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How new Olympic sport, rugby, helped Johnson Bademosi and Haloti Ngata

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- He saw the Cliffs of Moher and hung out in Dublin. His sport took him to France and Spain and all over Ireland, all before he even left for college.

This was Johnson Bademosi's life as a teenager, when the Detroit Lions defensive back was busy earning a scholarship to Stanford for football and becoming one of the top rugby players in the United States. It was rugby, not football, that allowed him to see the world before he turned 18.

Bademosi started playing rugby before football, in part because rugby was during the summer before his sixth-grade year and football began that fall. But he fell for the game -- one he still calls his first love.

“I think I have a physical nature and it offered me an opportunity to travel the world and meet people from different countries,” Bademosi said. “In rugby, you could be in a really heated, violent match against the other rugby team, but after the game you are all drinking sodas and hanging out after the game.”

Sodas? In Ireland?

“Yeah, you know, they got Guinness out there, too,” Bademosi said.

The Stanford football scholarship ended Bademosi’s rugby career, a difficult decision he made for his future when he left Gonzaga High School in suburban Washington, D.C. He knew then he was making the right call, and it eventually led him to the NFL, even though he was part of the United States’ Under-17 and Under-18 national rugby teams.

But it was rugby that helped shape his love for football and his game. It was rugby that taught him pace, and it was rugby that helped him feel comfortable getting in the middle of plays and making him “not afraid to get my nose dirty, do some of the dirty work.”

Bademosi is a special-teams demon, one of the main reasons the Lions acquired him in free agency this offseason. He credits rugby with helping him become a better football player. And he’s not the only one.

Lions teammate Haloti Ngata also played rugby growing up, and it helped him with the aspects of what turned him into an All-Pro defensive tackle. Nate Ebner, a safety for the New England Patriots, is taking time away from the NFL to compete for the United States in the rugby sevens Olympic competition beginning Tuesday. A former Lions practice squad receiver, Carlin Isles, is also on the team.

“A lot of it, in rugby, it’s a lot of one-on-ones, so the open-field stuff, it definitely helps in understanding where people are trying to run to,” Ngata said. “I think it definitely helped me as a defensive player, especially as an open-field person understanding what they are trying to do.”

Both Lions will be in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, this week preparing for their NFL season and their preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But they’ll have an eye on what’s going on in Rio de Janeiro.

Men’s rugby sevens is making its first appearance in the Olympics, and the sport in general will be appearing for the first time since rugby union -- the 15-player version of the sport -- last was an Olympic sport in 1924.

“That’s awesome,” Ngata said. “I love that. I love being able to turn on the Olympics and watch a sevens rugby game. I’m excited about that.”

Ngata, though, said he would not have had interest in trying to do both because sevens is “too much running.” Bademosi, though, said he’s a little jealous of the rugby sevens players lining up in Rio. He still loves the game, and if everything had been equal, he would have tried to continue playing both. If the chance to play rugby is still available once his football career ends, he said “of course” he’d consider it.

So while he’s playing football now, he is a rugby sevens spectator with a pretty large investment in the outcome. In part, it’s because rugby helped him get to where he is now in the NFL.

“It takes a lot of discipline to play both sports,” Bademosi said. “That’s something that I learned, how to be a teammate, and rugby, of course, is an international sport. I’ve been on tours around the country, in England, Ireland, Spain and France, just learning how other countries have amazing athletes and train in some ways the same, in some ways different than us.

“So learning all of that and putting it all together is giving me an opportunity to be successful in football and in life.”