‘It’s his lane’: Can’t stop the CyRide

Brandon Karnes’ journey to become Iowa State’s first professional rugby player


Photo courtesy of Brandon Karnes

Brandon Karnes sheds a tackle in the Collegiate Rugby Shield game. Photo courtesy of Brandon Karnes.

Christian Royston, Sports Editor

AMES — One of Brandon Karnes’ favorite rugby memories from his time at Iowa State wasn’t a big win or a competitive match; it was a moment where he was just having pure fun with his teammates.

In one tournament, Karnes’ teammate John Ivan went in to kick the ball but connected with nothing but air. Unfortunately, he couldn’t stop his momentum and completely tripped over his own feet.

In that same tournament, another of Karnes’ teammates, Trey Bond, had a breakaway run with just open field between him and a score. Karnes had the ball and could have easily scored himself, but being the great teammate he was, he asked Bond if he wanted to score instead.

Of course, Bond wanted to score, so Karnes passed him the ball. What they did not foresee was what ended up happening. Instead of securing the ball, Bond dropped the ball and knocked it forward.

They were only 10 meters away from scoring and decided to pass the ball. An embarrassing moment but a fun one nonetheless.

As Karnes was reminiscing about the funny moments he’s had at Iowa State, his butter-fingered teammate walked around the corner. Karnes’ face lit up as he called Bond over. 

Both Karnes and Bond laughed as they recounted the hilarious moment. It was clear in both players’ eyes that as much as they were at Iowa State to compete, they were also there to have fun.

Karnes’ smile was infectious as Bond bid him farewell; off to put in more work.

Whenever anyone was asked about Karnes, one thing kept coming up over and over. He was the nicest guy they knew.

“He’s just a really friendly guy,” Iowa State rugby team captain Wes Cummings said.

Karnes’ friendliness, mixed with his raw athleticism, was an elite combination when it came to his success in rugby. The thing is, he’s had that combo since day one.

‘The biggest soccer player you’ve ever seen’

Karnes was born to play rugby. Or really any sport.

Karnes played football and soccer in high school with the hopes of going to college to play football. From the start, he wanted to be the best.

Iowa State rugby head coach Anthony Frein initially got tipped off to Karnes when he was a junior in high school. Karnes was playing rugby in Sioux City, Iowa, at the time and mainly competed against Omaha, Nebraska, schools.

“He was the classic kid who was a couple inches too short to be a D1 football prospect and the biggest soccer player you’ve ever seen,” Frein said.

There was something special about Karnes. He was gifted athletically and seemed like a genuine person.

From the first time the two talked, Frein could tell that Karnes would fit right in with the culture at Iowa State.

“It was like talking to an old friend,” Frein said.

Frein’s wife followed rugby as well and took notice of Karnes during the recruiting process. When she saw him, one thing came to mind. Wow, this kid is awesome.

Karnes was an all-star in rugby and football in high school. 

Cummings said Karnes could have probably gone D1 in football, but rugby was his true calling.

Karnes had the perfect build for rugby. He had a massive frame and was powerful. He was also quick and could make cuts and move like someone half his weight.

“He’s huge but quick like a small guy,” Cummings said.

Iowa State doesn’t have a varsity rugby team; it’s a club team. With other top programs nearby, Iowa State doesn’t get many top-tier recruits.

Iowa State is more player-development-driven. That’s the team Frein built, and that focus on improving every day is what drew Karnes in.

When Karnes was considering the path of collegiate football, Frein talked him into rugby by telling him, “I think you’re a better rugby player than you are a football player.”

But Karnes didn’t think so. He knew he was good enough to play football at the next level.

“I never really thought I was gonna play rugby in college,” Karnes said. “Like, I had my heart set on going to SDSU (South Dakota State University) or Northern Missouri State for football.”

However, something was gnawing at the back of his mind. He was the perfect build for rugby. He had the height and weight to be a monster on the field.

Karnes was also not the perfect size to make it to the NFL. With the national teams he could join and the vast amount of options that rugby could bring, it would be easier to make it to the top of the rugby world than get into the NFL.

