Conner Mooneyham received a phone call last Saturday that would change his life forever.
Dallas Jackals head coach Allen Clarke and assistant Elaine Vassie called the 24-year old, telling him that he was set to become the first pick at the inaugural Major League Rugby Collegiate Draft.
MLR commissioner George Killebrew made the announcement official on Saturday night by reading out his name live on Major League Rugby’s Facebook page.
Mooneyham was one of four players selected by MLR’s youngest franchise, the Dallas Jackals, who are set to join the competition in 2021 alongside the LA Giltinis.
The former Life University centre, who also plays on the wing, was “honoured” to have been selected as the first-ever Draft pick, but admitted that he was surprised with the reaction that followed.
“It was kind of like an explosion, my phone should’ve broken because of all the notifications that I got. It was unexpected for sure,” Mooneyham told RugbyPass.
“When they told me that I was going to be the number one pick, I didn’t expect things to blow up as much as they did with rugby not being as popular as other sports in America.
“It’s definitely an exciting time for me and my family.”
Mooneyham added that he was thrilled to have been picked by Dallas after falling “in love” with their direction and standards ahead of the Draft.
“A lot of teams did reach out to me but anybody who is an aspiring MLR player definitely wants to go in the first round. To be able to go as the first pick, that’s always an aspiration and that was mine too.
“[Dallas] were actually the only team that FaceTimed me, so they got to know me a little bit better face-to-face.
“I really liked their culture and their standards. They’re trying to create a team with a lot of domestic talent, a lot of young talent so I really fell in love with their core values.”
Being selected in the Draft was the result of years of hard work and dedication to the sport after beginning his rugby journey at 12 years old in Northern California.
Playing for Sierra Foothills Rugby Club, Mooneyham developed his passion for the code – albeit after a tough introduction.
“I had just turned 12 and my Dad thought that it was a great age for me to hit the pitch with Sierra Foothills in Northern California.
“My first rugby game, we got pummelled, I don’t think we scored a single try. I was a lot smaller back then, I didn’t hit a growth spurt until sophomore year of high school I’d say so I was just getting whipped around, playing scrumhalf and not really knowing what I was doing.
“I loved the game, the players definitely kept me coming back with the camaraderie I had with my team at the time, and how nobody wasn’t down even though we got pummelled every single game.”
Mooneyham began attending Life University in 2014, where he became an integral part of one of the most successful rugby programs in the country.
He later left the United States for two years on a mission to Argentina for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, before returning to Life in 2018.
“It was definitely a process but they welcomed me back with open arms, don’t get me wrong. They gave me a scholarship back and everything which was an honour, a huge blessing because I didn’t expect any of that.
“I had to work my way back onto the starting side just like any new player coming back.”
Life won an undefeated D1A National Championship in 2019, where Mooneyham scored the winning try in a tense 29-26 victory over the University of California’s Golden Bears.
It was his second National Championship victory after winning his first title in 2016, but he admitted that that season was the highlight of his time at Life.
“I came back from the mission a little bit uncertain about not rugby in general but my abilities because I’d taken two years off in Argentina.
Another example that the times they are a-changin https://t.co/RQxavIhVL4
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 18, 2020
“Coming back and just winning every single game with the lads, taking home the Championship, that was the best feeling.”
After being drafted, the utility back was confident in saying that Dallas was ready to host a rugby team. The Jackals will become MLR’s third Texan franchise when they join next season, alongside the already established Austin Gilgronis and Houston SaberCats.
“I think Dallas as a whole, the city, is prepared for rugby and that’s the biggest thing. Dallas is a great sports hub and they have a big rugby culture there that has been instilled in Dallas, so it’s really prepared for this team.”
“Obviously you have flashy players coming in Rene Ranger and Ma’a Nonu which definitely brings attention to the league for sure, but I think domestic talent will help it grow in the best way especially within the youth of America.”
Mooneyham has his sights set firmly focused on what he can do with Dallas, with so much opportunity awaiting the team heading into its maiden season.
He’s looking forward to doing whatever he can to help the team be successful, in whatever role that might be.
“A long-term goal is to help Dallas become a franchise team. It’s a brand-new team, there’s a lot of excitement around building a new team and I’m just excited about being part of that and continuing my career in the MLR.
“I’m thinking more of a back three, wing or fullback type role. But it all depends on who is there and the personnel, and how our system is going to work and what our plans are. It’s exciting.”
Mooneyham and the other 23 players drafted will have the opportunity to take the field next year when Major League Rugby returns for its fourth season.
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