Posnanski: USA Rugby's ragtag cast of characters
SAN DIEGO – This is a story of past and present, and it begins with a young man named Nate Ebner leaning against his car and trying to catch his breath. The sun beats down hard. Practice just ended. Practice will begin again shortly. “You get so tired,” he is saying, “that you just have to find a way to keep moving. You have to play tricks on your mind. It’s not fun, sometimes. But you have to run. There’s no other way. The game’s too fast, there’s too much ground to cover. You have to run. It’s the only way to play.”
Here’s a good bar bet question: What country is the defending Olympic champion in rugby?
New Zealand? England? France? Australia?
No, of course not. It wouldn’t be a good bar bet question if the answer was one of rugby’s world powers. The answer is: The United States. It’s one of those trick questions, of course – rugby has not been in the Olympics since 1924 (and it was rugby union then with 15 players on each side compared to rugby sevens, a faster and shorter game that will be featured in Rio).
Thing is: The United States wasn’t a rugby power in 1924 either. American football had already ended rugby’s impact in America. The U.S. won gold against the odds when a ragtag bunch of athletes, most of them football players. came together because, hey, why not? It’s the Olympics.
Carlin Isles is a sprinter who one day four years ago stumbled upon some rugby sevens videos on YouTube. He had never seen the sport before and of course he never played it. He gathered his life savings, drove from Texas to Colorado, and began to learn the rules. He is now called “the fastest man in rugby.”
“As soon as I got to playing,” he says, “I felt alive.”
Perry Baker played wide receiver at Division II Fairmont State – he once scored five touchdowns in a game against Shepherd – and he was invited to the Philadelphia Eagles camp. He hurt his knee, had surgery, kicked around for a couple of the years in the Arena Football League. And then he decided to try rugby, it looked like fun. His journey took him from a team called the Daytona Beach Coconuts to the Tiger Rugby Academy in Ohio. He shook up the rugby world with his four tries against New Zealand in the London Sevens in May.
“Is there anything this man can’t do?” the announcer shouted at one point.
Madison Hughes, the U.S. captain and emotional leader, is not from the U.S. – he grew up in London. Zack Test played football at Oregon. Maka Unufe was a brilliantly talented high school football player who dropped out of school and reemerged in rugby. And so on. This is the 2016 United States Olympic rugby team.
And then there’s Nate Ebner.
“My dad introduced me to the game,” he says. “I would go out and watch him play.”
The United States wasn’t going to send a rugby team to France for the 1924 Olympics. Nobody was too thrilled with the way that France was tilting the competition. The U.S. had won the 1920 Olympic gold, a surprising achievement even though there were only two countries represented – the U.S. and France. The French team was prohibitive favorite.
But the U.S. sent a team of athletes (Morris Kirksey won silver in the 100-meter race; Dink Templeton was an Olympic long jumper; Erwin Righter was an all-conference basketball player) and world-rugby veterans (Daniel Carroll had won gold for the 1908 Australian team) and upset the French team, in more ways than one. French rugby enthusiasts complained that because the 1920 competition was held in August, the rugby offseason, its best players were out of shape and rusty. So in 1924, France changed the schedule so that the rugby competition was held in early May, two months before the Olympic track and field events.
Because of the early date, England did not even send a rugby team. For a time, it looked like there might not be a competition. But French officials were able to convince Romania to send an overmatched team (Romania was outscored 98-3 in its two games). And, after much pleading and fund-raising, the U.S. sent a team to defend its Olympic gold medal.
It was a nasty experience for the U.S. team from the very start. When they arrived in Paris, they were mistakenly turned away (leading to a fight). Soon after, they were targeted by the press. “The American are ignorant about rugby,” the Paris-Midi reported. “But they know all about wrangling, street fighting and individual and collective pugilism.”
Or as United Press sportswriter Henry L. Farrell reported: “They (the U.S. rugby team) got the rawest deal that any team ever got in any country.”
