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Captain America’s New Mission

Wednesday Feb 25, 2009 in Magazine

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By Eric Raney

The calls came in quick succession. One offered the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, the other an opportunity in a brand new world. It’s said that opportunity only knocks once, but sometimes it knocks in bunches. Such was the case for then 25-year-old Dan Lyle in the spring of 1996. 

On the table sat two offers, one from the Minnesota Vikings for a chance to play in the National Football League, the other a contract from the Bath Football Club, one of the most storied rugby teams in England. The money offered by the Vikings was considerably more than that tendered by Bath—although neither came with any guarantees—but in the end this decision would be made less with the head and more with the heart.

Twice capped with the US National Team, in rugby Lyle had found the perfect fit for his physical skills, a perfect outlet for his athletic ambitions, and a perfect sport to direct his passion. Lyle hardly knew rugby existed when he left college football just three years earlier as a record-setting tight end. “It was a hard decision,” says Lyle. “But I had caught the bug.”

So when Lyle settled into his seat on the Boeing 747, the destination was London, England and not Minneapolis. The son of a two-star Army general and a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, Lyle knew his history and sensed a certain irony as the plane taxied down the runway. Recalling the words to George M. Cohen’s famous World War I ditty, “Over There,” Lyle smiled.

The Yank was coming. 

The town of Bath—named for the hot mineral springs around which it is built—is a picturesque city originally founded as a spa for the Roman legions of Emperor Claudius, and remains a major tourist destination and winter resort. The city is famous for its architecture, soaring structures of light brown stone mined from the quarries in the nearby Cotswold region of southwest England. Notable buildings include The Circus, The Royal Crescent and the Bath Abbey. In the heart of the city along the banks of the Avon River is an open space called the Recreation Grounds—referred to fondly by the locals as “the Rec”—in which sits the home field of Bath Rugby.

Unlike most English cities, in Bath the local soccer club plays second fiddle, the sport of rugby is king, and the Bath FC reigns supreme. It is little wonder, as in 1996 Bath stood as the premier club in English rugby, claiming six consecutive Courage League Championships, and winning eight Cup Championships in the preceding 10 years. (English rugby consists of two annual contests: League play in which clubs play teams within their own division, of which the top national league was named after the primary sponsor, Courage Brewing Company; and Cup play, which is an open, nationwide tournament including all the teams in England.)

With this past as prologue, the Bath players weren’t intimidated by the big American football player.

“We found the idea rather curious because we had some preconceived ideas that America and rugby didn’t go together,” says Lyle’s former Bath teammate, center Jeremy Guscott. “Football and America, yes, but not rugby.”

But those notions changed fast.

“Dan made a big impression very quickly,” recalls Guscott, who was a member of the English National and British Lions teams. “He became a member of the squad because he was such a good athlete. When he attacked the gain-line his knees were pumping and his elbows were out. He had tremendous line-out skills and would throw those one-handed, American-style passes. He really had the full arsenal.”

For his part, Lyle was not awed by Bath’s players or the club’s facilities. The 14,000 seat stadium was smaller than most college venues he had played in, the training room was smaller than Lyle’s old high school gym, and the team structure much looser than the demanding regimen of the NFL. In this knowledge, Lyle found his strength.  

“The professional concept was new to England, where the club manager often shared the coaching duties with the team captain,” Lyle observes. “To be fair, the players were good athletes and had the advantage that they knew rugby, but they had to learn to be more professional. I had been to NFL camps with Washington and Minnesota, so I knew how to handle myself and felt that I could catch up on the rugby.”

Sprinting from drill to drill, answering his captain and coaches with a sprite “Yes, sir,” and spending his spare time pumping iron, studying game films and his playbook, Lyle was a curiosity to his teammates, but a revelation to his coaches.

One coach who didn’t doubt that Lyle would be successful in England was former Eagle head coach Jack Clark, who had helped Lyle move from a club rookie to the National Team in less than two years. Clark had met Lyle in 1993 at a 7s tournament in Hartford, CT, and fast tracked the former football player—helping him move from Washington, DC, to Colorado to play with Aspen—and included him in his Eagle training camps.

“Dan didn’t make the team the first time out,” remembers Clark, now the legendary coach at the University of California. “His first Eagle match was against Ireland [November, 1994] at Lansdowne Road, and he was voted ‘Man of the Match.’ I knew that someone who could do that well in their first test against a Home Nation side would make it in pro rugby.”

