Combining the Future and the Present
By special correspondent Bruce Wood
“Come watch Madison Hughes in action along with America’s future rugby stars this May 30 and 31st at the 2015 Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship in Philadelphia.”
From an NBC promotional video headlined, “From college student to current USA Rugby team captain.”
HANOVER – Dartmouth senior Madison Hughes was disappointed not to be playing in the Collegiate Rugby Championship on the final weekend in May.
Coach Gavin Hickie and Hughes’ teammates were likewise disappointed that the Big Green’s best player wasn’t on the pitch at PPL Park in the Philadelphia suburbs.
But most disappointed of all might have been the beancounters at NBC, which created the de facto national championship Sevens event in 2010 as a way to stir up viewership for a sport that next summer returns to the Olympic stage for the first time since 1924.
NBC just-so-happens to have broadcast rights to the Olympics and the TV people know that nothing draws viewers like a good story. And the story of a college senior leading the Eagles Sevens – the U.S. national team bidding for an Olympic berth – is a very good one indeed.
Talk to anyone who knows him and they will tell you that Dartmouth senior Madison Hughes is polite, thoughtful, intelligent, athletically gifted, charismatic and humble. The list goes on.
Instrumental in bringing Hughes to Hanover was Alex Magleby ’00, the former Dartmouth rugby coach, current technical advisor to the Big Green and former head coach of the Eagles. Magleby, who now serves as the National Sevens Director, is effusive in his praise for Hughes, who will lead the Eagles into Olympic qualifying June 13-14 in Cary, N.C.
“He is hard-working, professional, tougher on himself than others, respectful of all around him, has good humor, is well-spoken, analytical and honest with himself and peers,” offered Magleby. “He leads by example, not rah-rah nonsense. He’s (an) efficient communicator under pressure and is always looking . . . to get better no matter who is watching. He’s a playmaker who makes others around him better and more productive.”
Magleby could have added that the boyish Hughes is the definition of the all-American boy.
Except for one thing.
He’s not all-American.
Born in England and raised in London, Hughes has dual citizenship through his mother, who grew up in the Boston suburbs.
It was from his mum that young Maddy developed a love of the Red Sox and the Patriots.
It was from his father, who played the game as an English schoolboy, that he developed a love of rugby, which he took up at the age of 7.
Growing up in England Hughes played soccer, cricket and field hockey and ran track. But it was rugby that won his heart.
In Great Britain, as in much of the rest of the world where the game is played at an elite level, professional rugby teams have youth programs with which talented young players train in hopes of signing with the pro team when they are of age. Hughes came up through one of those programs all the while understanding there were no guarantees in a nation loaded with rugby talent.
Fortunately, as a very good student at regarded prep school Wellington College and the son of an American mother, Hughes had more options than most.
“When I was 14 or 15 it started to be in the back of my mind that playing in the U.S. was a possibility for me,” he said. “I thought it was something I might want to do. Because of my mother and all of my relatives over here, I always had a sense of myself as an American. Among my friends I was the kid who always liked American sports.”
Hughes’ parents met when they both worked for the Bank of Boston – he in London and she in Boston – and so when it came time to think of U.S. colleges he found himself leaning toward New England.
“I was focused on going to a school that played good rugby and had high academic credentials,” he explained. “My mom was pretty insistent on that. I had been to the northeast a lot because that was where my family is from. The options weren’t particularly huge in terms of a good rugby school in the northeast that had really good academics.”
With the Big Green sevens winning the CRC national championship during his senior year of high school, Dartmouth fit the bill on both accounts. Helping Magleby close the deal on the blue-chip recruit was Hughes’ first look at the Corey Ford Clubhouse.
“I was kind of in awe,” he said. “The school as a whole had the effect on me, but the feeling I got the first time I saw the clubhouse made me want to come to Dartmouth in many ways. So I applied early decision and was lucky enough to get in.”
Although he knew the region and had studied up on Dartmouth, Hughes will readily admit to some naiveté about the American college sports scene upon arriving in Hanover.
