Rugby returns to the Olympic program for the first time since the Paris 1924 Olympic Games, and the 12 players who will battle to defend the gold medal won by the United States 92 years ago have been unveiled, among them Pan American Games bronze medalists, two professionals playing overseas, "the fastest man in rugby" and one Super Bowl champion.
Making the biggest headlines on the team is Nate Ebner, the New England Patriots safety who earned a championship ring at Super Bowl XLIX in 2015. Ebner was a rugby standout in his past life, before joining the Ohio State football team as a walk-on his junior year. Being granted a leave of absence from the Patriots, Ebner re-joined the U.S. rugby team just over three months ago.
Just as noteworthy is Carlin Isles, considered by many to be the fastest rugby player in the world. Isles found rugby in 2012. He was attempting to find ways to improve his speed in order to potentially make the U.S. Olympic track team and stumbled upon videos of the sport. He was Team USA's leading try scorer in the 2014-15 World Rugby Sevens Series with 32. Isles qualified for this year's U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field, but passed on the opportunity to focus on making the rugby team.
With an average age of 26.6 years, the U.S. will field three players 30 or older: Chris Wyles (32), Folau Niua (31) and Perry Baker (30).
The second-youngest player on the roster at age 23, team captain Madison Hughes will be a key part of the team’s offense after leading the 2015-16 World Rugby Sevens Series with 331 points, including a series-high 108 conversions. Baker ranked second in the series last season with 48 tries scored and was fifth overall with 240 points. Isles and Baker, also known for his speed, have combined for 154 tries in the past four seasons. Baker was second on the team in points scored last season (240), while Test, a former football player at the University of Oregon, contributed 110.
Seven players named to the squad contributed to Team USA's bronze-medal performance at the past two Pan American Games. Niua, Maka Unufe and Zack Test won bronze in Guadalajara in 2011, while Hughes, Baker, Isles and Garrett Bender took bronze last summer in Toronto.
Two players have been honing their skills as professionals overseas. Wyles has played in Great Britain since 2004, including a run with London’s Saracens FC that began in 2008. Andrew Durutalo, whose background includes serving as captain of the Fiji U19 national team, has played the past year with Japanese club Sunwolves after gaining attention with his performance at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Rounding out the team are Danny Barrett, a regular on the team throughout the 2015-16 season, and Ben Pinkelman, the youngest member of the team at 22.
The sport makes its Olympic return in its sevens version, which features fewer players on the field (seven instead of 15) and shorter games (14 minutes of playing time instead of 80). The full-sided version was competed at the 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924 Games, with the United States claiming the gold medal at the last two Games.
The U.S. men open Olympic play in Rio’s Deodoro Stadium against Pool A opponents Argentina and Brazil on Aug. 9, then close pool play against Fiji on the 10th. The medal matches will be played Aug. 11.