Dan Lyle makes any room he enters seem small. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Lyle is a big man by any standard. The first thing you notice are his hands, great and gnarled from the game, which engulf yours as you shake in greeting. After seven years in England, one expects him to have a Mid-Atlantic accent, something out of an old black-and-white movie with a bit of a John Wayne “the hell you say” thrown in. But the tone of voice is flat, hinting at Midwestern, befitting a man who grew up traveling from pillar to post as an army brat.

Lyle comes by his athletic skill genetically—both his parents played collegiate athletics, his dad football and his mother basketball. Following in his father’s military footsteps, Lyle enrolled at VMI, where he walked on to the football team and eventually earned a scholarship.

The room Lyle looms large in today is his office in San Diego. There he works as Tournament Director for the USA Sevens, which is one stop on the International Rugby Board’s Sevens World Series. This will be the USA Sevens’ sixth year, the first three in Los Angeles, and the last two years in San Diego’s PETCO Park, home of  baseball’s San Diego Padres. 

Now, far from the cheering crowds, Lyle’s days are filled with conference calls and meetings with sponsors, PR firms, media and international rugby unions getting ready for the big event. Over 40,000 people are expected to attend the two-day contest this February 14-15, and the pressure is on not only to meet the demands of a world-class rugby tournament, but also to prove to the IRB that the US is a great venue for major international rugby events. It’s a challenging proposition.

“My job is to bring together all the operations and commercial sides and marry that to the delivery of the tournament,” says Lyle. “Rugby has a good demographic and we have a good product to sell, but you have to educate people that this is a great event. My goal is to help our company build this into the long-term successes the other tournaments have become.”

Things are moving in the right direction. Attendance is up over 45% since Lyle was brought on as tournament director. The USA Sevens will be broadcast to more than 130 countries worldwide. Here is the US, live coverage will be found on Setanta and on broadband via ESPN360.com. Highlights of the tournament will be featured in a one-hour special later in February, a first for the game of 7s.

“When you speak to people about rugby, they don’t think about an event being in a venue like PETCO Park, but they are starting to see this is a real live thing and a big event.”

In 1996 rugby football ushered in the era of professionalism. Since the day William Webb Ellis (“showing a fine disregard of the rules of football as played in his time” according to the plaque at Rugby College) first ran forward with the ball, rugby was an amateur sport. At least, that was the official story. Players for top clubs often received money for expenses—called “boot money” because the pay packets were left sitting in the players’ boots in the locker room—but oddly enough the “expenses” were generally greater when the team won than when it lost. 

Further complicating matters was the fact that top players would often switch clubs for better paying jobs that came with perks such as cars and housing, but seemed to require little time spent in the office. If all this was against the code of amateurism, it was well within the bounds of a “fine disregard of the rules.” 

After the huge success of the Rugby World Cup tournaments, the players—seeing their peers in other sports making millions and eyeing the cash cow that rugby football had become—demanded change. The IRB bowed to the pressure, professional rugby was on, and scouts spread across the globe looking to sign the best players.

So it was that a scout from Bath showed up at a USA vs. Canada test match. He was looking at other players, but Lyle, never the wallflower, introduced himself.  “I’ll be the biggest, strongest, fastest flanker you’ve ever had,” Lyle told him. It was brash, to be sure, especially considering that Bath had 130 years of history and scores of international players dating back to 1882. But as the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige once said:  “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.”

Lyle backed it up immediately. “I scored a try in my first game, and then a hat trick in my next match, which were both with the Bath second side,” Lyle remembers.  “But late in the game I sprained my MCL.” 

Returning from rehab several weeks later, an injury to his roommate opened up a spot with the first 15 at lock-forward. It was not his preferred position, but Lyle jumped at the chance and played well, again scoring in the game.

The following week was a match against the defending league champions, London Harlequins, televised nationally on Sky TV’s “Game of the Week.” Lyle won “Man of the Match” honors in leading Bath to victory, but it was one play that proved the game’s transcendent moment. 

Harlequin center Will Carling, captain of both the London side and English National Team, came knifing through the line with ball in hand and was met by Lyle with “fine disregard” in the form of a very American—and very violent—tackle. “It was a rag-doll moment,” recalls Lyle, with a chuckle. “I pretty much picked him up, shook him around and slammed him to the ground.”

The hit was replayed across the nation on the evening news. “Captain America” shouted the headlines in the morning papers, and soon Bath fans were wearing red, white and blue and waving American flags at home matches. Scottish international #8, Eric Peters, was dropped to the seconds to make room for the American on the first team, and club officials quickly renegotiated Lyle’s one-year deal to a guaranteed contract—including a sizable pay raise. By the end of the season, Lyle was not only a unanimous choice for the England Premiership “Newcomer of the Year” award, but one of five finalists for “Player of the Year.”

