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?"
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 kick-offs. 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�-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.