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Poster Boy

Saturday Feb 21, 2009 in Magazine

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By Buzz McClain

 

When it comes to Todd Clever, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

 

The good news is that the 2008 USA Rugby Player of the Year and captain of the Eagle 15s signed a contract last September to become the first American to play with a team in the highly competitive Southern Hemisphere Super 14 League, the Xerox Lions of Johannesburg, South Africa. Clever will suit up with a professional team that competes from February to May, and from summer through the fall he’ll play in the 14-game ABSA Currie Cup series.

 

The 25-year-old flanker (his birthday is January 16), will make his high-impact tackles and dazzling runs in televised games broadcast from his new home arena, the 60,000-seat Coca-Cola Stadium (the former Ellis Park), the hallowed grounds where the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup in 1995.

 

Now the bad news . . . 

 

Clever, who is the “face” of the Eagles, particularly when it comes to the US 7s team (he’s co-captain) won’t be available to play for the US at the USA Sevens Tournament in San Diego. That’s because his new team opens their Super 14 season at home on Friday, February 13, and the USA Sevens (part of the IRB Sevens World Series) begins the day after. Do the scheduling math.

 

No one is going to miss the extravaganza at PETCO Park more than Northern California-native Clever, whose club for the last two years has been San Diego’s OMBAC RFC, where his older brother Chris is captain.

 

Clever’s loss was not a shock to USA 7s coach Al Caravelli, who actually had several months to find a replacement for the 6-foot-5, 225-pound prop.

 

 “He was going to sign with a British club,” Caravelli reveals. “And we were working as hard as we could to get him to a South African club because I believe it suits his style of play more. I think it’s the right thing for him.”

 

That Clever was entertaining more than one offer is no surprise to anyone who has followed his career, particularly after the 2007 Rugby World Cup, when several US players suddenly appeared on the radar screens of rugby club executives around the world. As the first player under contract with USA Rugby, Clever was already signed with the Eagles when the Lions made their offer.

 

“Todd was on a one-year contract where he was totally available to captain the Eagle 15s and play for the Eagle 7s,” says Nigel Melville, CEO and president of USA Rugby. “He was paid a small basic salary. As we move forward we would like to support more players financially, but our best will generally take contracts in Europe and further afield where the money is far, far greater.”

 

Clever has now joined a group that includes Eagle 7s captain Chris Wyles and former Eagle Mike MacDonald (featured on the cover of the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of Rugby Magazine) as US stars playing for pay overseas.

 

“The last few years I’ve had various contract offers from overseas that I haven’t taken for different reasons,” Clever admits. “I didn’t want to give up the USA 7s and 15s jerseys. My priority is to represent the United States as many times as possible.”

 

But Clever had played professionally for North Harbour NPC in New Zealand in 2006 and decided he again wanted to play rugby full time.

 

“I had a couple of offers on the table from European clubs and then through the grapevine I heard the Lions were interested.”

 

Clever, operating without an agent, had several advisors, but it was up to him to pursue his own deals. So what does a young American do when he hears a 120-year-old South Africa powerhouse may be interested? He emails them, of course.

 

“I sent an email asking is if their interest was real,” he says. “And the head coach was like, ‘Yeah we’re interested,’ and we had an email chat and then things kind of developed.”

 

The Lions’ head coach, Eugene Eloff, is on a mission to get his club back to the top of the standings from the middle of the bracket. He’s also on a youth movement and isn’t hesitant to look outside South Africa for talent. This off-season, besides Clever, the Lions signed New Zealand’s Willie Rickards, a 24-year-old utility back.

 

“I saw Todd at the World Cup last year and I liked his style,” Eloff confirms. “I thought he was a player with great potential and that he should be seen in a competition like the Super 14.”

 

The fact that no American had ever played in the league before was not a deterrent to Eloff. He thought it might be the beginning of getting other US ruggers to play in the Super 14. The coach says Clever will be living with veteran forward Anton van Zyl and Eloff hopes van Zyl’s experience will rub off on Clever. “I think he will fit into our scheme very easily,” Eloff says.

