Dan Lyle began his rugby career at the age of 23 and earned a spot on the U.S. National Team in 1994 where he became captain in 1996. That same year, Dan joined England's Bath Football Club, playing with them for seven seasons and served as team captain in 2001 where he was given the nickname, “Captain America.” Dan continued playing for the U.S. National Team and led the U.S. 7s team to a Hong Kong Plate victory in 1997. He retired with 45 caps for the U.S. 15s team (1993-2003) and played with the U.S. 7s team for 3 years.
Dan is the former executive vice president of United World Sports/USA Sevens, LLC and was inducted into the 2016 U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame.
You played American football as a teenager and in college. What made you decide to pursue a career in rugby instead of football?
Growing up, I played every sport I could get my hands on --- swimming, track and field, soccer, basketball, baseball, and more. I think being a multi-sport athlete not only makes you well-rounded as an athlete, but as a person too. As a parent of three boys, I want every parent to encourage their children to play different sports because I believe they will have much greater success and much more fun.
I started playing football in my late teens and into college. I walked onto the Virginia Military Institute football team, gained experience and became a pretty good player. It even led me to trials with the Washington Redskins and a contract with the Minnesota Vikings. However in my time between the Redskins and the Vikings I started playing rugby to stay fit and I fell in love. Playing rugby felt like every sport I had played growing up, rolled into one – and I started my journey on the U.S. team, which took me around the world.
On that journey I was seen by a professional scout from Bath Rugby in the English Premiership (now live weekly on NBCSN) and they offered me a contract for the 1996 season. So I had two contracts (pro rugby and pro football) and chose the sport I thought would literally take me places.
In the over 25 years you have been involved with rugby, what has been the most unexpected door that the sport has opened for you?
I would never have thought that the sport of rugby, which I found late in my athletic career, would take me from a professional athlete to a national team player and then to a broad sports business career. Since my father and grandfather were in the military and I went to school at the Virginia Military Institute, I thought that I would be an officer in the military. Now I am involved with a global sport that just made its return to the Olympics and I get to make an impact on pioneering rugby as a business and for the future players and fans.
You are closely connected with the U.S. rugby community, specifically at the college level. Tell us about the growth you have seen in rugby at that level and where you see it going in the next ten years.
It is becoming more and more mainstream to be a collegiate student athlete in the sport of rugby. We are seeing the number of high quality programs increase that are recruiting, holding summer camps, building alumni networks with high performance structures. We are seeing these college programs support the new Olympic dynamic similar to swimming and track and field.
Rugby has become a vehicle for sponsors and the great brands that are getting behind the sport are now supporting wonderful new events on NBC that serve as the aspiration to the growing and equally as dynamic high school and youth markets.
Tell us about something that you have learned from rugby that you don’t think you would have learned elsewhere.
Rugby drives home the team dynamic – shared sacrifice, hard work, camaraderie and respect. These aspects of rugby serve people who play in life. You have to want to play rugby. It’s a choice, so by playing rugby, you are saying that you want to be successful and part of a team. No individual is going to solve the largest or the smallest problems we face at work or as a society. Only a team will do that.
How do you see the re-induction of rugby into the Olympics affecting the growth of the sport here in the U.S.?
I tweeted about this during my stay in Rio – mainstream, mainstream, mainstream. We grow up thinking scholastic, college, pro, or Olympics. With Penn Mutual, NBC and other partners we are building the one arm – the Olympics gives our entire population and culture the ability to see what we are all about and from the initial outtakes they like the women and the men’s competitions and the sport.
With rugby being just as much of a social sport as it is a physical sport, is there any particular social occasion with another team or club that stands out as especially memorable for you?
Rugby engenders itself because of the physicality and the shared sacrifice. It drives people together and you look at your teammates and opponents with respect. People you respect generally want to enjoy each other’s company and this spirit binds people to a common purpose and spills over to social gatherings. It is one of the great parts of both the amateur and professional game – that we tunnel up and clap each other off after – and that we seek each other out in the changing room to exchange jerseys and that we look to keep those relationships well past our playing days. Those current teammates and opponents become longtime friends or business colleagues.
