Former Ute star offensive lineman leads a group of Utahns trying to make USA Rugby men's national team
SALT LAKE CITY — John Cullen's NFL career was ending before it even really got started.
Like hundreds of talented former college football players, Cullen had dominated at the junior college and Division I levels as a 6-foot-5, 300-pound offensive lineman, and in the summer of 2012 he was trying to take his talents to an NFL city.
The New York Jets signed the former Ute standout in April, only to cut him four weeks later. In June, the San Diego Chargers gave him a look, but Cullen, who was the No. 1-ranked offensive lineman coming out of junior college, was again squeezed out in the cutthroat world of the NFL.
"I gave the NFL a solid shot," Cullen said. "(But) after I was cut by the Chargers, I felt like it wasn't for me."
Luckily for Cullen, he knew what to do — go back to school, finish his degree and give his other love a shot — rugby. A former high school rugby player, Cullen quickly caught on with the Utes' rugby club and now is one of a handful of Utah residents trying to find a spot on USA Rugby's men's national team, the Eagles.
Cullen, his former Utah teammates Michael Shepherd and Randy (Don) Pati, and BYU stars Kyle Sumsion and Ryan Roundy were all selected to represent the USA Rugby Men's Collegiate All-American team in June in a three-game exhibition tour of New Zealand. All five got the chance to prove themselves in the team's three matches and are now getting geared up for their next shot with the Eagles in the fall.
It's going to take a lot of hard work — something Cullen showed with the Utes. To get into rugby shape, the 300-plus-pound offensive lineman shaved about 50 pounds "in about a semester," Shepherd said.
Blake Burdette, Utah's rugby coach at the time, said Cullen's work ethic was quickly apparent.
"Here comes John Cullen, the former All-American from the football team and spent time with NFL teams, but from Day 1 he became an integral part of the team and a great teammate and leader," Burdette said. "He showed up to work every day."
Burdette, a former USA Rugby Eagle himself, tried at first to put Cullen on the Utes' front row, but his quickness and ability to break tackles allowed him to play more of a playmaking role for Utah during the spring 2013 season. His play caught the eye of Life University coach Dan Payne, whose team played Utah in February.
"He has the physical attributes that you can't teach … height, size, aggression and a willingness to take on the physical nature of the game," said Payne, who also serves as an assistant coach for the Eagles.
Cullen led the Utes in scoring and gained an invite to the Eagles' training camp in April as they prepared for a series of games in Canada. He was left off the final roster, but made a big enough impression to make the USA Rugby Collegiate All-American squad.
The All-Americans trained in California before flying to New Zealand.
For Cullen and Shepherd, one of the trickier parts was playing with — not against — their rivals from BYU: Sumsion and Roundy, who captained the squad. After a few days of awkwardness, Cullen said he quickly saw why he hated to play against them — and loved playing with them: Sumsion and Roundy were two of the top players from a program that plays hard and smart.
"I still hate BYU, but I really enjoyed playing with those guys," Shepherd said.
Added Cullen, "Under different circumstances, I would definitely go out and buy them a beer."
The 28 players from the nation's top college clubs were charged with playing three matches against two different New Zealand college teams. Despite being a nation of just 4.4 million people (about the same number of people as Utah and Idaho combined) the New Zealand national team is routinely ranked No. 1 in the world.
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