Like more and more Americans, scrumhalf Kimball Kjar aims to play professional rugby.
The Brigham Young University senior devoted last summer to the USA's Rugby World Cup qualification bid while his classmates chose corporate internships. In September he toured South Africa as captain of the All-Americans.
'I would love to go play overseas and make a living. I'm going to make my best effort,' says Kjar (pronounced 'care').
Kjar expects to graduate this spring with a degree in philosophy and a minor in business administration. Also in 2003, he hopes to feature in the Eagle World Cup squad.
He is already part of a recent generation of All-Americans that have pushed through to the senior national team. Of the 25-man squad which traveled to South America last August, 12 were present or past members of the USA Universities side, including Kjar and Eagle skipper Dave Hodges.
Still better, six of these were past USA Under-19 players, including test regulars Kevin Dalzell, Kirk Khasigian, Kort Schubert, and Link Wilfley. Such a bounty of players coming through elite development programs is unprecedented in America, where internationals have tended to be older and not a few have been immigrants.
But the difficulty of winning a European contract, combined with the strictly amateur status of domestic competition, means that many of America's best and most ambitious continue to balance their rugby aspirations with day jobs. For Kjar and his contemporaries, the path to equal footing with their international rivals is far from straightforward.
Grassroots rugby and personal decisions
Kjar's university side also faces other, more unique hurdles. For instance, as part of the school's religious principles, the Cougars don't compete on Sundays. USA Rugby's nationwide playoffs are staged in a Saturday-Sunday knockout format, however, with the round of 16 and the quarterfinals on weekend one and the semifinals and finals on weekend two. The approach minimizes expensive air travel and academic disruption but BYU routinely advances until forfeiting the first Sunday's contest.
'Even though we don't have the opportunity to compete for a national title, at the end of your career, you're part of a brotherhood that represented our school,' Kjar says.
Interestingly, Kjar himself has elected to play Sunday fixtures. 'Before the first assembly with the US team ... I had to decide if that's what I wanted to do. Even after, I've thought about it.
'It's fairly well known within the church that [Sunday activities are] a personal decision. I've talked it over with my wife, father and mother, and coach at BYU and asked what they would do. They all understand the position that I take on it: since I've chosen rugby to help pursue my career and goals in life, I've decided that playing on Sunday is something I have to do.'
Rugby can be a lot like his faith, Kjar says. 'You've got to be committed to what you believe in, committed to working with a lot of people. [The sport holds] a lot of life's lessons, a lot of personal decisions.'
Almost every BYU player serves a two-year Mormon mission and Kjar is no exception. The hiatus tends to disrupt budding rugby careers, but strictly by good luck he served in Brisbane, Australia, which accelerated his rugby education even though he wasn't actually playing. 'When I was on my mission, it was two years of hard work, so I wasn't out playing with a club and getting to work on skills, but I did get a perspective of what the game really offers to those who play, support, and enjoy it,' Kjar says.
'It's one thing to pick up the sport in America, but it's another to go to a country where it's part of the culture, where people live for it,' he says.
Should he make the World Cup squad, Kjar would return to Brisbane for Pool B matches against Fiji and Scotland.
Kjar's game then blossomed during the 2001 All-American tour to Ireland. 'I had been with the USA team the summer before, so I kind of knew what was going to be on the plate. It was my chance to apply what I had been learning,' he says.
The year ended with another replacement appearance, against South Africa in December.
By 2002, Kjar's game improved to point where several times he wrested the starting halfback job from former Brive and Bath player Dalzell. In his debut start, Kjar scored a vital try against Chile to help the USA to a 35-22 win. The Salt Lake City qualifying match attracted an enthusiastic Utah crowd, many of whom turned out to watch the local boy made good.
Kjar also helped the USA to an RWCQ win over Uruguay in San Francisco, scoring his second test try, and played the return Chilean match in Santiago. A rib injury kept him from the final RWC qualifier against Uruguay in Montevideo.
This spring, however, Kjar took time away from rugby as he became a first-time father. 'It's been the best little while of my life to have this new addition to our family -- but I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say I wanted to be out there. It makes me glad that the coach and staff were understanding [of] my responsibilities back at home.'
'We're just hoping rugby can open up other doors that couldn't be opened through conventional means,' Kjar says.
Not every young family could persevere, but Kjar may yet get his chance to play overseas. With the USA coming through the repechage playoffs, the global stage might yet prove the springboard to a pro contract.
A true product of his environment, Kjar downplays the possibility. 'First and foremost, it's an honor playing for my country. I would look at it as 95 percent of my focus. If there's a professional contact that comes out of [the World Cup], then it's a reward for performing for the team,' Kjar says.
His backup plan is graduate school. Currently, he's studying for a business school admissions exam, with an eye to earning a degree in sports administration.
'If there's a day when someone lands on my knee and I'm done, I'm trying to have a plan in place that prepares me for a career,' he says. 'I think I've juggled it pretty well thus far.'