RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Nothing could stifle Dan Payne's spirits Tuesday, not even the U.S. team's heartbreaking 17-14 loss in rugby sevens when Argentina scored after the siren.
The CEO of USA Rugby expects a big boost in the sport's popularity in the U.S. with the men's gutsy performance coming on the heels of a surprisingly strong showing by the women's squad.
"The Olympics is what we understand in the United States, more than anything," Payne said. "It's just a pleasure for these guys to be able to play the game that they love in front of a strong crowd.
"And really for us it's about competing here, but it's also about that 8- to 9- to 10-year-old boy and girl at home watching it. We want them to aspire to be future rugby Olympians and share that goal, and that really helps the game grow and fills the stands."
Player Nate Ebner, who learned the game from his late father, who played college rugby, has similar hopes for the sport.
"I hope it does worlds for rugby. I hope it changes the game," Ebner said after the Americans followed the loss in the opener with a 26-0 shutout of host Brazil. "We can kind of be trailblazers for something great in the United States and obviously that's our hopes and dreams for this sport."
"I love this sport. I want to see it have tremendous success, but that's ultimately up to the people back in the United States and how they embrace the game and how many people get involved," added Ebner, whose fulltime job is as a safety for the New England Patriots.
Rugby sevens is a fast-paced version of the time-honored sport that was last played at the Olympics in 1924. The Americans won the gold in that 15-a-side tournament back when boxing and horse racing were the big pastimes, baseball was blossoming and the NFL wasn't even around.
Rugby sevens features two seven-minute halves divided by a two-minute halftime plus any stoppage time kept by the referee. The games are over in 20 minutes tops.
One thing that's helping grow the sport in the U.S. are fears of head injuries that are driving plenty of of parents to steer their kids away from football. Some youths are taking up rugby, where head-to-head hits are rare and the cardiovascular and aerobic benefits are more like soccer's.
"What I can say safely is that growth is taking off exponentially, especially in that age group. So, whatever the reasons are, I like to say that there's multiple contributing factors," Payne said. "But even just watching that (first slate of games) and being around that energy is probably the primary driving factor.
"But contrary to popular belief, it's a very safe game," Payne added.
There was only one player in the 24 women's matches who was taken off the pitch for concussion protocol and she returned in the second half.
"So, the rules are around keeping it safe. And when you don't have the helmet and you don't have the pads, you have to do things very technically, and that's in how you carry the ball and in how you tackle," Payne said.
In youth rugby in the U.S. kids 5 to 12 play with flags just like flag football, and when contact starts with the teenagers, the first season is dedicated to learning body control, safety and proper tackling technique where the head is protected and players hit with a shoulder as they wrap up, he said.
"You're seeing it in football where they've started to do a lot of the rugby tackling in a lot of the NFL camps and colleges," Payne said. "So, it's a very safe game and I think people will see it and watch and there's the contact. Especially in America, we love the physical contact, there's that. But it's in a very safe and controlled way."
Rugby can be played by all sorts, the big, the tall, the squat, the fast, the slow.
"The greatest thing about the game?" Payne said. "Whatever position you are, you have a chance to carry the ball, which is what we love."
Americans that know the most obscure of NFL rules, however, have a difficult time with rugby's rules.
So, what does Payne tell his confused compatriots?
"You're not alone," he said with a chuckle. "It's like anything: you have to do some research on it but you also just have to sit next to somebody that knows the game," Payne said. "It's pretty quick to pick up, but you're right, it looks like a little bit of chaos but it's a controlled chaos. There's a rhyme to the reason."
Just then, the Brazilians made a good play on the pitch against powerhouse Fiji and the stadium shuddered.
"That was amazing," Payne said. "There was just goosebumps on my arms, just hearing that crowd and the energy."
He wants to have that feeling back home, too.