When Josh Dean decided to try out for the rugby team at the U.S. Air Force Academy four years ago, he had no idea the sport would take him all over the world.
Dean, a former Juneau-Douglas High School football quarterback and infielder for the baseball team, was one of two tour captains for the USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans team that played two games in New Zealand earlier this month.
Last year, Dean played with the Collegiate All-Americans on their tour of South Africa, earning the Doug Edwards Best Tourist Award for his play on the field and character away from the game during the tour. He also won the Goff on Rugby/Tullamore Dew U.S. Player of the Month Award for September 2002. This May, Dean's Air Force Academy team won the USA Rugby Collegiate National Championship, beating Harvard 45-37 one day after upsetting 12-time defending champion California 46-28 in the semifinals.
"I had no idea," Dean said of the honors. "It's been amazing. Rugby's a great game. It's a sport that definitely pays you back if you put the work into it."
Dean, who will be a senior business management major this year, was in New Zealand from July 28 through Aug. 9.
"This trip was amazing," Dean said in a Monday phone interview from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. "We spent a week-and-a-half in Wellington and we stayed at the Institute of Rugby, which is where the (New Zealand) All-Blacks train. The All-Blacks just won the Tri-Nations last week. I learned a lot in those two weeks over there."
While the crowds were small compared to normal New Zealand rugby matches, Dean said he was amazed at the sport's following in the country. In the United States, most college rugby teams are club teams and not part of the normal intercollegiate sports program. The NCAA doesn't host a national championship tournament for rugby, so USA Rugby runs the tournament. The collegiate national championship this May took place in Palo Alto, Calif., and none of the major newspapers in the region gave the tournament more than a couple of paragraphs of copy.
"That was a big eye-opener," Dean said. "Some of the stadiums we played in were like NFL stadiums. Thay take rugby seriously over here."
On Aug. 2, the Collegiate All-Americans played the University of Victoria and lost 31-28. Dean, who plays the No. 8 position and is the person who digs the ball out of the scrum, set up a try (rugby's equivilant of a touchdown) by lock Andrew Armstrong that gave the All-Americans a 16-12 halftime lead. Matt Sherman, a flyhalf who attends California, served as game captain for the Victoria loss.
Dean served as game captain for the second game, a 38-26 loss to Massey University on Aug. 5. The All-Americans scored 90 seconds into the game, but Massey responded with two tries to take a 14-7 halftime lead. The All-Americans were able to move the ball on Massey, but committed key turnovers and also had two tries denied because of penalties.
"It was a great learning experience," Dean said. "Being captain is a lot different than just playing. There's a lot more responsibility. I was talking to the ref the whole game. Being the link between the referee and the team distracts you a bit from what you're trying to do. But it was a great experience to lead a team of that caliber."
The tour was Dean's last chance to play for former Air Force coach Rob Holder, who is taking over Stanford's program this season. Dave Stevens is the new Air Force coach.
"We just had our first practice today," said Dean, who will be one of two club captains for Air Force this year. "We had 120 guys out today. We'll have a good team."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.