“I have a lot of American cousins. Some of them played college football, some played college lacrosse,” he said. “So I had a bit of a sense of what college sports in the country were all about, but I don’t think I grasped quite how big of a thing they are.
“My main concern had been how the rugby would compare to the rugby I had already played in England. I wanted to go on to a high level so I didn’t want to take a step back, which it definitely wasn’t.”
To be sure, in the weeks before arriving on campus he found himself wondering exactly where he might fit in.
“I asked Alex Magleby how long he thought it might take me to break into the first team,” he recalled. “I didn’t expect to come in and be a star straightaway, and indeed I don’t think that was the case.
“I was really, really helped by an experienced senior class that help me settle into college rugby and settle into Dartmouth.”
While his athletic ability and rugby smarts were apparent early, Hughes’ true coming out party came at the CRCs at the end of his freshman year. With the defending national champion Big Green trailing powerhouse Cal, 19-7, with less than four minutes remaining in the semifinals, a Hughes try and pass helped propel Dartmouth to a 21-19 victory. A 24-5 win over Arizona in the championship match saw him earn both all-tournament and MVP recognition.
It also landed him squarely on the national team radar, a fitting culmination to a year of growth as a freshman.
“When I got to Dartmouth I realized that I needed to improve a whole lot more,” Hughes said with characteristic modesty. “There was still a lot of hard work to be done. It’s mostly because of ‘Mags’ that I came to that realization. It would’ve been really easy to have rested on my laurels thinking I am just going to be a good rugby player at Dartmouth. He inspired the sense that if I should continue growing and progressing that I could continue on to higher levels and succeed at them.”
The hard work paid off as the honors and accomplishments quickly piled up. A few weeks after his first CRC’s, Hughes helped the host United States claim the Under 20 IRB Junior World Trophy in Salt Lake City, scoring a tournament-high 72 points.
After another all-tournament showing at the CRC’s as a sophomore, Hughes was selected the first junior captain in the long history of Dartmouth rugby. He also won a spot on the U.S. national team that from October through May competes in the HSBC Sevens World Series, the highest rung on the international sevens ladder.
Hughes led the Eagles in scoring both at the famed Wellington, New Zealand tournament and in Tokyo, but his first year with the team saw it finish a disappointing 13th in the international standings.
With the Americans needing a turnaround to have a shot at qualifying for the Rio Olympics, U.S. coach Mike Friday put his trust in Hughes, appointing the youngest player on the team as captain for 2014-15.
“Age is just a number,” Friday told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last fall. “It’s about the qualities he has as a man, the way he leads, communicates and carries himself.
“Some say leaders are born, not made. He commands the respect of the players around him, and he gives respect back, and his work ethic is second to none."
Magleby, the former Eagles Sevens head coach, encouraged and applauded Friday’s decision to hand the reins to the Big Green senior.
“Think about that,” the former Dartmouth and professional standout wrote in an award nomination for Hughes, selected by a poll in The Dartmouth as the outstanding male athlete in the college this year. “A 22-year-old college undergraduate leading long-time professional athletes, some in their early 30’s, some having been national team players for 10-years plus, from a wide range of backgrounds (attorneys, graduate students, carpenters, non-high school graduates, overseas pro club players) – all being led by a student who for most of the last few years trains 2,970 miles away at Dartmouth – a continent away from his national team peers who are training in a full-time environment at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.
“Here Madison has been, going to school, playing on Brophy Field, training with his best friends on Battle Field.”
Hughes stressed that being named captain was as much about his teammates as it was about him.
“I was surprised because there are so many guys on the team who I really look up to,” he said. “They have helped me develop as a player, especially last year when I was kind of new on the circuit and just getting used to things.
“At the end of last year everyone was quite frustrated with the way things had gone, knowing we had to make a big push in order to make our dream of the Olympics in 2016 become a reality.”
Despite the difficulty of balancing Ivy League schoolwork and sports, Dartmouth rugby and Eagles Sevens, Hughes managed this past year brilliantly. On the collegiate level he helped the Big Green win its eighth consecutive Ivy League 15s title and its third-straight Sevens title last fall. He somehow managed to find time to mix in Eagles camps in Chula Vista and a week-long trip to Australia for the Gold Coast Sevens in October that saw him write a lengthy paper one night, take a midterm via the Internet the next, and read a book for a discussion group before returning to Hanover.