When all was said and done, Karnes decided to trust Frein, his soon-to-be coach. 

“He’s more than a coach to me,” Karnes said. “He’s a mentor.”

Brandon Karnes gets ready to make a play in an Iowa State rugby game.(Photo courtesy of Brandon Karnes)

Here comes the CyRide

Karnes overcame many obstacles on his path to greatness. Those obstacles came as soon as he got to Iowa State.

Karnes suffered a concussion early in his freshman year as the team took on Iowa.

All Karnes remembers was getting kneed in the back of the head and everything going black. When he woke up, the only thing on his mind was where the ball was. He had it before, but it was gone when he opened his eyes.

The concussion was severe enough that Karnes couldn’t play for the next two months. However, that didn’t stop him from coming back stronger than ever.

The first game back, Karnes made a play that would make him a legend. 

Karnes’ teammate at the time remembers how many games Karnes would run over people. In the first game that Karnes and Cummings played together, Karnes had already run four people over in a row, flattening anyone who stood in his path.

“It’s his lane,” Cummings said.

As Karnes barrelled down the field, he threw a player off him while trucking another. The sideline erupted in cheers. It was a powerful run, and the run that earned him the nickname “CyRide.”

“I feel like I am able to come up with big moments,” Karnes said. “Playing sports my whole life, I’ve always loved the big moment things. That’s the stuff that I believe that you train for. So… it’s normal. It’s not anything different.”

The nickname CyRide was a homage to Jerome Bettis, a long-time Pittsburgh Steelers running back, whose combination of size and power earned him the nickname The Bus. 

That’s just what Karnes did. He drove through people like a bus. No one could stand in his way.

“He was a stud from the beginning,” Cummings said.

Karnes’ freshman success was short-lived, as he lost his entire spring season to COVID. Karnes didn’t let the obstacles bring him down. Instead, he put his head down and continued to work.

Karnes’ hard work paid off as his sophomore year rolled around. Many players needed time to get back into the swing of things coming back from COVID.

Not Karnes. Frein remembers the first game against Iowa Central as the team returned in the fall.

Frein said it was Karnes’ “welcome to the league moment.”

Iowa Central is a tough and competitive team, usually sitting around top five to top 10 in the nation. In the game, Karnes got a hold of the ball and went right through one of Iowa Central’s All-American players en route to a score.

From that moment on, Frein could tell that Karnes was going places.

“He’s a kid that wants to be different,” Frein said. “He wants to be the best.”

To be the best, Karnes put in the work to get to the top. One of Karnes’ proudest achievements was competing in the U20 Championship game in Denver. 

The U20 game was a good chance for Karnes to learn from great players across the country. He traveled with the team and lived in the same facility as them while training and improving his rugby skills. He also got introduced to many players who ended up making it into the MLR (Major League Rugby).

Competing in the U20 was a great achievement for Karnes, but one of his favorite games was the Rugby Shield game in Herriman, Utah.

“I think it was fun playing against guys from all over the country and at different levels,” Karnes said.

Similar to the U20 game, Karnes did everything with his teammates for a whole week. The entire week they would practice together, eat together and hang out in their free time. He also got to play with other Iowa State players.

The game was nationally televised on Fox Sports 1, so Karnes was able to get his name out.

“Playing in the stadium in Utah, having the mountain in the background and seeing that stuff was really cool. And being around MLR GMs, and knowing that the whole rugby world and the U.S. is watching this game, I think that was a pretty cool thing,” Karnes said. “I think everything that led up to the game just made the game probably my favorite rugby game I’ve ever played.”

Brandon Karnes lines up in a scrum in the Collegiate Rugby Shield game. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Karnes)

Change of scenery

Karnes moved to a varsity team in his junior year. Life University convinced him to transfer, and Karnes packed his bags to move to Atlanta, Georgia.

It was an easy decision for Karnes at the time. Although he loved Iowa State, how could he pass up a full ride to play rugby at a good rugby school? He would also be speeding up his path to the professional rugby world.