What are your thoughts about the relationship between Penn Mutual, a life insurance company, and the rugby community?
Just like you have to be physically fit to play rugby, you also have to be financially fit to live your life comfortably. I think there is a natural connection with a company like Penn Mutual, who cares about the financial fitness of consumers and truly wants to be a teammate to the clients it serves.
Get to know Dan:
Favorite pro sports team: Bath Rugby – and with my boys now we love our Denver Broncos.
Favorite pro athlete: Jesse Owens & Jackie Robinson – I can’t imagine what they had to go through to be the champions that they were. Larry Bird and Michael Jordan as basketball was one of my first loves.
Favorite dining experience: With my wife and friends – a great English pub or farm table…great afternoon stories, friendship, drink and fresh food
Favorite family activity: Hike, golf, pool, wrestling, beach, sporting events – so many activities, as long as the boys and I are hanging we are having fun!
Finish this sentence: USA will win a Sevens Series or Rugby World Cup . . . .when passion and expertise are combined into a collective and collaborative American rugby plan.
America’s love affair with contact sports has been going on for some time. Since the early 80s though, football has separated itself from all of the others, becoming the nation’s most popular sport. Just last year, around 6 million Americans took part in playing tackle football and 111.9 million people tuned in to watch the Super Bowl.
With such a deeply engrained cultural embrace of contact sports, it’s not surprising that the nation is taking notice of rugby. Since it was reintroduced in the 2016 Olympics, research reveals that rugby has actually garnered almost 300% more attention than it had just a year ago; that’s more attention than the sport has ever had in the history of the country. Of course, it still has a way to go to catch up with football, but it’s clear to see that rugby is on the rise.
Football was the sport that really sparked my athletic career early on, and the same can be said about many of the athletes that represented the United States in the Rio Summer Olympics. The team of 13 U.S. rugby players sent to Brazil was comprised of 13 multi-sport athletes, 9 of which being former football players. Certainly one of the most notable of these converts was Nate Ebner, free safety for the New England Patriots turned USA Eagle. Carlin Isles and Perry Baker, the team’s two bolts of lightning along the wing, were both former football players; Perry having made the transition from arena football in Pittsburgh, and Carlin being previously signed to the Detroit Lions’ practice squad.
For me it all started in the 5th grade when I went from a small school without any sports teams to a much larger school that offered more programs. I was excited to finally get a chance to play football on an actual team, the sport that I grew up playing and watching. I made the change from playing pickup games in empty streets to playoff games in open fields. Sneakers were swapped for cleats, skin and bone became shrouded by padding, and my favorite exchange of all, two-hand touch, was at last abandoned for full contact. Before long the sport grew to be a large part of who I was and during the 2008-2009 school year, I became one of the more than a million high school football players in the United States.
I went into high school intending to play football all four years, and I did just that; slowly making my way from a nose guard in the center of the defensive line to a defensive end by my senior year. Toward the end of my sophomore year though, I had the great fortune to happen upon rugby. I was lucky enough to attend a Jesuit high school with a proud rugby tradition, and even luckier to have a few good friends on the team who convinced me to check out just one of their practices. Little did I know it at the time, but that one practice would be the start of an eight year and counting rugby career, spanning from high school, to college, and now to men’s league rugby.
Our football team in high school made it to the league Championship three times in my four years, sadly to always come up short in the end, and the first full season that I played for our school’s rugby team, we went on to win the team’s first ever State Championship, followed by a tough runner-up spot in the following season. Having played both sports and experiencing a good deal of success in each, I naturally came to the point where I had to make a decision as to which sport to continue pursuing, the sport that I grew up loving, football, or the sport vying for my heart, rugby.
