BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BAS, La. --
Senior Airman John Cranfield's passion for rugby hit him out of nowhere. Literally.
In 2018, Cranfield was on active duty in England when a friend and fellow Airman invited him to practice with a local rugby team.
"I got hit in the mouth and was hooked," he said.
That blow lit a fire in the 307th Maintenance Squadron munitions specialist, one that culminated in being invited to try out for the Air Force Rugby team last month near Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The road to getting that invitation was never easy and, he would argue, a little unlikely. Nothing in Cranfield's physical makeup suggested he might fall head-over-heels in love with a rough sport like rugby.
"I was really small in high school, so playing football didn't make any sense," he said.
But with rugby, Cranfield found physical size was not as important as in other contact sports. Instead, skill and motivation were enough to keep him competitive. Smarts played a role, too, and he picked up the game's rules in just a few weeks.
Cranfield soon found himself completely consumed by the game and his skill set grew by leaps and bounds. He became so good a teammate encouraged him to try out for the Air Force Rugby team.
"Honestly, I didn't even know the Air Force had a team," Cranfield said. "I didn't find out about it until a day before the tryout application deadline."
He rushed the paperwork through his chain of command but was too late to try out that year. However, friends close to the Air Force Rugby had put in a good word for him, and officials for the team encouraged him to apply again.
Cranfield continued to work on his rugby skills, despite the setback. He was getting ready to leave England but wanted to continue playing rugby.
"I started researching areas with the best rugby communities and tried to get an assignment to one of them," he said.
He transferred to Utah and picked up with a local team almost immediately. However, playing rugby in America had a different feel for Cranfield than when he was in England.
"Rugby in the states was different because the style was much more physical," he said.
Playing the finesse-style in England and the rough-and-tumble game in the U.S helped Cranfield become well-rounded. It also made him confident enough to apply for the AF Rugby team again. He had his application complete in plenty of time, and he was hopeful about getting accepted to try out.
Then the pandemic happened.
Team officials canceled tryouts, and Cranfield found himself frustrated again by circumstances beyond his control. But that setback only seemed to strengthen his resolve.
Cranfield continued to practice with an eye on trying out this year. He put in another application and hoped for the best. So, when the invitation arrived to try out, he was ecstatic. Three years of perseverance had paid off.
At tryouts, Cranfield found himself surrounded by larger athletes with more experience. Still, he soaked up every minute of the experience.
"I learned so much, and the whole experience was very structured, very professional," he said. "It was everything I wanted rugby to be."
Though he didn't make the team that competes in the Armed Forces bowl, he did catch the coaches' attention. One of them told Cranfield he was a strong candidate to make the team next year.
"My goal has definitely adjusted from just trying out to making the Armed Forces Bowl team," he said.
Cranfield relied on lessons learned in his military career to persevere in his efforts to get a tryout opportunity.
"In the military, not all the circumstances are going to be favorable, and that translates very well into the game," he said. "Things can go wrong very quickly, but you can't quit just because you don't like the way things are going."
It's a lesson Cranfield said he would rely on as he continues his military and rugby career.