“I think that just had a whole domino effect and made me realize, hey, I’m not playing rugby just to play rugby. I’m playing rugby because I love it. I play rugby because I’m good at it. I play rugby because I want to go to the next level,” Karnes said.

Of course, the decision may have been easy on paper, but it turned out to be anything but easy. Iowa State was the first school to take a chance on him. He had friends at Iowa State, and the entire team felt like family.

Frein was the person Karnes went to when he was stuck on what to do. Frein told Karnes that part of being an adult is making decisions for himself, even if those decisions end up being the wrong ones in the end.

That ended up being the case for Karnes. His credits didn’t transfer smoothly from Iowa State, and it was a major change for him to play rugby at a different school.

It ended up being a major hiccup in Karnes’ rugby career, but it helped him grow as a person. After a short stint in Georgia, Karnes wanted to go back home. Even though that meant he would sit out an entire year after his transfer.

“I was on the phone with [Frein] for like three hours on my way back from Atlanta, and you know, he just said like, ‘that’s life, you know. Not everything goes as planned,’” Karnes said.

Frein was one of Karnes’ No. 1 supporters throughout his rugby career, and that didn’t change when he transferred schools. Frein also helped Karnes with the process of transferring back to Iowa State to make it go smoothly.

“It’s not like my life came to an end. Like, I was able to come back to Iowa State and go back to school and play rugby again,” Karnes said. “So it’s not like I moved to Atlanta and got stranded there and couldn’t go back.”

When Karnes arrived back in Ames, he was greeted with a warm welcome. He was worried about how easily he would be accepted back onto the team, but the transition couldn’t have been any better.

“It was like he never left,” Frein said.

Putting in the work

Karnes’ goal was always to reach the next level.

However, reaching the next level meant making sacrifices. For Karnes to be the best, he had to devote his life to rugby.

Karnes moved to Texas after his sophomore year to improve his rugby game. He remembers giving up his summers and devoting his entire life to rugby at the time. 

Karnes would eat, sleep and train for rugby. But that was necessary for his growth.

Training across the country and being part of the game on the professional level gave Karnes new insights and experiences. Not only did he grow from those experiences, but he could also bring things he learned back to Iowa State.

“In our warmups, when I first came here, it wasn’t really like a warmup. It was like, ‘oh, run around, pass the ball, stretch,’” Karnes said. “When I got flown out to New Orleans, they had their own way of doing a rugby warmup, and I brought that over here. So it gets everyone more involved.”

Of course, not everyone is on Karnes’ level, so getting everyone to understand some of the complex things from the professional level was difficult. That doesn’t stop Karnes from being a teacher for the team, as he loves helping others.

When Karnes got back to Ames, his teammates saw a different player than they had played with before. Karnes was starting to look more like a professional player every day.

His passing improved tremendously, and Cummings said Karnes saw the field better.

Karnes has seen constant growth at a faster pace than anyone else on the team.

“He’s gone from just running people over and making highlight reels to actually growing into his position,” Cummings said.

Draft day

Karnes was flown out to New Orleans to go through the draft process. He was going through workouts and talking with people on the team.

From that point, it seemed like a surefire thing that he was going to be drafted by New Orleans. In just a short amount of time, Karnes would be a NOLA Gold.

“They really liked me. The GM really liked me. I really liked them,” Karnes said. “I was excited to go.”

But then Karnes stumbled upon something he probably shouldn’t have. He walked past an office in the New Orleans facility and found a mock draft. In it, Karnes wasn’t projected to fall to the team he had been going the entire draft process with.

New Orleans expected Karnes to fall to the Dallas Jackals. No worries. He liked New Orleans but was still fine with going to Texas.

“Then draft day comes, and nothing goes as it was predicted,” Karnes said.

As Karnes sat around the TV waiting for his name to be called, New Orleans was on the clock with its first pick. Karnes’ name wasn’t called.

Then the draft kept going. New Orleans called in its second pick.

The Gold picked a player who played the same position as Karnes. He recognized him; they had flown him out a week before Karnes.

New Orleans had filled the position that Karnes would have fit into. There was no need to draft him.

