Rugby a big hit with ex-NFLer Peters

Because rugby players don’t wear pads, there is a perception they are tougher than their American football counterparts.

But U.S. Sevens rugby player Leonard Peters begs to differ, and he should know: He played college football for Hawaii and in the NFL for the New York Jets and Chicago Bears.

“It’s much more physical playing football,” he said. “In (rugby) sevens, you try to break arm tackles, but in football, you’re smashing faces on every play.

“They’re both physical sports. I enjoy playing both of them.”

Despite having played rugby for only eight months, Peters is expected to be a key contributor for the United States today and Sunday in the USA Sevens International Rugby Tournament at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Teams from 16 countries will compete in 44 matches, with the United States playing three in pool play today: against Fiji at 11:44 a.m., South Africa at 3:12 p.m. and Canada at 5:46 p.m.

“Other guys, internationally, would never think about putting a player on the national team who only has (eight) months of experience. But it’s just a reflection on Leonard’s athletic ability and how much he’s become a student of the game,” said U.S. coach Al Caravelli, who described the 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pound Peters as an “impact player coming off the bench.”

“He’s got great footwork, he starts and stops very quickly, and he’s an amazing hitter and tackler. When he hits you, you’ll definitely feel it.”

Peters, 28, was born in American Samoa, where he said “rugby is huge, like (the NFL is in the U.S.),” but his father forbid him from playing the game.

“My father grew up playing rugby, but he never allowed me to play it; he didn’t want me to get hurt,” Peters said. “He thought it would be better for me to play football. He knew there was money in football.”

Ironically, Peters, who moved to Hawaii when he was 8, suffered several injuries playing football for the Rainbows. But the all-conference strong safety excelled when he was healthy. He led Hawaii in tackles with 124 in 2004 and finished his career in 2006 with seven interceptions and two touchdowns.

Peters signed with the Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2007. They cut him, and he spent the season on the Bears’ practice squad. He played in four preseason games with Chicago in 2008 but was waived before the regular season.

Last summer Peters received a call from Caravelli inviting him to try out for the U.S. Sevens. He joined the Eagles in July and has made steady progress.

“I’m still learning,” he said. “Obviously it’s physical and you have to run, but the hardest thing for me to adjust to is the fitness. In the NFL, you run for nine seconds and then you huddle up and rest for the next play. But in rugby (sevens), you run for 14 minutes.

“I thought, ‘I play three-hour football games, so seven-minute (halves) will be cake.’ But the first game I played, after two minutes, I told the coach to take me out. I was dead tired from full-on sprinting from sideline to sideline.”

Despite his inexperience, Peters has been a welcome addition, Caravelli said.

“He definitely fits in beautifully,” he said. “His professional nature and the way he approaches the game really helps the other players on our team.

“He just needs more experience, but he’s on the fast track.”

The U.S. team is led by former football players Zack Test and Kevin Swiryn, the team captain, along with leading scorer Nick Edwards, Mile Pulu and Paul Emerick, the only full-time professional rugby player on the squad. Only three players return from last year’s team, which reached the USA Sevens semifinals.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at or 702-383-0354.

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