FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. --
Listed at 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighing approximately 220 pounds, this fusion analyst and player on the U.S. Air Force Rugby Team is not an Airman you want running at you full speed.
Airman 1st Class Austin, 29th Intelligence Squadron, has been playing with Air Force Rugby since March 2017 and recently returned from playing at the Bloodfest Tournament in Austin, Texas.
Austin, who enlisted in May 2016 out of Berwick, Pennsylvania, became involved in rugby almost as soon as he entered the Air Force.
“When I was at Goodfellow Air Force Base (Texas, for technical training), Tony Kisiday, one of the guys who played on the Air Force Rugby Team, started a base team there and got me playing,” said Austin. “He said, ‘You show promise. You should definitely put in an application in because we have a tournament coming up in March’.”
Austin submitted an application, and it was approved by the time he arrived at his first duty station at Fort Meade, Maryland.
“It really didn’t sink in until my first Air Force Rugby tournament in Las Vegas,” said the 25-year old. “I absolutely fell in love with the sport, the camaraderie and sense of team that I was missing.”
Coming in as a brand new player, Austin remembered sweating and thinking everyone else on the team was going to be thinking “Who the heck is this guy, get him out of here, and cut this guy from the team immediately.” But that is not what happened, he said.
“One player approached me after practice and said, ‘We are going to talk and get you ready to go’,” he said. “They 100 percent embraced me into the family.”
With only nine months under his belt, Austin currently plays with the Open, or Developmental, Team in Air Force Rugby, but the competition is still serious.
“My very first game was against the German national team in the Las Vegas tournament,” he said. “And all I have done before that was just practice.”
In his most recent tournament, the Bloodfest tournament, the Open Team lost their first three games, but where able to advance to the Knockout Rounds due to the number of points they scored in those games, Austin said. The team won the first game of the Knockout Round, but ended up losing their final game of the day.
Austin was proud of how the team did, playing five games that day in the brutal Texas weather.
“Our first Knockout Round game, we won 35-17 and were able to physically dominate our opponent,” Austin said. “We lost the final game to Fort Worth 19-27. It was a long day of rugby, and I think the heat was starting to get to us.”
Being part of a team has always been a priority for Austin. He played football and baseball his entire life, to include playing Division III football, he said.
Prior to joining the Air Force, he worked as a counselor and juvenile corrections officer, but that profession was not fulfilling his team environment needs. The Air Force has given Austin the team environment he was searching for, in rugby and in his job.
“I joined the Air Force for that team environment,” he said. “I wanted to find that brotherhood and team bond again. The Air Force has definitely helped me get back into that team mindset, looking out for one another, and primed me mentally,” said Austin. “Being an Intel Airmen has also help me think analytically with rugby. I am humbled to be on the team.”
When not playing for the Air Force Rugby team, Austin stays in mid-season form by competing with a local team, the Rocky Gorge Rugby Club.
“Rocky Gorge is one of the top Rugby clubs in the Mid-Atlantic region,” he said. “Competition with this team is incredible.”
Austin is grateful for both the Air Force and the Rocky Gorge coaches.
On the Air Force side, there is a great coaching staff, he said, adding he enjoys being able to pick the mind of Garrett Bender, an Olympian who played for Team USA in the Rio 2016 Olympics.
On the Rocky Gorge team, a few of the coaches have been USA Eagles - America's national rugby team, Austin said.
He greatly appreciating the high level coaching and player on both teams, but one of the biggest impacts on this young Airman is one of the Air Force Rugby coaches, Theo Bennett.
“He has coached all over the world and has been really getting involved with the Air Force team,” Austin said. “He has us incorporating unconventional methods to improve our play with tackling, like hitting the Judo mats and practicing Brazilian Ju-Jitsu – stuff that I would never expect. His knowledge of rugby is through the roof, and he is just a positive coach and mentor to be around.”
The Air Force Rugby Team has three funded trips for tournaments per year: Las Vegas, Nevada, Austin, Texas, and the Armed Forces Tournament in Colorado, but only the top-15 players get to participate in the Colorado tournament, Austin said.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t selected to play in the Armed Forces Tournament this year, but I one hundred percent understand,” Austin said. “I’m the new guy, and my goal is to train as hard as I can, play with my Rocky Gorge team for the summer, and continue with weight room and speed training, to make the team for Colorado next year.” Austin plans to attend the Armed Forces Tournament to support his fellow teammates and coaches, he said.
For more information on the Air Force Sports Program and how to apply to participate, visit www.myairforcelife.com.
(Editor’s note: Last names were omitted for security reasons)