Of course the two are both very physical in nature, and they do share other parallels like a few similar rules and a seven point scoring system with a three point conversion option, but I came to realize that the gap between the two is greater than it might appear on the surface. Football is a game of mostly specialists; one that involves athletes contributing to their team by performing one specific task on the field. This is why there are rarely any football players that play both offense and defense, and why there is such a generally large contrast of skill-sets across the positions. By playing both sports, I learned quickly that rugby is not the specialist’s sport that football is. Rugby players, from backs to forwards, are expected to assume many of the same responsibilities on the field. Passing, catching, tackling, rucking; all of these skills are equally necessary across the pitch, while kicking could be seen as the main specialty in rugby.
There is also a certain social aspect to rugby that I’ve found doesn’t quite translate to the football world. In my experiences, as well as those of many other athletes familiar with both sports, rugby tends to instill a certain comradery amongst its players that is unparalleled by the all-too-frequent animosity brought about on the football field. That being said, any combination of contact and competition is a potential hotbed for hostility, but it tends to be much less so in rugby due to a mutually shared respect for the sacrifices, both physical and mental, necessary to play the game. This was much less so with football, with many on-field skirmishes making their way off of the field due to personal pride.
Quite possibly, what could be the most difficult aspect of making this transition is getting acclimated with the change of pace. Rugby really places a greater emphasis on stamina and endurance compared to that of football. The endurance required by the stop-and-go pace of football pales in comparison to the 80 minute, for-the-most-part continuous game-play of a rugby 15s game. Not solely from an aerobic standpoint either, rugby entails a very specific set of techniques and proper forms, all of which require exceptional stamina to be performed well in the late minutes of games. The same could be true about football, but the frequent substitutions and stoppage of play tend to detract from this emphasis.
Overall, I couldn’t bring myself to abandon either sport entirely, but in the end, it was an easy decision for me to choose rugby over football. They both involve physicality and competition and are continuing to grow in popularity. I can see more and more athletes who played football migrating to rugby, much like I did.
I was very surprised when I was told I was to receive this year’s Penn Mutual Life of Significance Award.
My coach at Michigan had pranked me, telling me I would be getting a call from USA Rugby officials about my eligibility to play in the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship, so I was expecting a call, even though I was confused about how I could have issues with eligibility. When the call turned out to be from Eileen MacDonnell, the Chairman and CEO of Penn Mutual, I was just shocked. I knew I had been nominated, but I never thought I might win. After the call was over, I immediately called my mom, and she began crying. It was crazy. I would never have thought anything like this would come from just collecting books.
Collecting books for literacy
I had started my book collection project during my sophomore year in high school. I was preparing for Confirmation at my church, which required a certain number of hours of community service. Instead of doing something tried and true, like working at a soup kitchen, my mom and I discussed doing something a little more personal. We came across a crazy statistic about how so many kids in underprivileged homes don’t have books. We had a ton of kids’ books in our home that no one ever looked at anymore, so we knew we had something that might work.
We started collecting books from close friends and people at our church. My mom works at an elementary school, so it made sense to collect books there, too. We started really small, but it quickly grew. We built it up enough to involve my high school, an all-boys Catholic private high school with students from 60 different communities.
We ended up getting so many books that we didn’t know who to donate them to. We ended up giving a majority of the books to Girls Inc. in Lynn, Massachusetts, and they were very grateful for them. Girls Inc. runs a summer literacy program, giving away books to girls to take home for the summer because many of them don’t have anything.
I kept going at it even after my service hours for Confirmation were fulfilled. We realized that we were on to something big, and Girls Inc. kept calling us to see if we had any more books, so we just kept collecting books. My sister took over the project after I left for college, and my little brother, who’s 12 now, will take it over when she leaves for college in the fall. We’ve collected around 6,500 books by now, and we’re hoping to be close to 10,000 by the end of next year.
Rugby for community and leadership
My freshman year of high school, I was cut from the baseball team. I also played hockey and football and always enjoyed contact sports, so one of my friends suggested I play rugby. I had never heard of rugby, but I went to one practice. The first time I touched the ball, I was absolutely destroyed in a tough tackle. I dusted myself off and I thought, “Wow, I love this!” And I’ve never looked back -- I’ve been playing ever since.
