Tuesday, February 1, 2011
This Dolphin became an Eagle
The USA Rugby Sevens team showed up in Wellington for the annual international tournament today. What an astonishgingly nice bunch of young men. I may have been trained to be a diplomat; it comes naturally to these guys: upbeat, polite, excited to be in New Zealand and just plain happy to be playing Rugby for the United States Eagle.
I had a chance to meet all of them today, and I was impressed by every one of them.
Miles Craigwell especially. He has an amazing story. This time last year he had never touched a Rugby ball. He was an American football player all the way.
But then he was cut by the Miami Dolphins in May. He didn't know what he was going to do with himself. It had been his dream since he was four to make it to the NFL. After a great college career with the Brown Bears of Brown, he was drafted as a safety for the Dolphins. But at just 23, he found himself on the outs and looking for a new passion.
Then, he told me, he was in a cafe one day and saw the Collegiate Sevens tournament on TV and was wowed by the athleticism of the game. He called his agent and asked him to find out whom he needed to talk to to get into that gig. A couple of months later he was with USA Sevens coach Al Carevelli. Just four months after that he donned the U.S. uniform.
Now that, my friends, is a fast journey. An astonishing accomplishment.
Craigwell is aware of the extraordinary turn his life has taken. Looking around the training grounds at Evans Bay, pointing to the opalescent green of the ocean, he smiled. "This is nice," he said.
He's blessed and he knows it. He shows it too. None of the U.S. ruggers I met displayed any of the swaggering arrogance you're used to seeing in professional athletes. These guys are proud to be playing for their country.
They have the clean-cut enthusiasm and charm to make New Zealand fall in love with them. Craigwell talked wide-eyed about the warm welcome they've received here, including a Maori powhiri at the airport. He said he knew the Kiwis were Rugby crazy when the safety video on Air New Zealand featured the All Blacks.
The other thing these guys talked about was that Rugby is on the move in the U.S. Now that Rugby Sevens has been added to the Olympics - to debut in 2016 - there's a huge groundswell of interest. Matt Hawkins, the U.S. captain, said there was something tangible in the air everywhere they go as a team in the U.S. At a recent practise session more than 600 kids showed up.
Even Craigwell, a newcomer to Rugby, knows that the U.S. is the two-time defending Olympic Rugby champion - even though the full 15-aside game was last played in 1924.
God willing, he said, his body would still be strong enough to compete in the Brazil Olympic games.
In the meantime, all these guys are going to be spreading good will and a love of Rugby wherever they go.