AF can only learn from Rugby.

    Any ideas??

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