He stands at close to six foot five inches and weights 220lbs. He has been a four year starter for the Fresno State Men’s Rugby and has now been selected to his fourth Pacific Western Rugby Conference Select Side. Making four college conference select sides is an accomplishment regardless of the school or the conference!
The "he" I'm referring to is Jackson Wagner. The imposing lock is Fresno State’s first ever four time conference selection. This year the senior was joined by three more Fresno State Bulldogs, making this the first time the Bulldogs have had more than two players receiving all conference honors. Note the Pacific Western Conference (PacWestern) is the conference of the two time D-1A National Champion UC Davis sides, so it is not "social" conference.
Jackson has recently graduated with his bachelor’s in Chemistry and in the fall will begin graduate work at UC San Diego. He will continue to play when he relocates and plans to join OMBAC. He does have a connection with them as his college coach Patrick Quan played a for OMBAC many years ago, as well as a few former Fresno are rugger Jason Raven who also played with OMBAC in the past.
Jackson began playing rugby his sophomore year of high school at Bullard (in Fresno). After graduating from high school he was more focused on his education than rugby. He had focused on schools based on costs and best results versus if they had a rugby club he told us. “I choose Fresno State over a UC school as it would save my family over $20,000 and so I opted to stay in Fresno and attend Fresno State”.
Jackson contemplated continuing rugby shortly after he started college. When he made contact with the club about dates /times of training he did not realize that he’d reached out to the Fresno Rugby Football Club (the area’s senior men’s club) and not the Fresno State Men’s Rugby Club. “I was out there and realized this was not the State side, but I’d already CIPPed , it was winter and Fresno State wasn’t going to start their season until late January, so I just stayed for awhile, but I was hooked back into playing rugby”. Jackson’s stint with Fresno (who had jumped to D1) was short. Just as their league season started he was able to get his CIPP changed over to Fresno State so he join play with them. You can say the rest is history from there.
Jackson has served as the Bulldog’s club President his sophomore and his senior years. He was involved in getting an alumni group started for the club and has provided leadership for the club in his time there.
Jackson has gone on to earn four all conference selections. In his first year the selects got the honor, but did not suit up to play any matches. In his second year/selection the Pacific Western Selects played a touring Durham University side (from England). In his junior year, the selects they played the Northern California Rugby Football Union (NorCal) Pelican’s Selects (from that pool numerous players were selected for the now defunct PRO Rugby and even Eagles selections). This year the Pac Western Selects will participate in the 50th Anniversary Aspen Ruggerfest later this fall against opponents to be determined later.
Jackson told us “I learned a lot from the selections. It really goes to the spirit of rugby, as there were guys I couldn’t stand to play against and then you are now teammates. It also show me that when people come together they can do great things. We didn’t beat the Durham side which was a side of guys who’ve been playing together for several years and we all had just several practices together. But when we played the Pelican’s side close and it demonstrated for me how quickly people can come together and form a team or strong bonds”. He also shared how the opportunity to work with peers from other clubs and colleges allowed him to bring things back to his program and pass on ideas, methods and insight that benefited his own club.
For Jackson rugby, whether it’s the select sides or his beloved Bulldogs is about people. Across the board he said it was the people that have really made rugby something he loves to do. “You can’t match the camaraderie you get from rugby. I have friends who I played with, play against, from other clubs, other schools, etc. and I would not have crossed their paths without rugby. It’s a brotherhood”.
Jackson did disclose that he never had the goal to be a select side much less a four time conference section. He credits his team and really his coach for continuously pushing him to be a better player. Jackson also credited the area’s rugby community. “I’m a product of the area’s rugby. I say that because the youth rugby was started by Old Boys and then supported by the men’s club with a lot of their players and old boys. The Fresno State program and the Bulldog Rugby Inc. is supported by area ruggers who were also Fresno State Alumni. Many of the guys I’ve played with at Fresno State are also guys I played high school rugby with or against. Our CrossFit coach is a former Fresno Rugby player, so the area rugby has impacted me so much that I believe I am a product of it” lamented Jackson.
