Hard hitting linebacker Ethan Acton comes from a state that has two escalators, and a town that holds 11,000 people. The Cody, Wyoming native grew up a football fanatic, and despite the lack of opportunities to show off his abilities in front of college scouts, he was able to secure a full scholarship to play football after high school. Now, at 24 years old, Acton has worked hard to become something he never thought he would be: a professional rugby player.
The Wyomingite was raised in a football home, showing interest in the NFL around age six. In a household that bled Broncos orange and blue, Acton resonated more with the Raiders’ black and silver
“I always wanted to be the underdog… That’s why I chose the Las Vegas Raiders”
The underdog role is one that Acton has played since his first down of football. Coming from Cody, not only were the chances to get on Division I schools’ radar extremely limited, but other factors such as coaching availability and indoor training locations were affected by his geographical situation.
“We’re out there…The closest shopping mall is in Billings, Montana, that’s an hour and a half drive away”
Even with this spatial disparity that few young American athletes have to face, Acton was able to find a place for himself on the gridiron. The challenge of blitzing and having to beat larger offensive lineman in a battle of brute force was what he relished the most.
“I love getting big hits, hearing the pop when you hit someone perfect… It’s the best feeling in the world”
While the Wyoming native ran track and played lacrosse in his high school days, these sports were only battling for second place; football had his heart. After high school, Acton earned a full scholarship through academic and athletic achievement to NAIA school Dickinson State.
Located in the central part of North Dakota, Acton remembers enjoying temperate summers but also suffering Dickinson’s disruptive and at times dangerous cold weather.
“There were a couple times where we had to shovel snow off of the field for practice. Our trainers would tell us not to take off our helmets or mouthguards because they would turn to ice”
Acton entered his freshman year in Dickinson, North Dakota in 2016 and played a part in a 9-3 Blue Hawk season. The team featured transfers from several PAC 12 conference schools, whomst Acton saw as prime targets to test his skills against.
“I’ve always had to prove myself my entire life so whenever I had to go against them I didn’t really care what their last name was or where they came from”
After the 2017 season, Acton left Dickinson to train independently. During that time period, Acton worked on his craft while putting his name in front of as many scouts as possible and “was just waiting for an opportunity to prove [himself]”.
That opportunity came at the National Scouting Combine in 2022 where the linebacker got the chance to show off his raw athleticism. He clocked a 4.57 40 yard dash, a 113 broad jump, and posted 20 reps on the bench press at 6’2”, 218 pounds. While this event may not have gotten him an immediate opportunity on the football field, his all around athleticism and mental toughness landed him a unique chance to play a game more popular across the pond.
“I never thought I would be playing rugby… I came out here and absolutely fell in love with the sport”
Acton would say that the amount of running is what deterred him from lacrosse and track as a high schooler. Now, he’s playing a sport that does not provide a period of rest after every collision– a sport that requires 80 minutes of perpetual movement.
“It’s a lot more physical and a lot more mentally draining [than football] but I absolutely love it”
Acton plays for the Colorado based American Raptors, a rugby team with a roster of mostly ex- college football players. The Raptors have existed since 2007, but recently they’ve picked up recruiting efforts in hopes of becoming a pipeline to the U.S National Rugby Team.
“On the world stage, the United States is a second-tier country in rugby…We have the premise that we have great athletes here in America, and we’d like the sport to perform on a higher level — but we don’t see our elite athletes on the rugby pitch on a national level, and understandably, because the country’s very best athletes are making a significant amount of money in the NFL (and other major pro leagues)” explained co- founder Mark Bullock in a June 2022 article with The Denver Post.
The Raptors play other American clubs, as well as international teams from countries such as Argentina and Uruguay. While the Raptors field a team with elite level athletes like Acton, their international opponents may be more polished when it comes to more the technical aspects of rugby: passing for example.
“I wanted to learn how to pass because I wanted to really play. The passing alone, it’s definitely a lot harder to get down.”
For the time being, Acton is living in Colorado, preparing his body and mind for the fall rugby season.
“As of right now I’m just going to be focused on rugby and to play for the US [15 per side] world cup”.
At only 24 years of age, the Cody born defender has a bright future in front of him on the rugby pitch, but his final destination remains a roster spot on an NFL team.