by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
I have spoken of Dan Lyle previously in this column because his career merits it. He is one of the few American names known throughout the rugby world. Lyle, a former number eight, retired from playing rugby shortly after the 2003 Rugby World Cup, earning 45 international test caps. His accolades are many, including captaining the U.S. National Team and the Bath Rugby Club. Lyle currently heads the USA Sevens tournament, which was held in Las Vegas last February for the first time.
I caught up with the ever-busy Lyle recently to ask him a few questions about his high school athletic experiences and the part they played in developing a successful rugby career. Lyle, now several years removed from the field, also shares his memories of playing in the United Kingdom and other career highlights.
Tom Billups - As you look back on your path into rugby, which by today’s standards might be considered late in an athletic career, what would you encourage high school or college players to focus on? Learning the laws, fitness, playing as much as possible?
Dan Lyle - Well late to the game can be a relevant phrase as people debate how early a player needs to start playing to be competent in the game, Under 10, high school or later! I was 23 years old, but I was a high school multi-sport athlete. Specifically I competed in basketball and soccer (what I call field vision sports) as well as swimming, track and field, and of course, football. In conjunction with this multi-sport background, I was playing Division 1 sport in college, which meant I was a professional athlete in every sense but compensation; I knew how to take direction, the importance of studying notes after practice, and was physically and aerobically capable. I also knew that my coach's livelihood was dependent on my play. So with that, and with my personality of just diving in head first, rugby was at the time a perfect fit. As a forward (initially as a second row) I could just push like crazy in the scrum, run the field, jump and tackle with sound mechanics. Once the game started "coming to me," meaning I could see the game before it happened, I was able to go to the back row and let some of my athletic talent and instincts come to bear.
My advice to young players and coaches is that rugby should not be dumbed-down. Players need to be fit, work hard on their skills, and learn the technical aspects of the game. Rugby is about recognition and adaptation; therefore being students of the game from the first practice of the season to the last will provide the basis for becoming good or great!
TB - As the first American to become a week-in, week-out starter in the English Premiership, what challenges did you face? How did you overcome these challenges?
DL - Well, the author of this column was in England before me, and I felt like I was standing on the shoulders of other players and coaches who either helped me or went before me. This is something we, as American rugby people, do not recognize often enough. I recently wrote the foreword for a book coming out this fall titled 'Try for Gold' about multi-sport athletes, soldiers, and great Americans who brought rugby gold back to the US - a great read!
To your question - of course I was the "Yank" – They would ask me if we even played rugby or have a national team in the United States. There were tough times when I, in some people’s eyes, was never going to be as good as a native Englishman. However, sport is great in that most times, a meritocracy wins out - meaning if you play the best consistently, you generally get the starting nod. You have to back up every game with another strong performance, each time out. I overcame some of these challenges by being consistent, not just on the field, but in my preparations to get on the field. In short, I was the first to show up, and the last to leave. I led the Bath club in tackles, but also in the amount of schools I visited in the community. I recently told a couple of guys that are going to Europe to play that you must be the best player you can be, but as an old coach of mine once said, also win all the things you can win – win the press conference, win the recovery period, do all the little things well and the big things will come!
TB - Would you share with the rugbyrugby.com faithful your favorite memories as a professional player and any personal highlights from your international career?
DL - Playing on the US team from 1993 to 2003 was an incredible honor; a decade in the game saw many highs, playing for your country can never be topped, full stop! There were several full seasons at Bath where I did not feel I could be stopped and I relished in the personal and team accomplishments. Being mentioned in the top world newspapers, rugby magazines and online articles as consistently the world's best number 8 as an American was motivational to me. But more importantly, it proved to me that we as a country could be successful in rugby, not in the distant future, not someday, but now. We have an abundance of natural resources in our athletes, and the factories that produce them in our American scholastic and collegiate schools.
I have had wonderful teammates, coaches, managers, and trainers - bonds that I will have for the rest of my life. However, my fondest achievement is finding a beautiful intelligent wife in Bath. We have a family now with our third boy arriving in September.
Now the only challenge I have in my life is whether they will play for England or the USA. Go Eagles!
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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