By the time the U.S. and France played their gold medal match on May 17, 1924, almost 50,000 French fans poured into the stadium ready to unleash some fury.
Jeff Ebner, Nate’s father, grew up playing football. But, as a freshman at Minnesota, he decided to give up the game. He had found rugby, and the sport spoke to him in a way that football never had. He would keep playing rugby long after he left college, long after Nate was born.
And so for Nate Ebner, as a child in Springfield, Ohio, rugby was everything. He would watch his father play, and it blew his mind. He played all the sports like everyone he knew, and he had a knack for football and basketball – he was a terrific athlete. But rugby was the sport that meant the most to him.
“I turned out to be decent when I was young,” he says. “I guess it’s because I fell in love with it at such a young age.”
He was more than decent. Ebner was the youngest player to play in the U20 Junior World Championships, and at 17 he became the youngest player at the U.S. Sevens camp. But then, he ran into that most American of problems: Where is a rugby player supposed to go? In high school, they needed to combine three high schools just to make one rugby team (and it was coached by his Dad). After playing on the national level while in high school, he didn’t really know what to do in college. He briefly considered leaving college to play professionally, but that didn’t really appeal to him.
And so, one day in 2008, Nate went to his father and they had, what Nate would call, “One of the more serious conversations of my life.”
“I told him that I was going to stop playing rugby and walk on at Ohio State,” Nate says. “First thing he said was that he didn’t want to see me walk on to Ohio State and just try to be a football player because of what football means at Ohio State. He didn’t want to see me throw away my rugby career for that.
“But then I told him I had aspirations of playing in the NFL. And then, he was like: ‘Well, then, you need to be all in for the NFL and football. You have to give everything you have to make it work. You have to move on from rugby and be all football.”
A few weeks after that conversation, in November of 2008, Jeff Ebner was at the Ebner & Sons auto reclamation business he had built. There was an attempted robbery. Jeff was beaten severely; he died the next day. A man named Willie Anderson was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“He was my best friend,” Nate would say.
A few months later, Nate made the Buckeyes football team as a walk-on. “It was hard,” he says. “I thought I would kind of go in and more or less out-athlete people. But there’s so much more to football than being an athlete. I needed to learn the game.”
He learned. They called him “Leonidas,” the King at the center of the movie “300.” He played with extraordinary fury, so much so that he became a key player on the Buckeyes, and then the New England Patriots drafted him in the sixth-round just so he could be a madman special-teams player. He has been doing that for four years now.
“I knew I was walking away from rugby,” Nate says. “I never expected to play again. That was part of my decision, for sure. I needed to be all in for football.”
When the U.S. team took the field on May 17, 1924 at Colombes Stadium in Paris– now named for the legendary French rugby star Yves-du-Manoir – the fans were, by reporter accounts, respectful but testy. They expected an easy French victory. They expected for the U.S. players to be taught some respect for the game. And then, two minutes into the game, the U.S. players tackled France’s speedy Adolph Jaureguy, knocking him unconscious and leaving him bloody.
“The spectators,” reported the Associated Press, “who up to that time had been fair, began abusing the Americans, although according to every expert in the newspaper and officials stands, the Americans were playing a hard but fair game.”
Two American students were knocked out during a fight in the stands. Police raced in and were pushed out of the way. And, it was reported, French fans screamed with menace and threatened the American players throughout the game. It was as nasty an atmosphere as anyone could remember.
It did not change the outcome – the U.S. team of athletes outclassed the French team, which was clearly out of shape even though the date of the match was arranged. The U.S. won 17-3, and when the match ended the French fans poured on to the field in anger. A U.S. player, Gideon Nelson, was hit with a walking cane. When the American flag was raised, the national anthem was overwhelmed out by boos and shrieks – a photographer attempting to get a photo of the scene was hit with rocks. Police escorted the American players off the field.
