Staff Sgt. Eric Walton runs the ball for the All Air Force Rugby Team during a recent game at Fort Benning, Ga. Walton has experienced many successes on the rugby pitch since he began focusing on the sport in 2006. Hi-Res
OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. - When Staff Sgt. Eric Walton was five years old, he joined his first football team because, as he put it, he loved tackling and wasn't afraid of getting hurt. As a seventh-grader in Tucker, Ga. , Walton was introduced to rugby during a recruiting presentation at his school.
"No pads? No way," he told the scout. "I love contact sports, but I wasn't willing to play without the pads. "
Now 29 and assigned to U.S. Strategic Command's Global Operations Executive Admin, the Air Force Staff Sergeant wishes he had answered that scout differently.
"I started playing rugby in 2004 when I was stationed at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, but I wasn't able to get into it until I got to Omaha," he said. "I was looking to join a full-contact football team when I got here; but when I couldn't find one, I tried rugby again. "
Since joining the Omaha Goats in 2006, the stocky 5-foot, 6-inch wing has seen many doors open for him. Goats Coach Niko Waqalaivi, who also coaches the Aspen 7's of Colorado, invited Walton to play for both teams because he saw something special in him.
"Rugby is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical," said Coach Niko. "Some players are just gifted with that mental part, it can't be taught, and Eric is gifted - he's got it.
"He's very strong for his size," Niko continued, "he's got a punch, and he will lift them [opposing players] off the ground. "
Walton's physical presence on the field also landed him a spot on the All Air Force Rugby Team. More recently he was selected to attend the USA Camp and then made the leap to the world class USA Select XV lineup when he was chosen from among 33 elite U.S. athletes to play against the Argentina Jaguars in the Americas Rugby Championship semifinals.
"Eric is a tremendous informal leader on the pitch, positively impacting his teammates," said Lt. Col. Dan Lockert, All Air Force Rugby team coach. "He is very coachable and continually seeking ways to improve his game. "
"Being chosen to go to the USA Camp is what made me want to expand my game," said Walton. "They told me the things I need to work on""helped me set a lot of goals and really improve how I play. "
"Eric brings speed and explosiveness to our attack," said Lockert, "and can visualize the field, exploiting gaps and weaknesses in the opposition's defense.
Staff Sgt. Eric Walton eludes two Army defenders during a very soggy November rugby match at Fort Benning, Ga. Walton has experienced many successes on the rugby pitch since he began focusing on the sport in 2006. Hi-Res
"In addition to speed, he can change direction in what appears mid-air," said Lockert. "He also has the elusiveness that makes him so dangerous with ball in hand. Very few defenses have been able to stop him. "
In the past year, Walton has traveled to games in Dallas, Kansas City, Denver, San Francisco, San Diego and Fort Benning, Ga. In February he will play in the USA 7's Championship Cup Series in Las Vegas. Each time he plays is an opportunity to build his skills and presence within the sport and each has been fully supported by the leadership at USSTRATCOM.
"We couldn't be more proud of Sergeant Walton," said Brig. Gen. Michael J. Carey, deputy director, Global Operations Directorate. "He is a talented and accomplished NCO who is also making his dreams come true on the field. We're happy to help him when we can while also making sure his professional objectives are met here. "
Although the married father of three plans on retiring from the Air Force, he's also enjoying his success on the field and the opportunities the Air Force is enabling him to pursue.
"It would be nice to represent the USA in both sports and the armed services," said Walton. "Being selected to join the USA 7's team would really be an honor. "
Earning a spot on the USA 7's, a potential Olympic team, could also earn him a spot in the Air Force World Class Athlete Program. WCAP is a two-year program that provides active duty, national guard and reserve Air Force personnel the opportunity to train and compete at national and international sports competitions with the ultimate goal of selection to the United States Olympic team.
"It would be great to be able to concentrate on rugby full time and be given the chance to take it to the next level," said Walton. "That's my goal. "
Today, 16 years after first learning about rugby and then shying away from it, Walton has realized the key to his success on the field is what first drew him to sports when he was five.
"I love to tackle," he said, "and I think that's my biggest strength. You run at a guy, no matter how big he is, just as hard as he runs at you - you can't be scared of getting hurt. "