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Anniversaries have a way of sending us on a road trip to the past. As I prepare to board my flight to the 10th USA Sevens, I’m taking both lanes.
A handful of months post-graduation, I was trying to string together enough work to credibly call myself a freelance sportswriter when I convinced my mom that if she would let me borrow a couple of hundred bucks to fly to a rugby tournament in Las Vegas, I might be able to parlay it into a job. Eager to get me off her couch, she took the bait.
I’d been playing rugby for a few years and already filed a couple of stories for Alex Goff at RUGBYMag.com. He said if I could get to Vegas, he had a room for me at the Golden Nugget. Like that weekend would change the course of my life, it irreversibly changed American rugby.
After years of struggle and losses, on the pitch, in the box office and at the national office, the USA Sevens was moved from California to Sin City, where attendance would multiply over the years. 2010 marked the tournament’s network television debut, as owner Jon Prusmack paid ABC to air a highly edited package. The next year, he paid NBC to put it on live for the first time. Now, ESPN pays for the right to air it.
(Seriously, scroll down to see the promo video from that first broadcast. If you squint, you'll see a freshfaced Phil Mack back when Seawolves were only found on the campus of Stony Brook. Osea Kolinisau is in there before he put his face on currency and booted up for the Sabercats. And if you stick around to the end, there's a shirtless, soaking Paul Emerick shaking in slow motion. We've come a long way.)
Personally, there were a lot of firsts that year. First time at an international rugby event. First time in Las Vegas. I can’t say I had any expectations, but if I did, they were shattered.
Steps off the jetway, I saw kiosks strung throughout McCarran selling merch. On the way to the hotel, prominently placed billboards hocking tickets. As I strolled Fremont Street in search of the hotel, above my head ran a promo video several-city-blocks-long featuring tackles and tries. Tiny plush rugby balls and keychains on sale in the gift shop en route to the lobby.
Rugby had arrived in Sin City, and no matter how deeply in the desert sand your head was buried, you couldn’t miss it. It was the first time I’d ever seen the sport given top billing on the marquee.
The most influential firsts were the people, though. First time seeing Buzz McLain nap on the press box couch. First time meeting Alex in person, or the great Jackie Finlan and Ed Hagerty at all. I’ll never forget sitting at a picnic bench outside Sam Boyd Stadium for a pre-tournament meeting having absolutely no clue what anyone was talking about.
I remember being pulled into a roundtable being run by McLain and Stephen Hanks, then the publisher of RUGBY Magazine. There were coaches from all over the country and different sectors of the game, and it was the first time I met Steve Lewis and Tal Bayer. I had no clue what any of them were talking about, either.
I’ll also never forget laughing until I cried just about every time Ed opened his mouth. I didn’t know anything about him, but I knew I needed to. The second time I saw Ed at an international rugby event, he was being inducted into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame.
That first tournament in Vegas also marked the first time I’d get to see the Eagles in person, and wouldn’t you know it, they made the final, won it, and everyone was ecstatic! Except it was the bowl final. For the young fans, they used to award a bowl-shaped trophy for ninth place. Considering Vegas was the fourth tournament that season and the Eagles had not yet registered a single standings point, it was a great result.
Back then, the Eagles were entirely amateur. Two years later, they turned pro. 10 years on, they return to Las Vegas as top-ranked defending champions. They’ve grown up in the last decade, and the USA Sevens was the one time each year fans got to measure the spurt up close and personal. Literally. No matter how the team finishes, the players spend as long as it takes to lap the stadium, sign autographs, kiss babies and pose for selfies.
The USA Sevens has always been part party, part Super Bowl of American rugby and part homecoming. It’s been the one place in time in America where rugby takes center stage, and the weirdos sprawled across countless pitches from coast to coast every Saturday flock to the same patch of grass to celebrate their collective weirdness.
Sam Boyd Stadium is where I was lucky enough to cut my teeth as a rugby writer. It’s where rugby in America took its first steps toward the mainstream. It’s where our top-ranked Eagles first sprouted wings.
Fittingly, the man who gave birth to all of it, the late Jon Prusmack, was there when the Eagles came full circle last year, winning their second tournament ever and first on home soil. Can’t wait to see them repeat with Jon as the 13th man.