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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
John Cullen, a player for the Utah Warriors rugby team, poses for a photo during practice at the Zions Bank Training Center in Herriman on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019.

HERRIMAN — It took John Cullen years to learn to love football.

When it came to rugby, however, the former Utah offensive lineman was passionate from the first play.

But as a teen growing up in California, the former Utah offensive lineman realized it was football that offered him the best chance to play collegiate sports.

Still, he doesn’t believe he would have achieved his goal of playing college football — or in the NFL — if he hadn’t found rugby his freshman year of high school.

" It’s a sick obsession with the sport. There is nothing like it. … I don’t get super cliché and super corny, and I’m not the most gung-ho guy ever, but there are things about rugby that are indescribable, unless you play it, unless you go through it. "
John Cullen

“I knew football was my future,” Cullen said. “But I would always tell people, I would never have accomplished the things I accomplished in football without rugby, never in a million years. I wouldn’t have been the player I was in high school, which then got me to college, it’s not even a discussion. I didn’t even play my freshman year of high school football. I was a bench warmer. I came back, and I was on varsity my sophomore year after one season of rugby.”

He’s willing to concede he doesn’t know if there is a direct correlation for every player, but there certainly was some impact for him.

“It will either toughen you up,” he said, “or you won’t play anymore.”

Not only did the 28-year-old stick with the sport, he returned to it after his dreams of playing in the NFL didn’t materialize. After stints with practice squads for both the Chargers and the Jets, Cullen decided to return to the University of Utah and finish his degree while playing rugby in his final year of athletic eligibility.

That decision paved the way for an opportunity that just a few years ago he couldn’t have imagined possible — Major League Rugby in the U.S.

A special kind of 'suck'

Cullen was introduced to rugby in the weeks after he finished playing his freshman season of football. A friend’s father suggested it as a way to stay in shape during the offseason.

Courtesy of Utah Athletics
Senior John Cullen was a starting left tackle for two seasons for the Utes.

“I loved it, immediately loved it,” said the Warriors' lock. “People have asked me a thousand times, ‘What do you like better, football or rugby? And I’m like, ‘Listen, I was an offensive lineman from the time I was 8 years old. I was a center, and then I hit a growth spurt, and I was a tackle."

Because he was an offensive lineman from the time he put on football pads, he never got to do any of the things that make football fun for players and entertaining for fans.

“I got to play defense in high school, so I got to do some fun-ish stuff,” he said laughing. “But yeah, then I switched to rugby, and I get to score, I get to tackle, I get to pass, so of course, I like rugby more. I don’t have to be 300 pounds, and I get to score.”

Cullen said the mental toughness required by each sport was similar because the physical demands are uniquely brutal. But rugby, he said, requires an embrace of pain that is found only in a few sports.

“Maybe only the combat sports, UFC and wrestling, have this, but there is just no other level of suck like rugby,” he said with a smile. “We’re different from the individual sports because we’re doing it, and 15 guys have to be held accountable. It’s not just you.”

It’s the agony that tests them individually and as a group, while cementing their bonds. He likens it to some of his experiences as a paratrooper with the Utah National Guard.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
John Cullen and other players for the Utah Warriors rugby team practice at the Real Salt Lake Training Academy and Facility in Herriman on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019.

The mental demands, the physical challenges and the joy of being part of a team, those are all reasons Cullen decided to be part of building a rugby franchise in Utah.

“It’s a sick obsession with the sport,” he said. “There is nothing like it. … I don’t get super cliché and super corny, and I’m not the most gung-ho guy ever, but there are things about rugby that are indescribable, unless you play it, unless you go through it.”

Sports are the constant

Sports were more than a way to stay busy or make friends for Cullen.

“From the time I was 8 years old, when I started playing, sports was my outlet from every family issue,” he said. “From my parents splitting up to just about every type and severity of addiction that you could see throughout your family.” Cullen’s parents divorced when he was young, and he and his sister spent most of their time with their mother, although they felt the familiar turmoil and stress of dividing their lives between their parents.

“Bouncing back and forth between houses and … moving every six months type of life, for a while, I always had sports,” he said. “Even now in my adult life … some of the darkest and hardest times I’ve had was (when I was) losing sports.”

Cullen said the transitions between athletic opportunities tested him — and his resolve about a life that included competitive sports.

Joan Shepherd
John Cullen played three matches for the USA Rugby Collegiate All Americans.

After his short stint in the NFL, he returned to Utah to play rugby at the U. He earned his degree and thrived in a sport that Americans are just beginning to embrace.

He was playing for the U.S. National Team and playing in Seattle, but then he tried out and failed to make the 2015 World Cup team.

That set him up for another “moment” where the threat of not having sports in his life every day was real. He took a job in sales, and realized he couldn’t do that for the rest of his life.

That’s when he joined the National Guard and began talking with Utah Warriors owners about the possibility of helping them build an MLR franchise in Utah.

“Being an athlete, it’s so much of who you are,” he said. “It built you. It builds your work ethic, your drive, your focus and your goals. That’s not to say it’s easy, but there was a format where I knew if I showed up at the gym, I will improve this aspect of my game. If I work on my craft, I will improve. … As an athlete, you always have that.”

Building the future

Cullen admits that when he met Utah Warriors team manager Mark Drown as a player for the Utes rugby program, he bristled at his "military" style. He calls the man "Colonel" because of the position he held with the 19th Special Forces Group in the Utah National Guard. Drown retired from the National Guard in 2017, but he was still a colonel when he helped coach Cullen at Utah.

Cullen admits that he gave Drown a hard time, often reminding him that “this is a rugby team,” not a military unit.

" It’s pretty exciting and nerve-wracking. It’s a dream of mine to bring my kid 10 years from now to a 50,000-seat stadium, watching the Warriors play and being like, ‘Hey, I was here with 5,000 people in the stands.’ I was part of building this. "
John Cullen

“But it’s always been something I wanted to do,” Cullen said of joining the military. “So I was in that place at 25 that some are in at 18, and it was like, I gotta figure out my life. I decided to join, and honestly, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.” He said so much about the military has mirrored what he felt, learned and valued about sports.

“It’s funny to me that two years ago, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and now I’m on a direct path, and I know exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he said. “I’m going to be a combat medic, or what’s called a special operations combat medic, which is kind of like a paramedic on steroids.” At the same time, he agreed to join those organizing the Utah Warriors in building a franchise in Utah.

“With everything that’s going on in my life,” he said, adding that he’s expecting his first child in September, “this is probably my last year. So for me, when this started three and a half years ago with a team that was put together to build into what the Warriors are … I knew from the get go, this was the tail end of my career.”

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Head Coach Alf Daniels directs Utah Warriors rugby players during practice at the Real Salt Lake Training Academy and Facility in Herriman on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019.

His goal, he said, became being part of a foundation for future rugby players and fans.

“My entire goal … is to leave this better than I found it and to lay the ground work,” he said. “Ideally, I’m still involved with it. … If I could come back and be around as a coach or a scout or something, I would love that.”

Cullen also wants two things.

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He wants to help this year’s team build on its first-year success. Much about the franchise has been improved, including bringing on new coaches and a deeper roster, and Cullen said the experience is already much different.

The other thing he wants will take some time to realize.

“It’s pretty exciting and nerve-wracking,” he said of laying the rugby foundation for the future. “It’s a dream of mine to bring my kid 10 years from now to a 50,000-seat stadium, watching the Warriors play and being like, ‘Hey, I was here with 5,000 people in the stands.’ I was part of building this.”