I’ve come to love rugby for its sense of community. You don’t often hear about star rugby players; you hear about teams being great. Rugby is all about coming together and contributing to make the team better. It’s about doing the stuff that needs to make the community stronger, even if you don’t always get recognition for it.
Rugby’s all about situational awareness and managing the moment, rather than who’s the best athlete or who can yell the loudest. It comes down to how many times have you seen this situation? What are we doing here? Who wants to step in and take control? The more rugby you play, the better you are. Because I started playing rugby as a freshman in high school, I had a lot more experience than the other people walking on in college. I had already played for four years, including every single summer for the Mystic River Rugby Club, which just won the D1 Men’s National Championship. I was happy to share my experience among my own classmates, and this year, as a sophomore, I was able to step up and take more of a leadership role in the whole team. Next year, I hope to continue as a leader.
What the Life of Significance Award means to me
I never set out to win an award for anything I do, either collecting books or contributing to my rugby team, but the Life of Significance Award has brought home to me how my actions affect so many others. Until now, it was just something fun that I did on the side. I knew that collecting books was a worthwhile effort and that it was a big help to Girls Inc., but I never really thought about the direct impact it has on the lives of the kids who receive the books. It wasn’t until my coach talked to me about why he was nominating me that I realized how serious it is and the impact my efforts have. It’s the same thing with rugby, where you go into a scrum, you hit somebody, make a good tackle. At that moment, you don’t really have any idea that what you did helped contribute to something greater. The Life of Significance Award really solidified for me what we’re doing here, how important it is, and who we’re trying to help.
As part of the award, Penn Mutual is donating $5,000 to a charity of my choice. I selected the local branch of Girls Inc. as my charity, and they’re going to use it to fund their entire summer literacy program. It is also great that our rugby team is getting $1,000 in rugby equipment. My teammates joked about it when they heard I won the award, but learning about the equipment got them really excited.
We are still collecting books. If anyone wants to donate books or make any other contribution, please send me an email and I will make arrangements. I also want to thank my mom, my sister, and my brother for all of their hard work. They do a ton of work. This is their project too, and their award.
2016 marked the first time since 1924 that rugby appeared in the Olympics, and many would assume after an 82-year hiatus that the sport would need some time to gain momentum. But, that wasn’t the case for rugby. Based on share of voice (SOV) research conducted by Penn Mutual, which measures the amount of general online buzz, rugby gained almost 300% more attention during this year’s Summer Games compared to just one year ago.
365 days prior to the start of the Summer Olympics, rugby had a 7 percent SOV calculation. Since the beginning of the Rio Games it jumped to 23 percent. Even sports like cycling and water polo gained online momentum during the games. However, the percentage increase for those sports fail to match the hike in attention rugby received. Cycling’s SOV increased from 11 to 20 percent while water polo’s only increased from 1 to 6 percent.
Another sport re-entering the Summer Games this year was golf, which last played in the Olympics in 1904. However, the sport’s SOV actually decreased from a year ago, dropping from 55 percent to 35 percent during the Games.
“We recognized the potential for the growing sport of rugby a few years ago and are truly pleased with the amount of attention these incredible young women and men have received in such a short amount of time,” says Eileen McDonnell, chairman and CEO of Penn Mutual.“We’re proud of our relationship with collegiate rugby, its players, and the entire rugby community. This upward trend in popularity is exciting and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for the sport in 2017 and beyond.”
Through its partnership with United World Sports and NBC Sports, Penn Mutual is the title sponsor of the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship and Penn Mutual Varsity Cup. The company also sponsored Kristen Thomas of the USA women’s sevens team and Madison Hughes, captain of the USA men’s sevens team, throughout their journey to Rio.
Penn Mutual loves rugby, and after the sport’s resurgence in this year’s Summer Olympics, it’s apparent many others do too.