 

Once he made positive contact with the Lions, Clever had to decide on whether to play in Europe or on a Super 14 team. “South Africa plays more my style,” he says. “So I’m looking forward to getting down there and training full time with the boys.”

 

Serious pre-season training began in mid-December in Johannesburg. Clever let the Lions’ management know he’d be late because of his commitments to the Eagles 7s squad in Dubai in late November and George, South Africa, in early December, as those games count toward seeding in the 7s World Cup.

 

“I’m lucky I’m going to have Clever for Dubai and George,” said Caravelli before those tournaments began. “And we’ll have him back for the World Cup.” (The 7s World Cup tournament will be played in Dubai on March 5-7. As it turns out the Lions have a bye that weekend.)

 

“When the US has international competitions and matches,” says Eloff, “I’ll always consider releasing him because, after all, it’s his national side.” That’s for 15s. It’s different for 7s, says Eloff.

 

“I think he’s achieved in 7s what he can,” the coach surmises. “Every good player likes to measure himself against the best in the world, and that’s what the Super 14 offers.”

 

“That’s the thing about being a rugby player,” says Clever. “When you sign with a club you’re giving up all your rights and free time, and you actually want to commit to that club a hundred percent. If we have something going on I’ll be with my club, but if for some reason I can make it to the Eagle matches I’ll be there.

 

“It’s one of those things,” he adds reflectively. “The last few years I never wanted to give it [Eagle matches] up and now it’s a little bit different. There’s a new chapter in the book.”

 

The book began for Clever at age 14 when he discovered that his brother Chris was going to England on a rugby tour with his under-19 team, San Jose’s College Park RFC. Clever told the coach he wanted to go, too. The coach told him if he came along he would have to play.

 

“Growing up, I played soccer,” Clever says. “But I was little too physical for that game so I moved on to a contact sport.” The school’s football coach pulled him out of class a few times “to put on the pads,” he recalls, “but you do what’s best for yourself. I never really enjoyed the stop-go aspect of football, so I stuck with what I enjoyed.”

 

By the time he was a junior in high school, he was playing on the USA U19 team and going to Junior World Cup matches in Chile and Italy. After graduating Santa Teresa High School, he followed Chris to the University of Nevada, Reno, where he was a three-time All-American at flanker. (Chris, who is 21 months older, was an All-American as well).

 

Bruce Anderson, now the head coach at Reno, was the backline coach when he met Clever. Anderson later left the school to temporarily return home to South Africa just as the All-Americans, including Clever, were touring South Africa. Clever wouldn’t go home.

 

“Todd stayed with me in Durban for two-and-a-half months,” Anderson says. “He became part of our family. We went to all the Natal Sharks’ games and he said that he would love to play in South Africa one day. He loved the environment, and got on with everybody in Durban, and he’ll do the same now in Johannesburg. He’s such a respectful kid and he hasn’t got an attitude about him. Everybody loves being around him—kids, my family, all the rugby guys. I’m sure he’s going to make tons of friends and have an enjoyable time with the Lions.”

 

Anderson agrees with Caravelli that Clever is a good fit for the high-impact, non-stop style of rugby played in the Southern Hemisphere.

 

“In terms of rugby, he’s way ahead of everybody in the US,” says Anderson. “And when he comes back he’ll be 20 times ahead of everybody. When you see him in South Africa with other [professional] players to support him—and he’ll learn a few techniques in how they play—he’s going to come back five times the player he is now.”

 

Anderson knows the depth of Clever’s commitment to every club he’s play with, from college to the professional ranks. “With Todd, it’s 100 percent or nothing. He gives everything when he plays rugby.”

 

And he apparently gives a lot of things up, to the point where the sport cuts into any sort of social life. Asked by telephone if he’s dating or has a girlfriend, you can almost hear Todd Clever blush. “I don’t know how to answer that,” he says. There’s a long pause. “I’m a little young to settle down. Besides, the schedule of a fulltime rugby player—the training, the Super 14—having a relationship would be a hassle.”

 

There’s another pause, during which one wonders what it would be like to be a 25-yearold athlete with movie-star looks, a rock solid body and the hair of a hero from the cover of a romance novel. “I’m going to South Africa alone, but I think I’m doing all right for myself.”

