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Huge Splash Across The Pond Would-be NFL tight end Dan Lyle has taken up a new game--and reinvented it

Sept. 06, 1999
Sept. 06, 1999

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Sept. 6, 1999

Huge Splash Across The Pond Would-be NFL tight end Dan Lyle has taken up a new game--and reinvented it

The son of a two-star Army general, Dan Lyle wants it known that
he loves his country, he really does. It's just that, by
choosing obscurity in England over glitz in the States--the Bath
Rugby Club over the Minnesota Vikings--Lyle surely violated some
law dating back to the Revolutionary War. "All my friends were
saying, Go to Minnesota, you idiot!" says Lyle, who weighed
simultaneous offers from the two teams in 1996. "But some of the
best experiences of my life had been in rugby, and one reason I
left football in the first place was that the turnover is so
high and the guarantees are so low. I finally decided if you
enjoy what you're doing, why spoil a good thing?"

This is an article from the Sept. 6, 1999 issue Original Layout

Lyle told the NFL to take a hike, and three years later, on the
eve of next month's Rugby World Cup, he's the first American to
be considered among the best players on the planet. So smitten
with him is the London Sunday Times that last year it named
Lyle, 28, to its World 15 international all-star team. "For a
big guy he has absolutely staggering athleticism, and his
dexterity with the ball is amazing," says Stephen Jones, the
Times's rugby correspondent since 1983. "He's probably one of
the most extraordinary players I've ever seen."

How could this happen? How in just five years could a part-time
Bennigan's waiter and aspiring NFL tight end take up rugby, sign
with the world's most storied club and redefine the number 8
flanker position? What's more, if Lyle could do it, how good
would the U.S. be if other talented football players--Barry
Sanders, we know you're listening--followed Lyle to the field
where sissydom is defined by helmets and pads?

In England, where the 6'4", 245-pound Lyle is both a marvel and
a Marvel Comics character (CAPTAIN AMERICA! screamed one
tabloid), his secret is simple. He combines the skills developed
in common American sports--football, basketball and soccer--with
a blessed disregard for English stuffiness. Take kickoffs. While
most rugby teams allow their opponents to catch kickoffs, Lyle
barrels downfield and leaps for his own team's hanging boot as
though he were Jerry Rice. "Dan is universally regarded as the
greatest regatherer of kicks in the U.K.," says Jones. Take
pitches. Three or four times a match he will toss a
behind-the-back or over-the-head pass a la Larry Bird,
astounding the Brits. "To me it's a natural thing, but they're
so traditional," Lyle says. "They had never really been exposed
to Americans playing their sport, and they didn't know how to
react."

Add to that flair a soccer sweeper's defensive vision, a running
back's ability to break tackles and a basketball forward's 36
1/2-inch vertical leap (the better to catch line-outs, rugby's
inbounds play), and it's easy to understand why U.S. coach and
general manager Jack Clark says, "Athletically, Dan is a bit of
a freak."

Freakish is probably the best way to describe Lyle's rise
through the rugby ranks. It began in spring 1993, when he was
living outside Washington, working as a waiter and hoping for a
call from an NFL team. Lyle had gone undrafted despite his
success at Virginia Military Institute, where he was the
third-leading receiver in school history. On a lark one weekend
his cousin Mark Casey invited Lyle to play a match with the
Washington Rugby Club in Kenilworth Park. "It was the greatest
thrill of my life," Lyle says. "Here was a combination of every
sport I'd ever played, a sport that was all about attacking. In
college I had been a receiver on a wishbone offense, so I caught
only 30 balls a year. Now I could go get the ball."

It wasn't long before Clark, who lives in Berkeley, Calif.,
heard the buzz about the football player who was terrorizing the
D.C. rugby scene on weekends. At a club tournament in Hartford
that summer, Clark met Lyle for the first time. "Word had gotten
out that I was looking for athletes who didn't necessarily have
much rugby experience," Clark says. "Dan looked very much the
business. His hands were twice the size of a normal man's, and
his body was clearly NFL material."

Without even seeing Lyle play, Clark invited him to the next
U.S. training camp in Riverside, Calif., where Lyle's first
attempt at catching a kickoff made his coach's jaw drop,
cartoonlike, to the turf. "On kickoffs you need to have great
timing, sprinter's speed and flypaper hands," says Clark. "Well,
the first time Dan ran down a kickoff he was better at it than
anyone else in the world. He didn't know anything else about
what to do out there, but it didn't matter. We could teach him
all that."