Jackson states his real goal was to win and to really help put the Central Valley’s rugby on the map. He hopes his work at Fresno State will sever him well when he joins OMBAC, but that it also leaves a bit of a legacy for the area as well. Jackson said “I hope having four guys from Fresno State receiving all conference selections will make the other guys want to work harder to make that into 5, or to win the conference, or eventually win a national title. I hope it increased our credibility as a program to where more area guys opt to come to Fresno State and play rugby here, and last I hope it makes people really look at Fresno as a whole for rugby”.
Now we did say that Jackson was one of four selected players from Fresno State. He was joined by two other seniors (Marques Watkins , Tevin Hayes), and junior Rodney Wilkerson.
Marques Watkins is 23 year old graduating senior who is receiving his degree in Communications with an emphasis in Public Relations. He’s now earned his second conference selection. Marques is a six foot tall, 250lb tight head prop with a lot of agility and pace. As with most American ruggers, he didn’t play rugby until college. He admitted that while he was a three sport athlete in high school he’d never even seen a rugby game, knew of anyone who’d ever played rugby, and may have only heard of rugby in a TV show, or movie or something like that.
So what makes a guy who has never seen rugby opt to take up the game? Like most college players Marques wanted to stay active especially after he’d hit 300lbs his freshman year. “I was playing intramural sports that year but there really wasn’t any pressure, and I really missed the team environment, I missed being around people who have struggles and go through things in life. I missed being with guys who find time to play a game they love and play with the people they care about “ shared Marques. He then said “I could have easily be off doing other things like complaining about our job and school sitting around our house doing nothing. Or I could go outside with some friends and get a little friendly competition between your peers. I choose rugby”
For Marques it was the history behind the club that really drew him in. Seeing the guys who’d gone before him still finding time to come back and help the program, the alumni who cared, but also seeing the guys who had jobs, careers, families, kids still finding time for the game of rugby made him believe that rugby was special. The connection with the past (the past players) really stirred something inside Marques and that made him really want to be a part of the program.
Marques shared how rugby has impacted his life. “You know I think about this all the time now that I'm graduating from college. Rugby made me have no fear! It made me relentless when it comes to goals and tasks I'm trying to achieve. I think rugby completed me in many ways.” He goes to say “I’ve always been a football player…ever since I was able to watch my uncle play at Sacramento State. I knew I had to do something in college that I could go back home I could tell stories about” explained Marques.
He, like Jackson and I’d venture to say like most of us play rugby not just for the competition but the people. For Marques it is also the same. He shared that rugby has given him and many of his friends a common experience, and through college those rugby friends have always been around for him in good times and bad. He noted that he would not have made the friends he has or met the people he has if it wasn’t for rugby. For Marques rugby has truly been transformational. “Rugby helped me find myself”.
As we noted this is Marques' second selection. In his first selection he studied the other players as they’d be the best in the conference and tried to bring that knowledge back to his own team, and to use it to help them become better as a team. It also was a self evaluation for him as a player in terms of what he needed to improve to become a better player. Marques hopes that this most recent selection will be a catalyst for the rest of the club to put in the work to not only become select sides, but to move the program forward into serious contender for postseason play and having three seniors selected will signal to the others they can also achieve that status.
The third senior to earn the all conference selection is Tevin Hayes. Tevin a 22yrs senior has now maxed out his college playing days (but has a year left in school). The English major who hails from the area started playing rugby his senior year at Clovis High School. In addition to playing Tevin has been a certified Level 200 coach and assisted with coaching at his old high school.
Tevin along with Jackson have been around the area's rugby scene the most (seeing the Fresno State program while still in high school) and have the most insight to the Fresno State program. We asked him why this year the club was able to put forth four all conference selections? He responded with “The program has really undergone a huge change, not only in the way we play rugby, but also in the culture of the team. We used to be a team whose priorities were not always straight. Now, commitment to the team is higher than it's ever been. We are in our third straight year of having summer off-season workouts which has really helped players continue to improve their conditioning and strength. A lot of this is due to our current head coach Patrick Quan coming in and helping us change the program. One of the first things he told us was he wanted a change in the culture of our team. He wanted players to be more responsible and dedicated to not only practice, but the team, the coaches, their teammates, and themselves. And that's what we did.”
