In 1924, a bunch of college kids traveled the 6,000 miles between Oakland, Calif. and Paris by boat, train and bus to represent the United States in the sport of rugby at the eighth Olympiad. Unlike in Antwerp, Belgium four years earlier, where the Americans shocked the world beating France 8-0 to claim gold, the visitors wouldn’t be taken lightly.
They were Public Enemy No. 1 upon arrival. Held up by French officials at port and robbed of their clothes and cash while practicing, the young Americans were so much the target of local press and fans they required police escort from the pitch after beating the hometown French in a second-straight gold-medal match, 17-3, in front of an angrily partisan crowd at Stade Olympique.
A century on, when America’s men’s and women’s national rugby teams return to Paris for the 33rd Olympiad in 2024, they’ll still be feared, though not much else from the gold-medal-glory-days will be recognizable. In 1920 and 1924, traditional 15-on-15 rugby was contested before the sport disappeared from the Olympic program entirely for the next 92 years.
Stateside, rugby’s popularity on the coasts faded as gridiron’s grip on the sporting consciousness strengthened. Rugby toiled in obscurity until a resurgence on college campuses in the 1960s ignited a couple of generations of growth, dragging America into the sport’s modern era.
Even then, the seven-a-side game served mostly as a scantily organized festival attraction. High school and college clubs didn’t play it much. And though the Sevens World Series, an annual grand-prix-style tournament featuring the top national teams in the world, was an established entity, Team USA wasn’t a regular. Even when invited, the Americans weren’t all that competitive.
That began to change in 2009, when the International Olympic Committee announced the addition of sevens to the summer games starting with Rio 2016, marking rugby’s return to the Olympics for the first time since Paris 1924.
Also in 2009, I spent my first year out of college writing for RUGBY Magazine, a publication born in 1974 during rugby’s hippie-fueled renaissance. Initially a collection of pictures and scores,
RUGBY Magazine became the bible, phone book and farmer’s almanac of American rugby for four decades before being bought by United World Sports, the company that put on the USA Sevens in Las Vegas and the Collegiate Rugby Championship in Philadelphia, both events nationally televised from 2010-2019.
In the decade-plus since the Olympic announcement, the United States national teams ascended the international rankings. Between the increased exposure and full-time contracts, thanks to newfound funding from the United States Olympic Committee, America was not only catching the rest of the world in sevens but surpassing it. First, becoming full-time participants on the World Series. Then contenders.
I’ve spent those years on the beat, crisscrossing the country’s pitches and clubhouses covering every sector of the game, from grassroots through to the boardroom. Not just watching the Eagles as they play on the international stage, but seeing them hatch and emerge as prep, collegiate and club stars, and eventually retire into coaching, refereeing or administrating.
I was at the club 7s championships on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay when would-be two-time World Rugby Player of the Year Perry Baker was just a nobody breaking ankles for a men’s club from Daytona Beach.
I remember hearing hubbub about this hockey crossover, Alev Kelter, who tore up the competition at an all-star tournament in Cancun, her first taste of live rugby whatsoever.
I was there in Las Vegas when Kevon Williams, Martin Iosefo, Danny Barrett, Matai Leuta, Folau Niua and Chris Mattina led Team USA to a first-ever tournament title on home soil at Sam Boyd Stadium in 2018. These are all players I’d covered and tracked from their starts with New Mexico Highlands, the Denver Barbarians, Cal, Monterrey Peninsula College, the East Palo Alto Razorbacks and University of Delaware, respectively.
And I was at AutoZone Park in Memphis, Tenn. last year when all of them debuted in the Premier Rugby Sevens Inaugural Championship, kicking off the world’s first-ever professional sevens league.
Rugby’s status in the American sporting landscape has, in many ways, ebbed and flowed in lockstep with its relationship to the quadrennial games. Rugby’s first Olympic moments coincided with American rugby’s best in the first quarter of the 20th century. Then both the IOC and the American public largely forgot about the sport for the next 100 years.
When sevens, the most electrifying game on Earth, was given the Olympic nod in 2009, it unlocked a wealth of investment, media exposure and talent unrivaled in the best of times. That wave of resource and popularity has served to not only restore the national teams’ competitiveness on the international stage but reignite the American public’s interest in the sport.
Professionalizing sevens in a package recognizable to the mainstream sports fan and putting women on equal footing are rugby’s next frontiers, and PR7s is pioneering the way forward on both fronts with a groundbreaking full season set for 2022. Like I have been since sevens’ version of the Big Bang in 2009, I’ll be at the frontline taking notes. Find them here at Page 7.
By Pat Clifton