After a couple of failed tryouts with the Washington Redskins,
Lyle began traveling with the national team, moved to Aspen,
Colo. (rugby's summer hotbed), and in October 1994--just 14
months after taking up the sport--earned man-of-the-match honors
in his first game for the U.S., against Ireland. He won them
again in his second appearance as the Americans beat Canada on
the road for the first time, 15-14. In May 1996, he approached a
scout from Bath who had come to look at one of his U.S.
teammates. "I went up to him and said, 'I'll be the biggest,
strongest, fastest flanker you've ever had,'" Lyle says. "You
know, the whole Jack Nicholson thing. You want me on that wall.
You need me on that wall."

Rugby had just gone professional in England, and Bath, the
six-time national champion, took a look at the cocky American
and made him an offer: one year, $52,000, no guarantees. At the
same time the Vikings had another deal on the table: one year,
$116,000 base, no guarantees. As Lyle pondered his decision for
a month, Minnesota grew impatient. He had to choose, and he
picked Bath.

At Bath, Lyle's learning curve was "exponential, almost
inverted," he says. He was man of the match in his first-team
debut, a nationally televised showdown against rival Harlequins,
and soon took over as the starting number 8, a position right
behind the scrum that demands the skills of both a fullback and
a middle linebacker. At the end of the 1996-97 season he was
named the English Premiership's newcomer of the year and one of
five finalists for player of the year. That was nothing, though,
compared with the following season, when Lyle led Bath to a
19-18 victory over the French club Brive in the European
championship before 50,000 fans in Bordeaux, France.

Lyle's astonishing rugby feats have spawned wild-eyed conjecture
among the sport's American fans: What if more football players
took up rugby? "They all say overseas that whenever we take this
game seriously, we'll beat everyone, and it's true," says Lyle.
"If I could get some All-Pros and train them in rugby, we'd go
out and kick ass. Hell, I'll take all those guys who were
second-team All-SEC but didn't make the NFL, guys who don't want
to work for $25,000 a year at Kmart when they could be full-time
athletes making $100,000, playing a sport that's pretty damn fun."

That said, he won't have them for the five-week-long Rugby World
Cup, the world's third-most-watched sporting event (behind
soccer's World Cup and the Olympics). Besides Lyle, the only
U.S. player who was a football standout is French-born flanker
Richard Tardits, who became the alltime sack leader at Georgia
and had a four-year NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals and
the New England Patriots. Despite a recent 106-8 loss to
England, the Americans are optimistic. Ranked 17th in the world,
they have upset Canada, Fiji and Tonga this year, a remarkable
feat for a World Cup team that doesn't field an entire lineup of
professional players. (The unpaid players on the U.S. roster
include two landscapers, a substitute teacher, a miner and a
chiropractor.)

The Yanks have gone 1-5 in their two World Cup appearances, in
1987 and '91, and if they are to fulfill their goal of reaching
the second round this year, they'll almost certainly have to win
twice: against Ireland in their Oct. 2 opener--in Dublin--and
against Romania. (The Eagles' other opponent in the first-round
round-robin is Australia, a tournament favorite.) "We're playing
against guys who've played the game since they were five and
have every resource," says Lyle. "We don't have that, but we do
have a great will."

They also have a transcendent player, one who's making from
$200,000 to $250,000 a year and has no regrets about dissing the
NFL. "No one's going to offer me a million dollars to play
American football, and I'd never give up the experiences I've
had in rugby," says Lyle. Besides, he has at least two World
Cups in his future, and he points out that rugby may reappear in
the 2004 Olympics after an 80-year hiatus. "Did you know we're
the reigning Olympic champions?" he says. "Paris, 1924. I'll bet
nobody in America knows that."

Nobody in America knows Dan Lyle, either. The way he's taking
over his new sport, that may be about to change.

COLOR PHOTO: BARRY MARKOWITZ Lyle combines the skills used in American sports with a blessed disregard for English stuffiness.
"The first time Dan ran down a kickoff," says Clark, "he was
better at it than anyone in the world."