You get used to winning. I can speak to this from firsthand experience, not only as a spoiled and bitter Kansas City Chiefs fan the week of the first Mahomes-less Super Bowl in three years, but also as a chronicler of the men’s sevens national team’s evolution from participant to contender.
The men’s and women’s Eagles compete annually in the HSBC Sevens World Series, a nine-stop globetrotting circuit that’s featured the planet’s best national teams since 1999. In the early years, the Americans competed somewhat sporadically. Since 2007, they’ve been a mainstay as one of the tour’s core teams, competing in every event.
The Olympic world works in quadrennial cycles — the four-year chunks of time between Games. It’s the schedule coaches are hired and fired on, by which budgets are set and around which life-changing decisions for athletes, like when to get married and have kids, are made.
When examining the USA’s history of competitiveness in the Series, there’s a clear dividing line — before the first Olympic quadrennial cycle including sevens and after.
In the 11 seasons spanning 1999-2000 through 2011-2012, the Eagles played in 63 World Series tournaments, never winning one, reaching just one final, three semifinals and four quarterfinals. In the 12 seasons and 51 tournaments since, they’ve claimed three tournament titles, appeared in eight finals, 25 semifinals and 51 quarterfinals.
In other words, 100 percent of their tournament titles, 90 percent of their final and semifinal appearances and 82 percent of their all-time quarterfinal appearances have been earned since 2012.
In even more different words, America wasn’t particularly good at sevens until there was a gold medal to play for. Since, the national team has been on an upward trajectory to its current perch as one of the most feared sides in the world, largely fueled by an influx of the caliber of athlete American rugby had long yearned, but failed, to engage in a serious and meaningful way.
Before the United States Olympic Committee swooped in at the start of the quadrennial cycle leading into Rio 2016 playing on the national team was a part-time gig. Get invited to camp the week or two before a tournament, fight for a spot and if you get the nod, call back home and ask for a few more weeks off work. Oh, your employer says no? Repeat half a dozen times a season.
That doesn’t mean rugby didn’t attract athletes. Jay Berwanger, the first-ever Heisman Trophy winner, was a rugger. So was Pete Dawkins, Army’s 1958 Heisman-winning quarterback, who picked up the sport while attending Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Ravens Hall of Famer Haloti Ngata and Steelers Pro Bowler JuJu Smith-Schuster are more contemporary examples, if you’re unaware of Nate Ebner, rugby’s version of “Bullet” Bob Hayes.
With the USOC’s financial injection came full-time training contracts, allowing not only for better continuity, but providing a better recruitment arsenal for elite athletes.
That meant that when collegiate rugby All-Americans Danny Barrett and Madison Hughes graduated from Cal and Dartmouth, respectively, they didn’t have to choose between slogging in the amateur game domestically, hoping to catch the eye of a pro 15s club overseas, or looking for a nine-to-five, like their predecessors.
It meant that when Carlin Isles, whose 10.24-second 100-meter performance qualified him for the 2012 Olympic Trials and landed him just three places below Pro Bowl wide receiver Tyreek Hill in the rankings of the fastest men in America that year, cold called USA Rugby’s national office, they had something to talk to him about. And it meant that when the Detroit Lions tried to lure Isles away from rugby a few years later, he had another path to consider.
The full-time training contracts didn’t attract would-be two-time World Rugby Player of the Year turned Expert Perry Baker to rugby. That was a high school football coach, Brian Richardson, also a rugger, years earlier.
He kept Baker engaged in the game while he was trying to follow his brother Dallas’ footsteps to the NFL. But when Perry was finally ready to hang up the shoulder pads, having signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent and playing a stint in the Arena Football League, the Olympic money made the full-time switch a reality.
It’s highly unlikely Folau Niua ever goes on to become arguably the greatest player in team history, and a Premier Rugby Sevens Headliner, without a full-time contract. Rugby provided him a path out of gang life, as documented in “Crossing the 101”, and the national team provided him a new one altogether.
Of the USA’s top-10 all-time try scorers, eight of them started playing for the national team between 2011 and 2014. Zack Test, now an assistant coach for the women’s team, and Loggerhead Kevon Williams, are the exceptions. For just a few seasons, the right mixture of opportunity and resource created the environment that would attract and develop the program’s golden generation.
The Eagles were bad enough that playing time wasn’t sacred, and for the first time ever, there were full-time training contracts on offer. This meant not only could you afford to recruit elite athletes, you could sign them, and since the team’s expectations were set so low, afford to train them on the job.
If Isles had made that cold call in 2016 instead of 2011, he may have missed the boat. The extreme speed may have been good enough to get him scouted. But like winning can make you forget how much losing sucks, how good of an all-around player Isles became can make you forget how one dimensional he used to be.
His skills were so bad, and his teammates trusted him so little, that at the 2012 Hong Kong Sevens, a fan took out an ad on the jumbotron urging them to pass the wide open wing the ball. If Isles had come along just a few years later when both the team and competition for roster spots was more competitive, his coaches likely wouldn’t have afforded him the game time he needed to develop.
That was nearly Williams’ fate. By the time the former New Mexico Highlands wide receiver came onto the scene, Isles was already rugby’s fastest man, Baker was emerging as one of the most dangerous players on the planet, and they both exclusively played Williams’ only position — wing.
If Williams had come along a decade sooner, he would have waltzed onto the roster with relative ease, like Bennie Brazell before him, the former LSU and Cincinnati Bengal wide receiver who spent about as much time trying out for the national team as it took to pull on the uniform and stuck around about as long as it took to get undressed.
Instead of being third on the depth chart at wing, staring up at the fastest player on the planet and the World Rugby Player of the Year, he figured he’d compete for time at halfback with Niua, the best restart kicker in the world, and Madison Hughes, the captain.
Before COVID, Williams was a handy reserve in the midfield, finding his feet while Niua recovered from a broken leg.
In 2022, Williams is the team’s captain, indispensable leader and playmaker. He’s gone from sitting behind the racehorses on the wing to outscoring them from halfback, earning Dream Team honors in Spain last month. Williams’ 19 tries to Bakers’ 11 and Isles’ 10 lead the USA and are good for fourth in the world.
Kevon’s success is the outlier, though. For every elite talent with the character to not only ride the pine for years, but the discipline and drive to learn an entirely new skill set and position, there are dozens more without.
This is where PR7s can help. Not only does the world’s first pro sevens league serve to cast a wider net for capturing these types of athletes, but provide a wider platform for development and playing time to the next class of stars.
Baker, 35, Isles, 32, and Niua, 37 are still in the arena, but much of the team’s Olympic core through Rio and Tokyo have already galloped off into the sunset. Playing pivot, not just between the scrum and the backline, but generations and eras, is Williams.
It used to be that the USA didn’t have the horses to win. With the resources to attract thoroughbreds came success, but the stable got full quickly. PR7s provides not only another arena for the thoroughbreds to strut their stuff, but as an expansion to the stable to make room for the young colts trying to buck their way onto the team.
With the league adding to the national team’s existent competitive cauldron, conducting open trials across the country, and attracting some of the best talent America has to offer, it’s only a matter of time before the next Williams finds himself buried behind the current one on PR7s’ depth chart.
By Pat Clifton