The only thing Karnes could think was, “damn, that sucks.”

However, there was still hope. The mock draft Karnes stumbled upon had him going in the second round to Dallas.

Again, the pick came, and Karnes’ name still wasn’t called. Now all he could think about was what he should do now.

Karnes did enter the draft a year early, so he still had time to develop and prepare for the next time it came around.

As the draft neared the end, Karnes went to grab a slice of pizza. There was one pick left, and his name wasn’t going to be called.

“Then my name came up, and I was in shock. I was like, ‘there’s no way,’” Karnes said.

The Houston SaberCats selected Karnes with the final pick in the 2022 MLR Draft. Karnes had just become the Mr. Irrelevant of the rugby draft.

Brandon Karnes’ draft card after he was drafted by the Houston SaberCats in the 2022 MLR Draft. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Karnes)

To say he was surprised by the pick would be an understatement. He had barely talked to Houston, and most of the talking he did with the team was just basic introductions.

Now he was officially a professional rugby player. The first Iowa State player ever drafted into the pros. Not only that, he was surrounded by friends and family when his special moment happened.

“It’s one of those things where you always see it on TV, and they’re all on the couch and stuff,” Karnes said. “I gotta experience that firsthand. It was quite the experience.”

Shortly after he saw his name pop up on the screen, he got a call. His new coach was on the phone looking to congratulate the new SaberCat.

The moment was surreal for Karnes. Everyone around him was bursting with excitement, and his phone was blowing up.

“It’s just hard to comprehend. I feel like I was so relieved that all this hard work paid off, but also so excited,” Karnes said. “I finally got drafted. It’s like something that you dream of as a kid, like a dream coming true.”

Then his No. 1 fan came to congratulate him.

Karnes had never seen his father cry before, but at that moment, there were tears in his eyes. As his father hugged him, he told him what he’d always wanted to hear. “I’m proud of you.”

Karnes’ parents mean more to him than anything. They gave up so much to see him succeed.

Karnes remembers his dad driving through a snowstorm to get him to a rugby practice in Kansas City. Whatever his parents did was to give him the best life possible.

“They mean the world to me,” Karnes said. “I know they sacrificed a lot.”

Hungry for more

Although getting drafted was a dream come true, Karnes’ journey is just beginning. 

Karnes has youth on his side. Many guys drafted into the MLR are fifth and sixth-year seniors. Karnes was drafted in his junior year.

Everyone around Karnes believes that he has the potential to make waves at the professional level. Frein said Karnes is “still very raw,” which may be a good thing going forward.

“His ceiling is however high he wants it to be,” Cummings said.

No matter how good Karnes ends up being, he’s going to continue working hard to be the best he can be. There’s a reason that he made history.

Being the first Iowa State rugby player in history to make it on the draft board wasn’t just historic. It was huge for the rugby program.

“That puts us on the map,” Cummings said. “Iowa State is not just some throwaway club. We are a force to be reckoned with.”

Now Karnes has more chances to put Iowa State on the map. But that’s what Karnes wants more than anything. He wants to be the face of something.

Karnes is just a kid from a small town in South Dakota. To be the face of rugby would be a dream come true.

“Being able to look back one day and be like, I did this, I did that,” Karnes said. “I grew up watching Cristiano Ronaldo and seeing everything that he’s done. Why can’t that be me in the rugby world?”

Being the best isn’t too big of a goal for Karnes. All it would take is a lot of hard work, and Karnes is ready to work.

“If something is getting too comfortable, then I start getting anxious,” Karnes said. “I enjoy being uncomfortable. I enjoy the hard work.”

Karnes said that the last thing he wants is to regret not working hard enough. 

“Once I am able to sit down, and I think about everything I’ve done, then I might get comfortable,” Karnes said. “But as of now, I really don’t want to.”

Karnes knows how lucky he is to be in his situation and doesn’t want to take anything for granted.

Karnes’ rugby career could have ended years ago. Now he’s going to play on some of the biggest stages.

“No matter what you go into, give it your all because you never know,” Karnes said. “This could be your last chance.”