Full Contact CEO: The Captain America Mini-Series
Todd Clever is probably the most iconic and most successful captain USA Rugby has ever had. From his home in Southern California Todd sits down with Mags to look back at his incredible career, recount some wild stories on tour, and give the listeners some insight into the Todd Clever Foundation which aims to develop grassroots rugby here in the United States. Oh, did we mention he apprehended some robbers in his Noodle Bagz?!
Catching up with Todd Clever
In episode 2 of the Captain America Mini Series Mags catches up with the man, the myth, the legend Todd Clever.
We find him donning a Hawaiian shirt with his USA jersey framed and on the wall behind him.
Before Todd wore the red, white, and blue and before his illustrious career he found himself playing rugby because of his older brother. He realized that rugby was going to be his dream and career when he toured Australia with the US U19s. He saw where the Brumbies played in Canberra and what it was like to be a professional athlete but it was also the same time that the former Tri Nations was taking place.
“I mean my first year, making Collegiate All Americans making the 7s XVs, and then just playing club rugby at university as kind of a big fish in a small pond. To reach my goals and aspirations of, you know, being on that field and that Tri Nations and watching Super Rugby. I have a chance to carve my own path.”
In 2006 Todd was given the chance to go over to New Zealand to play club rugby for North Harbor on a trial basis. Nothing was guaranteed but it was an opportunity to showcase himself.
“The things I learned at the club level I take with me everywhere.”
Why Super Rugby vs Going to Europe?
“When I first started playing rugby, that was the only rugby on TV.”
For Todd Super Rugby, the southern hemisphere game fit his style and how he wanted to play and represent himself.
Before Todd even got down to the tournament in the lower half of the globe he went back to Southern California to prepare for the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France.
It was a very memorable World Cup. The US caught the World’s attention against the would-be winners The Springboks. Todd intercepts a pass from the Springboks backline just 5 meters out from the USA try line. And as we all know Takudzwa Ngwenya beats Bryan Habana on the outside.
That World Cup opened up doors for Todd. He had offers from teams all over. He chose to play for the Lions in South Africa because he knew it was a tough team to play for and stiff competition.
Todd was the first American to play Super Rugby, an accomplishment in itself. A lot of people would question why he chose to earn a lesser wage with a weak currency like the South African rand compared to the Pound and Euro in Europe but to him, it wasn’t about the finances. He wanted to play the best rugby he could play.
While playing for the Lions Todd had three head coaches in three years. He was already coming in as an American playing rugby and he had to prove to them every season that he was worthy of a spot on the starting 23. Todd was also lucky enough to play the Touring British & Irish Lions in 2009.
“I had to prove a lot of people wrong. I had to earn my stripes and, you know, being up against it not just being American, but you know, kind of who I am so it was always tough.”
Japan and Eddie Jones
After his successful stint in Johannesburg, Todd found himself moving to the land of the rising sun.
At this point in time, an elite athlete like Todd didn’t have the luxury of playing professional rugby in the United States so he had to look elsewhere to not only make a living wage but also improve his game and bring himself to the highest standards.
“I never put a nail in a wall and I never hung a picture. My walls were always blank and I looked at it as temporary, like I’m here one day at a time and this may not be here tomorrow.”
It was none other than Eddie Jones that brought Todd into the fold at Suntory Sungoliath, Japan’s most successful Top League team. He also spent 3 years at the NTT Shining Arcs.
All professional rugby teams in Japan are actually owned by large companies so essentially when you play for a domestic Japanese team, you become an employee for a company like Suntory, Toyota, or Panasonic. It’s also financially lucrative.
So what was Eddie Jones like?
“I mean Eddie is a brilliant mind and you can’t take any days off or you, you know, he expects the most out of you. And we had such great players like George Gregan and George Smith.”
Playing with legends of the game and under Eddie Jones is when Todd realized what it was really like to be a professional player. He had to devote his time to prehab and rehab, studying the game, and to even learning a new language.
“So I had a tutor, I had a manager, I had a translator, so they made life so easy for us. You know, just the living arrangements, you show up your fridge is full, your bed’s made, and it’s like, just take your shoes off.