 

Clever claims that being a pro athlete prevents him from pursuing a more active non-rugby life. While playing for OMBAC, he sometimes skipped post-practice socials to go home and run sprints. His intense love of the game was and still is contagious.

 

“With his National Team call-ups he was missing a lot during those two seasons with OMBAC,” says head coach Jason Wood. “But Todd made an impact on the games, his teammates and our club when he did play. Todd is a devoted and loyal individual and the way he acts on those fronts rubs off on his teammates. He showed great passion for making his teammates better—from our [Rugby Super League] team to our Division III players. The energy, and enthusiasm he brought to every drill at practice, every social event, and every minute he played, makes others take notice and follow. Todd plain and simple loves rugby and that shows.” adds OMBAC Director of Rugby Bing Dawson: “We were very lucky to have that experience [with Clever] and hope when his career is over he will come back to us as a coach or administrator.”

 

Rugby coaching is down the road. For now Todd Clever is focused on contributing to his new team in South Africa. He can’t wait to tie up his boots in the Coca-Cola Park locker room and get on with the next phase of his career.

 

“I’m brand new to the Lions, so I don’t know how things are going to be run down there,” he says. “I’ve been in constant communication with Eugene Eloff and he’s a real open guy. What I’ve heard from some of the guys is he’s a ‘player’s coach’; that he’s involved and real personable and that’s exactly what I’ve gotten so far with him.”

 

But as excited as Clever is to start playing with the Lions, you can still sense he’ll miss playing with his Eagle teammates in important matches like the USA 7s.

 

“I’ve had tremendous support from rugby and non-rugby people around the country and it’s been great,” Todd Clever says a bit wistfully. “It’s sad to let go for a little bit, but at this stage in my rugby career, I think it’s the right move.”

 

The Marketing of Todd Clever

From the first time he stepped onto a field in an Eagle jersey—against Argentina in 2003—Todd Clever has never been anonymous. He’s a certifiable impact player, one who makes bone jarring open-field tackles, gazelle-like ball-in-hand movements and game-changing defensive plays. It was his interception that launched Taku Ngwenya’s “Try of the World Cup” against South Africa in 2007. Just look on YouTube or RugbyDump for the highlight footage.

 

You can’t miss him: Just look for the hair. It’s about two feet of dirty blond waves, pulled back into a tight tail that violently bounces on impact. If a team called the Golden Lions doesn’t capitalize on marketing the “Clever mane” to South African rugby fans, they’re missing an opportunity.

 

“I haven’t cut it yet,” Clever says sheepishly of the distinctive ‘do. “I’m still saving my pennies to get a nice hair cut. One of these days I’ll chop it but I’ve been saying that for a couple of years now.”

 

Clever’s former college coach, Bruce Anderson, a South African, predicts “Todd’s going to hear a few remarks from the opposition [in South Africa]. All the sportsmen over there keep their hair short. They’re going to say, ‘Hey you, Yank with the long hair.’ They’ll try to intimidate him that way, but he’ll handle it, he’s got that temperament.”

 

The hair is distinctive, and combined with his phenomenal focus, his athletic abilities and those highlight reel hits, it’s enough to get him on TV shows—most recently, Fox Sports’ “Sport Science” (the episode featuring him will run in early spring)—and sponsorships. So far, he’s represented Canterbury of New Zealand and World Rugby Shop.

 

Clever also has a website, www.toddclever.com, where he’ll keep fans here and abroad up-to-date on his career developments. And he has a very cool TOPPS trading card, actually an action portrait rendered in classic style by Allen & Ginter; an autographed one is available on eBay for $24.99.

 

If that isn’t enough, Clever is also a featured athlete at Celebritees, a web store that donates a portion of each sale of a T-shirt to the celebrity athlete’s charity of choice. Clever joins a list that includes NFL stars Terrell Owens and Antonio Pierce, who helped create their own shirts designed around a single word of inspiration. Clever’s is actually two words divided by a horizontal bar—“Team” and “Self,” which translates to “team above self.”

 

His charity of choice? What else but Locks of Love, an organization that provides hairpieces to disadvantaged children suffering hair loss for medical reasons. B.M.

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