From NFL's gridiron to USA's pitch
". . . the amazing truth is that I will not be able to voluntarily stop playing this game."
Crossover athlete John Cullen played offensive line for the University of Utah football team from 2010-2011, and is now a member of the Men’s Eagles player pool and plays his club rugby for nationally-ranked Seattle-OPSB.
The first time I played rugby was freshman year of high school and like most people I was instantly hooked. I couldn’t get enough of it, but I had been playing football since I was 8 years old and knew that was my best chance of getting into college. I continued playing football and after two years at Fullerton Community College, I earned myself a full scholarship to the University of Utah. I played football for two years at Utah before I signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent. I was quickly released and soon after signed with the San Diego Chargers. Once again I was released. Instead of bouncing around the country signing unguaranteed NFL contracts, I chose to put football aside and go back to Utah to finish my bachelor’s degree. Unsure of my eligibility in club sports after playing NCAA football, I met with the rugby coach to discuss my options. He said I was eligible to play and I did not hesitate before I joined the team. At 312 pounds with a wealth of experience from playing left tackle on the offensive line, I found myself in the 2nd forward pack. I played my first few games in social 15s tournaments before my first real game against Life University in January 2013.
The head coach at Life was the former USA forwards and the week following that game, he invited me to the Eagles domestic camp in Atlanta. At Utah, our forwards were bigger than everyone else so our game plan was to run people over. It worked, but when I joined the National Team at camp, I realized that was not going to suffice. Being big was not enough. International rugby players are big, strong, fast, fit, and smart.
Playing in Seattle for OPSB created a fundamental learning environment and my progress is proven at the USA assemblies I am invited back to. Playing more often in a structured setting alongside USA players and coaches encouraged me to exceed my boundaries and play up to their level. I learned proper attack patterns and the intricacies of attacking gaps and shoulders. I noticed my strength and power aligning with fitness and strategy. My first international experience was with the Collegiate All Americans in New Zealand and I was rostered for the first time with the Eagles in November against the Maori All Blacks.
My experience with football created a strong foundation for my transition to rugby. Playing for so long and playing into the highest levels the country has to offer provided me with a confidence that carried over into rugby. Mental toughness and work ethic were instilled in me when I was first introduced to two-a-days playing youth football. Learning tackle technique was a hurdle to overcome since I had not made an open field tackle since high school, but my experience with contact and not being afraid to hit or be hit allowed for me to learn quickly. My offensive line experience and strength was apparent in rucks, mauls, and scrums. My ability to hold off weight in contact bought me time until I mastered the technique of being low and driving through contact. Soon enough USA assemblies seemed to slow down and I was finally keeping up no longer feeling new to the game.
Everyone I meet always ask which I “like more,” rugby or football. I can never give a sufficient answer. Both have their unique qualities, but there is something so special and unique about the brotherhood of a rugby team. I don’t know if it’s the physicality or the idea that there is still such a small group of people that play in this country, but the amazing truth is that I will not be able to voluntarily stop playing this game.