The Yank had arrived.

The accolades and accomplishments kept piling up. Bath became the first British side to win the European Cup in 1998, upsetting Brive in the Parc Lescure de Bordeaux in front of 35,000 rabid Frenchmen. “Captain America” became more than a comic book hero’s name, as Lyle claimed the captaincy of the US 

National Team—traveling from Europe to Australia and back to the United States playing both XVs and 7s. He served spot duty as captain of Bath, and finally rose to full captaincy of the English club in 2001.

The London Times named him to its World All-Star XV “Dream Team.” Chris Hewett, rugby correspondent for the Independent of London, stated that Lyle was “one of the top three or four signings ever by a British club,” and Lyle’s salary ballooned to more than six figures.

Dan Lyle was suddenly a celebrity who was mingling with the English royal family. He was sought out for autographs and offered sponsorship deals. He started dating Becky Hansford, a bonnie, blond English lass who worked as a hairdresser in Bath. Life was good.

A defining moment came when he was chosen to play for the Barbarians, an invitation-only All-Star team—against Ireland in Dublin at Lansdowne Road. “The chance to play with guys like Jonah Lomu, and Lawrence Dallaglio was a great honor,” says Lyle. “You get a sense of who you are and how the other players look at you. It’s a special environment.”

It was heady stuff for a guy who once waited tables at Bennigans while waiting for his NFL shot, and had played his first game of rugby as a lark upon the invitation of his cousin. Dan Lyle wasn’t just spanning the globe; he stood astride it.

Rugby’s Captain America hung up his boots in 2003, after having moved from Bath to Leiscester following the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Injuries, the bane of his rugby career, were the main reason—after 100 matches with Bath, two World Cup tournaments and numerous international test matches, his body said no more.

The native son returned home an international star and soon there was the call of new challenges. In January 2004, he became Director of Operations with USA Rugby, a job that would provide Lyle with the opportunity to give back to the game that had given him so much. Attacking his job in Boulder as he had the gain-line on the pitch in Bath, Lyle created the outline for the High Performance Grant program, and authored the “First Strategic Initiative” for USA Rugby. 

In the summer of 2006, Lyle joined the USA Sevens, LLC, and in addition to his new job as the event’s Tournament Director, he has become something of an American rugby ambassador. Captain America’s new mission: Help to make rugby big time in the US.

“It’s pretty simple what’s needed to raise the game in America,” he begins. “We need more kids playing, more fans watching and raise the standard of competition. We can’t worry about what the IRB wants us do, or feel we have to copy how they do it in New Zealand or England. We have to have an American model.

“For example, the US Under-18 team plays its main international games in May and June. Well, what if a senior in high school wants to play with his team, go to prom, and has to take the SATs? We’re asking them to do all these other things—and play rugby—and I don’t think that’s right. I think we should tour in the summer, and play teams around the world then. We should tell the IRB that their schedule is not good for our calendar and try to get them to work with us.” 

And Lyle’s former coach Jack Clark offers one idea about how the US National Team can become an international force to be reckoned with: Find more Dan Lyles.

“Dan played football at a mid-major college and wasn’t drafted by the NFL, but became an international rugby star,” Clark says. “If US rugby could capture 25 guys like Dan who are coming out of the PAC 10, Big 10 and SEC football programs, but don’t make it to professional football, think of how powerful we could be. That is the lesson of Dan Lyle’s story. That is the message US rugby needs to get out to athletes in America.”

Now living in San Diego, Lyle stays active in rugby, playing touch on weekends, doing coaching clinics and camps with local teams. His job keeps him close to the international scene, and he will return to USA Rugby this year as a Congressional player representative on the new board, having been elected to the position by former Eagle players. He maintains friendships with people around the world from his playing days—he was honored at the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France—and there are always those glorious memories.

Asked to name one career highlight, Lyle struggles. “It’s hard to pick just one thing,” he says. “My years at Bath were great, the opportunity to represent the US was an honor and I met my wife in England. In many ways it was a dream come true. And I love my current job, so I have really been blessed.”

Eric Raney profiled US Eagle coach Scott Johnson in the Sept/Oct 2008 issue of RM.

Dan Lyle 2.jpg: Dan Lyle has transitioned from a US rugby superstar who led the Eagles in the 2003 World Cup, to a roving ambassador for American rugby (Getty Images).

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