Although he took the winter and spring terms off from school and will graduate after summer term, the sacrifice was well worth it.
On rugby’s biggest stage this year he helped the United States rise to sixth in the Sevens World Series standings, easily topping its best previous showing of 10th, finishing as the team’s leading scorer in six of its final seven tournaments. That didn’t surprise Hickie, the Dartmouth coach, and not just because of a work ethic that helped Hughes become deceptively strong for someone just 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds. And not because he complements very good speed with exceptional acceleration.
“Madison has the ability to see things before they happen,” his college coach said. “The game goes a little slower for him. His rugby intelligence separates him from the rest.”
The Sevens series was capped off in dramatic fashion as Hughes captained the Eagles to the London Sevens championship before a record two-day crowd of 116,219 last month at storied Twickenham Stadium, a venue he dreamed about playing in as a boy. Hughes was selected to the London Sevens “Dream Team” after helping the U.S. National Team to its first World Series victory.
Make that first World Series victory ever.
“Winning it was an absolutely incredible feeling for me and my teammates,” he said. “Having it happen in London for the first time was for me incredibly special. My family was there. A lot of my friends from high school were there. We beat England at the national stadium in the semifinal, so for me, that was really special.
“In high school in England I had a couple of England trials and they didn’t go the way I would have liked. So there definitely was a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. So to have us beat England and the way we did it was just so, so special. I’ve spoken to quite a number of U.S. rugby fans who said it was just an amazing thing to see. So many kids are so excited with the team right now. I think it is only going to do wonders for the game taking it forward.”
The Eagles return to action in Cary, N.C., June 13 and 14 at the North American Caribbean Association (NACRA) Championship with a bid to the 2016 Olympics going only to the winning country. Given what’s a stake Hughes believes the event is even bigger than London.
“Yes, I think it really is,” he said. “I told the guys shortly after (London) this is amazing and no one is happier about this than I am, but I can tell you that if in a month we lose in North Carolina we will look back on this with an incredibly bittersweet feeling because there will be a sense that if we didn’t have this success maybe we would have pushed ourselves to go on and win in North Carolina.
“It is absolutely everything. Pretty much everyone on our team is not pursuing contracts in Europe and all that because they want to be in the Olympics. It is something we’ve talked about all year and something we have worked hard for all year. Every conditioning session we are doing, in the back of our mind we have been thinking that come June 13 and 14 we have to be in position where we can qualify for the Olympics.”
For all he’s accomplished individually, and for all the history the Eagles have made and can still make, Dartmouth’s history major with a concentration in modern European history will admit to some regrets, including having to take the winter and spring terms off — which kept him from competing with the Dartmouth team in the Collegiate Rugby Championship — and not walking with his class at graduation.
“I was named (Dartmouth) captain by the team last spring and I had no idea I’d be missing as much time as I have,” he said. “I definitely feel bad about that because I have a responsibility to my teammates. In some ways I let them down. At the same time, everyone I’ve spoken to seems to understand my situation.”
Hickie, the Dartmouth coach, certainly would have liked to have seen more of Hughes this year. But the former Irish pro recognizes there’s more on the line for rugby than winning college tournaments. Even one created by a TV network that had the good common sense to use Hughes to promote the sport.
“It was devastating for me not to see Madison in a Big Green jersey again,” he said. “It is tough for everyone. It is tough for his friends and more importantly guys who played with him for 3 1/2 years. His best buddies. I know he wanted to be there and we wanted to have him there.
“The CRC does its part in helping to grow rugby in this country but Olympic qualification is the number one most important thing. That in itself is going to grow the game here massively. So while it would be great to have Madison play in an invitational collegiate tournament, if it comes down to that or Madison playing a very significant role in putting USA rugby on the map by helping us qualify for the Olympics, it is a no-brainer.
“He’s the poster boy for the sport in this country and is on the tipping point of global stardom.”