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If someone asked you to guess which recent University of Utah graduate was on the cusp of getting a contract with the 7s team at the Olympic Training Center, you’d probably say Thretton Palamo or Don Pati, right?
And if you had to guess which Seattle Saracens player might be under contract in a few weeks, you’d think it was any number of capped 7s Eagles, like Shalom Suniula, Rocco Mauer or Peter Tiberio, or maybe one of the club's many talented youngsters, like Kellen Gordon or Tim Stanfill.
Well, you’d be wrong on both counts. It’s John Cullen. Yes, the same John Cullen that played left tackle for the Utes and signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent. Depending what time of day you weight the 6-5 former offensive lineman, he’s between 55 and 60 pounds lighter than he was with the Chargers.
“The biggest I was, was like 315, and even that I was like, ‘I need to go run a lap or do something,’” Cullen told Rugby Today.
Cullen went back to Utah to finish school after striking out with the Chargers, and he started playing rugby again. He picked up the sport in high school in California. He was named an All-American and, after grauation, to the travel squad for the Eagles’ November tour last year, but never got on the field. He then moved to Seattle to join the Serevi crew and Seattle-Old Puget Sound Beach, playing mostly second row, with no intention of becoming a 7s player.
“I was home for my birthday for about a week-and-a-half after 15s season was over, just taking a rest,” recalled Cullen. “And Waisale (Serevi) and Ben (Gollings) kept giving me a call, saying, ‘Hey, what are you doing, what do you think about 7s?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know guys.’”
Despite making the Seattle squad for the Elite City 7s in Houston in June, and helping them win it all, Cullen still wasn’t sure about this whole 7s thing. It wasn’t until Gollings approached him in the Serevi offices to tell him Alex Magleby, USA Rugby’s development director for the 7s National Team, might be giving him a call about coming to the high performance camp in July, that he realized he might be onto something.
“I said, ‘Are you serious? Are you sure they got the right guy?’”
The high performance camp was the first for the new coaching tandem of Mike Friday and Chris Brown, and Cullen turned their heads.
“He did well. We were impressed,” said Magleby. “He got off the ground quickly, got over the ball, was able to get low despite being big.”
Cullen is still pretty rugby green, regardless of if he’s playing 7s or 15s, but, say Magleby and Seattle coach Ben Gollings, he’s got the tools to become a 7s international.
“The thing is about offensive linemen, carrying 300 pounds they still have very explosive feet and they can get separation,” said Magleby. “Big bodies with big wingspan who know how to control an opponent. Imagine if you drop 75 pounds off that person, you still have those explosive feet, but quicker now, you can get around the field more, you still have that wingspan and can still control an opponent.”
“John has done really well this year. The whole thing is he’s very athletic. He’s strong, he’s powerful and he tackles hard,” said Gollings. “The key with him is just about doing the simple things – giving him a specific role, saying, ‘Hey, John, concentrate on this area of the game, this is where you’re strong. Be there for us as a team, and then other people will pick up the other bits.’ And that’s what he’s done.”
Friday and company contemplated extending Cullen a residency contract after the camp last month, but with Seattle set to compete at Club 7s Nationals this weekend and World Club 7s the following week, they decided to let him get more 7s experience under his belt and bring him back for the next high performance camp.
Two years ago this time, Cullen was a big-bodied offensive lineman. 10 months ago he was trying to crack the Eagle 15s lineup as a lock. Three months ago he was looking forward to a summer of rest. Now, he’s an Olympic hopeful.
“I just want to play as much good rugby as I can,” said Cullen. “There’s nothing higher on my list than having my country’s jersey on my back, so whatever route is going to get me there fastest, I’m going to give everything I can to get there.”