That ESPN Magazine
After a very successful 5-year stint in Japan controversy crept into the picture for no particular reason. Todd was invited to pose for ESPN’s The Body Issue. A famous issue of the magazine that comes out every year. It showcases some of the world’s best athletes while wearing barely any clothing. Think Serena Williams and Lebron James.
Todd had to disrobe in front of about 30 people on set. After the magazine was published Todd was invited to the ESPYs, a great opportunity to market the sport. However, those that were running the national team at the time were not happy about Todd’s appearance. It sadly led to Todd not being picked for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. A huge mistake was made by the coaching staff.
At that point after 5 years in Japan, Todd would have applied for Japanese citizenship.
One thing Mags points out about Todd is that he accepted the decision that the coaching staff made and he didn’t want to distract from the World Cup preparation. He was one of the very fully professional players on the team. He always makes a point to advocate for the guys who are taking time away from their lives to pursue their rugby dream.
The Barbarians and Newcastle Falcons
Like any rugby player, it’s a dream to play for the Barbarians. It’s an opportunity to play on the world’s stage but also with some of the best players in the world. Not to mention the amount of fun you get to have, the tour is notorious for having a good time.
After his appearance for the Barbarians, Todd decided to live a bit of a nomadic life and he even thought about retiring. What he didn’t realize is that he was receiving offers from teams to come join their squad including Newcastle.
Fortunately enough after one season with Newcastle, Todd was called back into the Eagles with a new head coach in place.
“So he asked me, what do you want to do? And I said, just give me an opportunity. I don’t want to be captain. I just want a job to have a chance to earn that jersey back.”
Not long after his return to the team and after a few World Cup qualifying games Todd decided to hang up the boots for the national team. It was a selfless choice aimed at giving an opportunity to some younger players.
“I thought it would’ve been really selfish of myself to prolong my national team career.”
How Has the Game Changed
Lots of professional rugby players want the opportunity to play in America but prior to the MLR there really hasn’t been any league or money in the sport. The missing piece to changing the game in the US was a pro league.
“Once there’s something set up there, then that’s how I can take the sport to the next level. Making sure our national team is fully professional finally.”
Todd explains that we need to get rugby into schools and start kids at a young age. But once rugby is there we can start to see athletes transition over from other sports.
The Todd Clever Foundation
Todd Clever Foundation uplifts and unites the rugby community by providing opportunities for athletes, coaches, and teams while instilling the sport’s most exceptional values.
The goal is to spread the game and provide for rugby programs that aren’t necessarily positioned for success.
“We are really focusing on diversity and inclusion in rugby. So the foundation is really there to, you know, unite and support the players, coaches, teams, and leagues to make rugby more accessible.”
Rugby provided Todd the opportunity to travel the world, to not only improve his rugby but he got to learn about new cultures and meet new people. He wants that same opportunity for Americans who want to play the sport.
What’s Going Well in the MLR?
Coming out of a Covid year the MLR has actually bounced back. But for it to exceed, Todd believes the game should be played at great facilities and great stadiums.
“It’s gotta be easy on the eyes. We have to educate the public. We have to introduce it first, then education. And then show them a great product, which the product is going well on the field as in the game wise and the speed and, and the, and the collisions and the skill sets. But, you know, I think we just need to have better broadcasting, better stadiums across the league.”
Mags also believes that rugby is the product but teams need to provide a whole day of attractions, entertainment, and experiences to capture a wide audience. “There should be something for everybody.”
What was it like apprehending thieves in your Noodlebagz?
For those that don’t know. Todd and a few other rugby players were at a Fourth of July Party in San Diego when robbers broke into the house and started to make off with their things.
Todd and a few other guys chased the culprits down in their skimpy swimwear and managed to tackle them 3 blocks away.
Proudest rugby moment?
Todd always had goals he had written down and he crossed them off once he completed them. First Eagles cap, signing a Super Rugby Contract, first World Cup.
Todd, who is recently married to a busy actress, finds himself at some pretty fun parties and on red carpets.
If he were running the Free Jacks today, what would he focus on?
“You guys are doing such a great job. And it’s about relationships and community and you guys are leading the way.”
But the reality is, how do you manage expectations of where rugby is and how do you focus on getting butts in seats, getting sponsorships, and bringing home that shield.
To listen to the entire episode click here.