U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Cadet 2nd Class Jackson Bristol has kept his passion for rugby alive with a simple approach: he never stops playing the game. January through December, every practice, every match and every tournament the U.S. Air Force Academy men's rugby team attends, Bristol is on the field, ready to play hard.
The USA Rugby Men's Collegiate All-American first-teamer is easy to notice with his blonde hair, six-foot-six, toned physique and relentless effort during games. Bristol was one of 46 selected from 20,000 collegiate players across the country to compete for a spot on the All-American traveling squad.
Bristol attended the All-American rugby 15s camp in June and All-American rugby seven's camp in July, where he was coached by staff from the national rugby team, the Eagles.
"The camp was vigorous and consisted of two-a-days," Bristol said. "It was tiring, but I would do it again and again because I met great guys, coaches and learned excellent rugby drills and techniques. When you're among the best, there is no way you can't get better."
According to the USA Rugby organization, the All-American program is designed to recognize on-field excellence at the high school and collegiate levels as well as develop future Eagles. Committees from the organization look for players based on coach nominations and footage from collegiate matches.
"Out of my seven years at the Academy as the men's rugby coach, we've never had a player selected for the All-American first team," said Joe Muehlbauer, the Academy's head coach of men's rugby. "Four years ago we had a player who received an honorable mention but never first team. Jack is a double All-American as he competed on the sevens and 15s team."
Bristol competed in the 45th-annual Denver Sevens Rugby Tournament July 21, where the Academy took first out of five men's collegiate teams and Bristol was named the most valuable player.
"Jack studies the game and is the hardest working player on the team," Muehlbauer said. "He is well-known throughout the country, and I eventually see him playing on the national team or professional rugby in a country where it is offered."
Bristol has played rugby at the Academy for two years as a lock for rugby 15s and a prop for rugby sevens. Bristol said he watched his father play rugby as a kid and has been hooked on the sport ever since.
"Originally, I was supposed to play football at the Academy but remembered how much I loved rugby and knew I wanted to get back into it," Bristol said.
Bristol said of the countless sports he has played, he has never found the camaraderie that he has in rugby.
"I participated in other competitive sports growing up but nothing comes close to the brotherhood you find in rugby," Bristol said. "In football, you can have a quarterback drive a team down a field, score and attribute it all to him. In rugby, it's really hard to have one person take over a match. You really need the whole team to contribute in order to make that happen."
Bristol said rugby is different at the Academy because cadets have a different lifestyle than most college students.
"We're only allowed a two-hour slot each day for team practice, we have to lift weights on our own and are at one of the hardest academic institutions," Bristol said. "I think the rigor of Academy life makes us stronger as a rugby team and is what propels us forward."
A native of Colorado, Bristol is in Cadet Squadron 17 and majoring in political science with a minor in French. He said he will most likely become a pilot in the Air Force but will continue to play rugby as long as he can.
"I think rugby has made this place a lot better for me and has taught me a lot of good lessons," Bristol said. "On the rugby pitch you learn dedication, hard work, loyalty and striving for one's excellence. That will help me throughout my life as well as in my Air Force career. There is an active-duty Air Force rugby team, and I'd love to be part of that in the future."
Bristol said he hopes one day the sport will become as popular in the U.S. as in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and Europe.
"I think people are afraid of the unknown," Bristol said. "They grow up in America with football, basketball and baseball, the sports played on television. I think a lot of people don't know what it's about and I urge people to find out because personally, I think it's the best sport on earth."
He said the key trait needed to be a good rugby player is to work hard with what you have.
"I'm not the strongest, buffest, fastest or tallest," Bristol said. "The reason I think I became an All-American was the hard work involved."
Bristol said he also became an All-American through the strong support of his community.
"I wouldn't have been able to get this All-American status without my teammates letting me compete at this high of level or my parents pushing me," Bristol said. "My coach, Joe, has been a big support as well. He is always giving me the opportunity to succeed. Even when I fail he has faith in me to let me do what I do."
The Academy offers men's rugby in the fall and spring. Seventy-five men participated this year, and the team ranked eighth in the country.
"This is the best the team has done since I started coaching here and since they last won the national championship in 2003," Muehlbauer said. "I believe they will only get better."