By Mark Janzen
Madison Hughes went to his first Boston Red Sox game when he was six years old.
That first day at Fenway Park had an impact.
In one nine-inning display, Hughes fell in love with America’s Pastime and, as it happens, with America itself.
The USA Sevens star was born in Epsom, Great Britain, went to Wellington College in Crowthorne, England, and has a distinct British accent. Yet, Hughes is as proudly American as they come. And of this there is no doubt: the USA is proud of Hughes.
Captain of the Eagles Sevens side, Hughes rarely misses a Red Sox game. He also supports the New England Patriots and the Boston Bruins. Apologies to those who hate that fan, but for a lad whose American roots reside in Lancaster, Massachusetts, he comes by his fandom honestly. Growing up in England, Hughes summered in Lancaster. It was here where he embraced the Stars and Stripes.
“Having that summer experience with my cousins and my family really helped instill a sense of American-ness in me,” says Hughes, whose mother, Kathy, is American, while his father Stuart, is English. “My fanhood for those teams was a big part of why and how I felt American.”
When he was 12 years old, Hughes convinced his father, who raised Madison wearing the blue of Chelsea F.C., to purchase Major League Baseball’s online radio package. The Red Sox games started at midnight. On certain nights from New Malden – a suburb of south-west London – Madison listened.
Upon graduating from Wellington College, which is a coeducational day and boarding school in the royal county of Berkshire, Hughes enrolled at Dartmouth College – the ninth oldest institution of higher education in the United States. He was there to play rugby, get a top-drawer liberal arts degree, and develop into an Eagle. While there, he studied history and, indeed, became a sought-after American rugby star.
In his time as an Eagle, he’s already captained the American Sevens side at the Olympics in 2016, played a key part in helping the USA qualify for this year’s Rugby World Cup, and, most recently, led his country to a best-ever second-place finish on the World Rugby Sevens Series. And, there’s reason to believe Hughes, 26, might just be getting started.
Fact of the matter is, it took getting puppy with his girlfriend – a Miniature Australian Shepherd they named Zola – for Hughes to admit to a new stage in his life.
“I guess I’m a pseudo-adult now and I get to make the decisions,” he says.
If true, one has to feel sorry for the rest of the rugby world if the 5-foot-9, 180-pound wizard is just now starting to mature.
With the 2018-19 Sevens season on the shelf, Hughes can now reflect. The Eagles finished second overall – pipped at the end by the sometimes-otherworldly Fijians – and in doing so, made history. They played in five finals, winning in Las Vegas, and were the only team on the circuit to finish in the top four in all 10 tournaments.
“The biggest thing for us was the consistency we put in,” Hughes says. “We came into every quarter-final saying that this was our biggest game, and we really targeted those games and we did a good job of doing that consistently.
“On the field, I don’t think we did too many things differently. I don’t feel like we were playing at a level we had never seen before. It was just that we did it again and again and again – and we did it when it mattered.”
Most importantly, the second-place finish meant automatic Olympic qualification for 2020.
And for Hughes, that meant a chance to take a swing at the World Cup. With USA’s Sevens ticket booked to Tokyo, Hughes could focus on earning a spot with the fifteen-a-side Eagles.
The last time Hughes donned the Red, Whit, and Blue in a 15s game was two years ago, in the summer of 2017, when he started at fullback in the Eagles win over Canada to secure World Cup qualification. Gary Gold wasn’t the coach at the time – the exiting John Mitchell still held the reins – but the USA coach has seen enough from Hughes and his sublime sevens game to warrant an opportunity to enter the fray.
“Madison is obviously an unbelievably exciting player,” Gold says. “With his Sevens background, he brings a lot of ‘x-factor’ to the game. I think he’s one of those Sevens players who can really make the transfer to 15s. Our Sevens boys have such fantastic basic skills with their passing and tackling and around the breakdown because obviously it’s highlighted even more in Sevens. It’s been brilliant to have (Madison) in.”
For Hughes, his World Cup hopes have been a long time coming. Remember that young trans-Atlantic sports fan? While there was always Chelsea and, soon enough, there were the Red Sox, when it came to rugby, Hughes most enjoyed the international game.
“For me it was always more about national teams than club rugby,” he says. “Watching the World Cup as a kid, it has always been a dream of mine.”
Now, the transition begins.
From the inside, optimism rides high. From both a peripheral and day-to-day perspective, Cody Melphy, who captained the USA Falcons throughout the 2018-19 season and is set to lead the USA at the Pan American Games in Peru, has witnessed Hughes and everything he’s about first hand.
“To be on the Sevens circuit you have to be the best at everything as a rugby player,” Melphy says. “You have to be precise and intelligent with every move you make. Madison is one of the most technically sound players and he’s one of the greatest to play for USA rugby.
“He’s just a naturally born leader. He leads by example, is very knowledgeable, and is able to inspire you at any moment.”
A leader. Yes. And also a pioneer.
Debuting with the sevens team in the spring of 2014 – the year when the Eagles flirted with relegation before finishing 13th overall – Hughes was part of the turnaround. That year, USA made the quarter-finals just twice and never advanced to the semifinals. Five years later, they didn’t miss a semifinal.
“It’s been such a cool journey to be part of,” Hughes says. “And beyond that, it’s been really cool to be part of the American rugby community and to see the growth of rugby in the States.”
In some ways, his ever-present English accent – perhaps a debatable topic among his buddies back in Epsom – is the thing.
He chose the USA. He chose to be an Eagle. And he became a damn good one.
Next up? It might just be another pioneering opportunity with a World Cup-bound Eagles side ripe to make history in its own right. For Hughes himself, I guess we shall see. But come on … everyone wants to see what happens on September 26 when England plays the USA at Kobe Misaki Stadium.
My gosh, who will the Hughes family support? What will Dad do?