“The American Olympic rugby football team won two great victories,” the Associated Press story said. “The first was their defeat of France … the second was a victory over themselves in not losing their temper under great provocation from what was termed by spectators as unfair and unjust a crowd as ever attended a sporting event.”
That ugly display marked the last time that rugby was at the Olympics. The American team returned home to little fanfare, and the sport – which had already faded in the U.S. – all but disappeared. Rugby was kept alive only by a few passionate souls who stubbornly and joyously played in recreation leagues, weekend leagues, men and women who raised their own children on the power and grace of the sport.
People like Jeff Ebner.
Two years ago, Nate Ebner first heard the rugby would be back at the Olympics. He had never stopped following rugby, never lost touch with rugby friends like Zack Test. Now that it was in the Olympics, he had this crazy idea: Maybe he should try out for the team.
“How do you not want to be part of something that great?” he asks. “I figured to be able to sleep easy at night and with no regrets, I needed to go for it. If it works, it works. If not, you know, I’ll sleep easy. I just think if I didn’t try, I would regret that forever.”
He went to the Patriots to ask for permission to go – he had a personal conversation with coach Bill Belichick. “It was an emotional conversation,” is all he will say about it. At the end, he had the team’s blessing to take leave and try out for the Olympic rugby team.
And the agony began. The constant sprinting. The three-a-day practices. The never-ending push. The U.S. team, coached by Mike Friday, has such overwhelming practices that afterward you can hear the players laughing, as if to say: “Can you even believe this?”
“I’ve never been part of a sport that is so grueling like this,” Carlin Isles says. “But it’s because you have to think when you’re tired. There’s no stopping. You just keep going, you’re on offense, you’re on defense, you can’t get tired.”
“I knew it was going to be hard, as hard as hell,” Ebner says. ““I mean, I knew but you know, you don't remember that stuff. You remember that the training is terrible. You remember, ‘Man, that was the worst day of my life.’ But you don’t remember the feeling, the pain you feel during it. But it’s just temporary.
“Football is different. I mean, in football, we HIT, man. It’s a violent game. There are some big boys out there. That’s a violent game, and you have to have a certain make up to able to just withstand that. There are guys who play in the league for ten years and don’t get hurt – it’s just crazy. This is similar in the amount of practice, but here’s it’s just running. We run miles out here, and we do it at top speed.”
Ebner was a longshot to make the team. He had not played any rugby since walking on at Ohio State. He was not in rugby shape. But he was driven, utterly driven, and he made it.
“In the end, I’m not going to remember the sprints and tackling bags all day,” he says. “I’ll remember the Olympics.”
The U.S. rugby team is a longshot for a medal, of course. But they’ve been a longshot before. And, like before, they have speed and strength. They have great athletes. “The game is just so fast,” Ebner says. “The amount of ground you have to cover, the trust you need to have in the guy next to you, the playing together as a team – that’s what it comes down to. The top teams in the world play as one unit. One player is not making them the top teams. We just need to come together.”
And when asked what drove him, what pushed him to do this, he shrugs. He knows the emotional answer is to say he did it for his father, but that’s too simple. It is closer to the truth to say that the sport of rugby just breathes inside him. “It wasn’t a thing like I said, ‘Oh my Dad would have liked that so I’m going to do it.’ It’s not like that. It’s just something I feel I need to do. I think if he were here, he would look at it and say, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty cool.’”
Ebner looks back at the field where practice never quite ends.
“Actually, he probably would have gotten a real kick out of it,” he says. “Because it’s rugby.”
Joe Posnanski is the NBC Sports national columnist. He is a No. 1 New York Times best-selling author, winner of the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame’s National Sportswriter of the year and two-time winner of the Associated Press Sports Editors National Columnist of the Year. His fourth book, “The Secret of Golf: The Story of Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus,” was released in June 2015. Read Joe's work year-round on NBC SportsWorld and NBCSports.com.