When Ryan Burroughs returned home from the U.S. Army with the chiseled physique that helped earn him the nickname Captain America, he got his competitive fix by playing football, a sport he loved in high school, and taking up mixed martial arts.
Chris Burroughs could see that his younger brother was talented enough to be a successful athlete if he focused his energy, so he sat him down and said, "Ryan, you are playing all these sports, but they aren't going to take you anywhere. Pick a sport and be great at it."
That conversation changed Ryan's life because around the same time, at a friend's suggestion, he played rugby league for the first time.
That was less than three years ago. Today, the 26-year-old Burroughs is one of the United States' best players. He will compete for Team USA at the Rugby League World Cup, which begins this week in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
"[Rugby league] is different and unique, and it's everything I want with my life," he said.
Perhaps that's appropriate because Ryan Burroughs' life story is different and unique.
RAISED BY A single mother who struggled to make ends meet, and with their father completely absent, Ryan and Chris didn't have much while growing up in Virginia. The family bounced around a lot. There were evictions. Sometimes, they had to take what they could get to keep a roof over their heads.
"Our mom got a job in the hotel working as a maid. It was a low-budget one, so the owner let us live there," Chris said, recalling a time when they spent their nights in sleeping bags on the floor of a hotel room.
When classmates wanted to come over to play, the brothers would say, "Oh, let's just go play at your house."
Through it all, their mother, Donna Alcantara, said she could always count on Chris and Ryan to take care of each other. Ryan doesn't like to talk about his childhood and leaves it to Chris, who is a year older, to explain their experience.
"We didn't realize, but we both were learning to be each other's fathers," Chris said. "We wanted to be the men we knew our mom deserved."
Alcantara wasn't completely on her own while raising her sons. Chris said their paternal grandmother -- who remained in the boys' lives -- instilled a strong work ethic in them.
"During summers, we would go stay with her," he said, "and one time we were picking up trash from the side of the road, cutting up weeds from the side of the road, and I remember people would stop in the neighborhood, and they would hand us $20 and tell us to go take our grandma out for lunch.
"We cleaned because it made our grandma happy. Two influential ladies in our lives, paving the path for us to be great human beings."
Playing football at Liberty High School in Bealeton, Virginia, also helped shape the Burroughs brothers. It was a way to channel their aggression and feel like their lives had meaning. And it kept them out of trouble.
"We had cousins who were felons and had drug-possession charges," Chris said. "It'd have been easy for us to fall into that trap, but football kept us focused. It made us believe in something good."
Ryan played running back and receiver, and Chris played defense. Even though Alcantara often worked overtime, she always found time to attend her sons' games.
"[Ryan] was the charming kid on the field, and I was the proud mama on the sidelines screaming: 'That kid is mine. That kid who scored the touchdown is my kid!'" she said.
Chris went to college, but Ryan took a different path after high school and enlisted in the Army. After serving for three years, he spent a couple of years doing heating, ventilation and air conditioning work as a government contractor while competing on the side in semiprofessional football and amateur MMA.
Then everything changed after his brother's talk and Ryan's discovery of an action-packed contact sport that is foreign to most Americans.
"Football was his life for a long while," Alcantara said, "and then one day he went off to play rugby and fell in love with the sport, and that was that."
BURROUGHS WAS introduced to rugby by his friend Chris Frazier, who also played the game. Always up for an athletic challenge, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound (177-cm, 91-kg) Burroughs gave rugby union a try with a local club. Frazier told Burroughs that his talents were better suited to the rules of rugby league, and in 2015, Burroughs joined the Northern Virginia Eagles Rugby League Club.
Frazier was right: Burroughs was a natural.
After one game, Burroughs knew the spot was where his future lay. The free-flowing nature of rugby league made it the perfect combination of American football and rugby union.
"The alertness and competitive nature of the sport made it an easy decision for me," Burroughs said.
He scored five tries in that first game and finished the 10-game season with 33 tries.
Word spread about the phenom, and Burroughs was invited to Connecticut to try out for the USA Rugby League national team. He was picked for the squad that played the two-game Colonial Cup series against Canada in October 2015, and then he was named to the U.S. side for a three-team World Cup qualifying round robin in December. He came off the bench in a win over Jamaica. He then started and scored a try against Canada, as the U.S. earned just its second Rugby League World Cup berth.
That success earned Burroughs an offer to play in 2016 for the Wentworthville Magpies, a semiprofessional affiliate of the Parramatta Eels in New South Wales. His friend and U.S. teammate Danny Howard took it upon himself to convince Ryan to give Australia a chance.
"From a selfish point of view, I knew he was going to be in our World Cup squad, and I wanted him to improve as much as possible," Howard said. "He was the most talented player in the country, and I knew for him to help develop his game further, he really needed to play the game with guys who have been doing so for their whole life."
"Ryan attacks everything with a positive attitude, and he is a passionate student of the game." Toronto Wolfpack head coach Paul Rowley
After one season with the Magpies, Burroughs was ready to break new ground, and he did so with a groundbreaking team. He was the first North American player to sign with the expansion Toronto Wolfpack, the first transatlantic franchise in the England-based Rugby Football League.
Toronto head coach Paul Rowley said that he knew Burroughs, despite his relative inexperience, had the explosiveness and agility to compete at that level.
"Ryan attacks everything with a positive attitude, and he is a passionate student of the game," Rowley said.
Burroughs and the Wolfpack were an instant hit. In February 2017, Burroughs scored the franchise's first try in a competitive match -- "It's an American for the Canadians," the BBC announcer screamed into the microphone -- a 14-6 win over Siddal in West Yorkshire. Toronto never looked back and went unbeaten in third-tier League 1 play to earn promotion.
Rugby's visibility in the U.S. got a boost when sevens, a condensed version of union (union has 15 players per side; league has 13), was added to the 2016 Olympics and NFL player Nate Ebner competed for Team USA. Now Burroughs is setting an example that rugby league supporters hope other Americans will follow.
"Ryan's success and pending high profile will provide, to many Americans, the value of playing rugby league in the USA," said USA Rugby League chairman Peter Illfield.
The sport is already showing progress in the States. Burroughs is one of 10 Americans on this year's 23-man World Cup team (there are a variety of ways a noncitizen can be eligible to represent a country). In 2013, when the U.S. reached the quarterfinals in its first trip to the World Cup, only two players were American.
"Ryan is living his dream, but he is also living the dream of all the Americans who love the sport," Chris Burroughs said. "This is just the beginning. He is in his chapter two in a long book that is yet to be written about him."