On ice skates, Cameron Dolan would be a couple of inches taller than his already towering, 6-foot-6 frame. Luckily, ice hockey in Florida was not as popular when he was growing up as it is now.
Dolan played hockey growing up in Estero before realizing it would be difficult to become a professional while playing in the Sunshine State. He tested his developing athletic abilities on the baseball diamond and American football gridiron, but none of the sports the young Eagle played captured the passion he felt when he first went to rugby practice.
“When I entered freshman year of high school, it was my school’s first year of existence,” Dolan said. “Then they started up a rugby team. I heard about it but didn’t really play or anything or watch any of the games. Come junior year I checked it out and went to practice.
“It was kind of like all of the sports I had played put together. You’re able to be versatile, use your size, you had to be quick, you had to be athletic, you had to be agile. It all took off pretty quickly from there.”
Dolan proceeded through the USA Rugby All-American ranks with the U17s – coached by Sean O’Leary – in 2007 and the U18s a year later. During the spring of 2008, his senior year of high school, Dolan reconnected with O’Leary at a U18s camp.
“I saw Sean and I said, ‘Hey, I want to go to college, but I want to be able to play rugby,’” Dolan recollected. “’What’s your take on that?’"
The current Notre Dame Rugby Coach told Dolan he would recommend him to Life University Director of Rugby Scott Lawrence, who was overseeing exciting growth in the Marietta, Ga., school’s club program. The Running Eagles won the Division I National Championship that year, prompting Dolan to get in contact with O’Leary.
Dolan took the fall off, working and training with the club team, instead of beginning his collegiate career. Without an undergraduate program, he was free to travel to Kenya with the U20s in the spring of 2009 for the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy. Dolan captained the team to a second-place finish in its first year of the competition and returned home to good news: former Eagle Dan Payne was bringing an undergraduate program to Life.
“He had good success at San Diego State, and he wanted to use the resources that Life had to our advantage as players and bring in young guys to give them a taste of college rugby,” Dolan said. “It’s tough to be 18, a team of 18-year-olds playing men’s club rugby; it just doesn’t happen.”
In 2011, Life finished second in Division 1A’s Mid-South Conference with a 5-1 record and plus-243 point-differential. It was the first year of the rebranded competition and Life’s first foray into the national playoffs.
Eventual champion University of California, Berkeley, ended what title hopes the young program did have in the quarterfinal with a merciless, 43-10, win at home. The Golden Bears “spanked” the Running Eagles, as Dolan put it, but the undergrads were just getting started.
In 2012, Life wrangled the Mid-South Conference title away from Arkansas State with a perfect, 8-0 record. The Running Eagles took advantage of the higher seed and handily defeated Pennsylvania State University in the quarterfinal. Another loss to an eventual champion – this time Brigham Young University – sent the Running Eagles home in the semifinal.
Colton Cariaga captained the team, but Dolan was certainly a leader after learning from some of the best in the country.
“[Colton] didn’t really know much about the forwards,” he said. “I called lineouts and played eight, so I was always at the back of scrums, calling scrum moves and stuff like that. He was more of a lead-by-example kind of captain; I was more of the vocal guy on the field, trying to lift the boys up, bring them together.”
It was not long until Dolan’s brief history with rugby began a new chapter with the national team, with a selection for the 2012 Americas Rugby Championship calling from Eagles Head Coach Mike Tolkin.
No less than six current Eagles were in the team, but Dolan captained the Selects in matches against Argentina, Canada, and Uruguay, though they were all losses.
“It was always the ultimate goal – I think it’s anyone’s ultimate goal in any sport to play for your national team and represent your country in a sport on an international stage,” Dolan said.
When Dolan returned to Life University for an Eagles camp in early 2013, he proved he earned a spot in the travel squad for the Eagles’ summer lineup. Though he did not play a role in the match-day teams, Dolan provided ample competition for the 23 players who did go up against Ireland and Tonga. Tolkin rewarded Dolan with his first international cap June 19, when the Eagles visited Japan for a match against Fiji.
Dolan started at number eight in place of Todd Clever, but did not feel as though he was replacing the team’s captain, holder of nearly 50 caps at the time.
“He’s one of the best players to ever play for the U.S.,” Dolan said. “I just try to do my part as a team member. It’s a team game.”
The capped Eagle served as captain for one of the Selects’ three matches at the 2013 Americas Rugby Championship and was among the starting XV for the Eagles’ highest-profile rugby match in years against the New Zealand Maori All Blacks. Dolan wore the number eight shirt while scoring a try in a Man of the Match performance for the Eagles in the loss at PPL Park.
The Eagles continued their Fall Tour to Europe for matches against Georgia and Russia with Dolan starting in both victories. The match against Russia was held at Saracens’ Allianz Park in England, where the Eagles’ Chris Wyles plies his trade in the Aviva Premiership. In the win, Dolan shared try-scoring duties with Samu Manoa, who was no stranger to Allianz Park after signing with Northampton Saints in 2011.
A month after the final match of 2013, the Saints signed Dolan to a professional contract.
“I felt very honored and blessed to just have that chance to go to one of the more prestigious rugby clubs in the world with some of the best players in the world,” Dolan said. “I always wanted to be a professional athlete. It was very surreal, but it’s not the end goal.”
Dolan’s end goal? Being the best. In being the best, the Eagle of eight caps wants to take the national team up the ladder with him.
“I missed out on the 2011 World Cup,” he said. “I’m in a better place now, I’ve aged, I’m a little more mature physically and mentally as a player; that’s definitely beneficial.”
The Eagles qualified for the 2015 World Cup earlier this year, defeating Uruguay just miles away from Life University after a tough draw in the first leg in Montevideo. Before the Eagles can set their sights on England, however, they will host Scotland, Japan, and Canada during the Summer Series, with the New Zealand All Blacks waiting for their American return at Soldier Field in November.
“We have a strong team right now,” Dolan said. “When we’re clicking on all cylinders, we can be one of the top 10 teams in the world. We’ve got to figure out what works for us and just stick with it.”
It might be useful to keep Dolan in the team, then, as he holds one of the higher win percentages on the international level, albeit with just seven caps.
With a busy schedule ahead as the Eagles prepare for their seventh World Cup and his professional career at Northampton continues, Dolan is in line for many national team appearances.
“I’m gonna play as long as my body will let me play,” he said. “The game changes every year, so I’ve got to adapt to it. Being at Northampton’s definitely going to help me be able to do that more easily and more efficiently than another place.
“I’ll go ‘til the motor stops.”