For Tevin winning has been a goal but from his freshman year when he learned that there was such a thing as a conference select side he set that as a goal. He's been working toward this selection for four years. So what took Tevin so long to achieve his goal? ....Injuries!
Each season Tevin had to battle fairly serious injuries which not only limited his playing time, but also his ability to develop as a player. Tevin has dealt with several head injuries/concussions one season, then severe ankle injury in another, but said the season where he broke his wrist was the worse. “The broken wrist was probably the worst, because I needed surgery for it, thus it put me out even longer, and it came at a point in my career when I was just reaching the turning point in the way I played the game. But honestly, it wasn't too hard to stay motivated. My teammates were always supporting me even as I supported them on the sideline. And my coaches always made sure to keep me in the loop with what our game plan was” recalled Tevin.
Those injuries actually fueled him. They force him to work harder to get playing time on the field, to catch up with his peers, and to make a selects, as each year with an injury became another opportunity that was lost. The injuries forced Tevin to adapt. He had to learn how to be more deliberate with his play, to focus on what he was doing with his body. It forced him to develop skills with the left side of his body. Now he’s able to pass and kick with his left as well as his right. The injuries made him into a more versatile and cerebral player.
For Tevin the selection validated all his hard work as well as his commitment to continue to play, validation to work through injuries, to develop his skills and the mental aspects of his game. Getting the notice that in his last year he finally got the Pac Western selection for Tevin was elation, but always the team guy (and that may be the culture of the program), for Tevin to be a part of the cohort of four players selected was as satisfying a feeling as achieving his own goal.
For now, Tevin is focused on playing with the Selects in Aspen this September and will decide his rugby options after that.
The final Bulldog selected for the PacWestern All Conference is Rodney Wilkerson. He is five foot four inches and 180lb junior from Los Angeles. Rodney was another one of those typical players who didn’t play rugby prior to college. Now unlike Marques, Rodney told us he and his brother has watched some rugby 7s on TV and were intrigued, but just couldn’t follow along with the rules. It wasn’t until college that he got a chance to participate.
Rodney had played football in high school and had made several attempts to walk on at Fresno State for football, but had been unsuccessful. So he'd gone to a few rugby practices but wasn't sold. It wasn't until he played in his first game that he was hooked. He attributes his taking the game up to fellow select side peer Marques Watkins, who really made a big recruitment push for him to take up rugby.
“I’ll be honest, I was hooked after my first game, and it was fun, but I had no idea what I was doing or what was going on” says Rodney. The change for him occurred that summer when he was playing touch rugby, and while he didn’t know what was going on still, he was vocal, trying to communicate with everyone, making sure people were matched up, etc. That drew the attention Fresno State’s Coach Quan who was out there and approached him about playing scrum half. “Coach Quan said he needed someone at scum half who could communicate and be vocal out there, and wanted make me a scrum half” recounts Rodney. From there he really began to work and study the game and the position. He shared that during that summer Coach Quan worked with him one on one to develop skills like box kicks, and teach him the game.
For Rodney, rugby has been vital to his college experience stating “I’m not sure if I’d made it this far in school if it wasn’t for rugby. I mean rugby has given me friends who’ve been there for me and have helped get through college”. In our conversation with Rodney he used the word brotherhood a number of times.
If you look back on this story you see a theme. Yes the coaching, the training program, the hard work and the commitment are all factors in the success of these four players and all four making the select side this year, but more than those it seems the culture....a true brotherhood of this team has spawned the four conference selections more than anything else.
If the Bulldogs are able to sustain the culture of true brotherhood then not only will they continue to produce select side players, but more importantly this young program (rugby program started in 2009) can emerge as a power program .
Congratulations to Jackson, Marques, Tevin, Rodney as well as the rest of the Pacific Western Selects! We look forward to seeking what the Selects do at this year’s Aspen Ruggefrest!