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.
"It was a refreshing place," Cullen said. "It says, 'We are crazy about rugby' on their airplanes. You can't turn on the TV without seeing a rugby game."
It was an eye-opening experience — even for those like Shepherd, who were making their second or third tour with a national traveling team.
"Only New Zealand and South Africa are 100 percent rugby," Shepherd said. "Old ladies at the airport can talk to you about rugby."
The All-Americans saw what all that rugby knowledge can do, narrowly losing their first two games to New Zealand Universities and Wairarapa Bush despite owning a physically superior roster.
"You can tell they have played since they were young," Cullen said. "They knew every play in the book."
However, the All-Americans were quick studies, and they got revenge on New Zealand Universities in the final game, smashing them 34-11. Cullen and Roundy each scored tries while head coach Matt Sherman named Sumsion, who hadn't seen much playing time in the earlier games, the man of the match.
"(In the first two games) they went with guys with past experience," Roundy said. "They know Kyle was a good player, but hadn't really seen him play. He had a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
"He seemed to be in every single tackle."
The next level
Luckily for Sumsion, he has two more years of eligibility at BYU.
"I love the game of rugby, and my plans for the immediate future is to win two more Varsity Cup national championships with BYU," he said. "After that I have goals of being able to play at the next level. As long as I can play rugby, I will."
For Sumsion's former captain, Roundy, finding time to play after college in this state is tough. Despite a high level of interest and a strong youth program, Utah doesn't have an Elite Cup team — the highest level of rugby in the United States — available to players like Roundy, Pati, Shepherd and Cullen.
"That's the hard part," said Roundy, who will be pursuing a Master's in statistics at BYU this fall. "You try to keep active; try to find a way to make opportunities."
Cullen and Shepherd say they are setting their sights on joining an Elite Cup team on the West or East Coasts and then a professional team overseas.
"It takes time and thousands of minutes of rugby to develop the necessary instincts," Eagles assistant coach Payne said. "Often we expect too much out of players too quickly. Sure, we want to fast-track players that have the physical attributes that John has, but we also have to balance it with the fact that nothing takes the place of experience."
In the meantime, Cullen, Shepherd and Roundy will get together with Burdette to train for the next level. The next thing to work toward is the Americas Rugby Championship, an annual tournament that pits Canada, Argentina, Uruguay and the United States against each other. Similar to soccer's Gold Cup, all four nations will field teams made up mostly of up-and-comers to give them valuable experience — just what top Utah players need, especially a player with NFL-caliber physical talent like Cullen.
"(We want to get) John into an environment where he might play 20-25 games over the course of five to six months at a strong level of competition," Payne said. "If he could get into that situation, I think we'd really begin to see an extremely formidable player start to take shape.
"His potential is extremely high."
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