Todd Clever: The Eagle Lands on His Own Terms
Photo Credit: US Embassy
Written by: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt
Todd Clever is an internationally known commodity in the Rugby World. He’s popular, he’s well-respected, and he’s an overall decent guy; He gives supporters and fans the time of day and he’s supported charities such as The Children’s Wish Foundation. He also cares about his fellow players. A lot. He goes to bat for them. He has been, by all accounts, a great captain; the most-capped Rugby Captain in US Rugby history. His curly ponytail swinging side to side as he goes for the undercut, along with his powerful physique, make him easy to spot when he plays. For the better part of a decade, Todd Clever has been a fan favourite.
But Clever is also equally infamous. He is, in the last one-third of his illustrious career, equally known for issues off the field and behind the scenes as for his prowess on the pitch. His problems with former USA Head Coach Mike Tolkin from Fall 2014 to early Summer 2015 – when Clever was relieved from his captaincy duties and then dropped from the 2015 World Cup squad – were highly publicized spats that were bound to have great consequence. For Todd. And for Rugby USA.
Some might say that Clever eventually got his own back; the tumble-down effect of him being left off the world cup roster was that unfortunately the hard-grafting American team did not do very well in their campaign to show the world how far they’d come in the lead up to World Cup '15. Then consequentially, as was bound to happen, post-world cup Tolkin lost his role as head coach. Getting his own back isn't how Todd would see it though - he's only ever wanted what's best for the team, even when he wasn't on the pitch with them.
Yet, turnabout is fair-play. As is very much part of the Clever fabric, very much how he exudes confidence, Todd returned to the fold as Captain America in January of 2016 to end his career the way he’d always hoped to: On His Own Terms.
In 2003, at the age of 20, Todd Clever made his international rugby debut for USA Rugby. He was then a big factor in the 2007 and 2011 World Cup campaigns for the Eagles, captaining the team in 2011. His ideal plan was to retire after World Cup 2015, marking 4 World Cup squads and an enviable international career, which included stints with the celebrated Barbarians and Super Rugby in the Southern Hemisphere.
The plan Todd hoped to execute had long been in mind. The fact that it didn’t go down that way wasn’t sitting well with him in 2015 when he had to re-write his own ending.
The trouble began in 2014, with issues related to Tolkin’s officious coaching style. The team in general took exception to a scheme whereby they had to rate fellow players, placing each teammate in order of favourite to least favourite. As captain, it was Clever’s job to hear the concerns brought to him by his colleagues and take them back to coach Tolkin. He also saw it as his place to take a stance on the survey and not complete it. This he did on principal. However, Tolkin did not take too kindly being told how to coach, or his captain’s disobedience. He expected Clever to toe the line. Clever expected to be able to have an open dialogue. This created the beginning of the rift, which would widen over time, no matter what Todd tried to do to close it.
The relationship with the head coach wasn’t great, but Clever thought it had improved over the winter. And he deferred to Tolkin when he was invited to the ESPY awards during the early days of training in preparation for World Cup. When Tolkin gave him permission to go, Todd carefully worked out how he could attend the gala and be back in time for training. However, the time of the early morning session was changed, and he wasn’t notified. A pre-workout was added that Clever missed the morning after the ESPY’s. On the heels of that incident, and partly in reaction to being unjustly disciplined, there was another where Todd missed an early morning run he thought was more optional – especially for players not on the game-day roster. The damage already done in Tolkin’s eyes, the coach was by that time looking for any excuse to further support his case for leaving Clever at home when the team boarded the plane for England in September 2015.
Everyone who knows anything about rugby will have seen the press in the summer of 2015 when Clever was famously released from the squad on the eve of World Cup.
Todd Clever found himself released from the Eagles squad. Then, in a fog of shock and dismay, he found himself defending his work ethics and dedication to the Eagle’s shirt. The rugby world was divided. Either Tolkin was over the top and treated the members of the Eagle’s squad like high school miscreants, or Clever was a long haired, self-absorbed surfer more interested in hanging ten than scoring it.
Harsh words. Unjust. No matter how you cut it, it was negative publicity the team didn’t need, and it ended up creating an undertone in the campaign. All Todd Clever could do was wait for it all to blow over. He kept his head. This spoke volumes.
For USA Rugby’s part, the Eagles did not soar at World Cup 2015. They were in a tough pool B and lost all four games to Scotland, Samoa, Japan, and South Africa, with both Scotland and Japan having uncharacteristically magnificent tournaments. It all seemed stacked against the hard-working Americans. As coach, Mike Tolkin rightfully took the lion’s share of the heat for the poor showing and was later summarily dismissed by USA Rugby.
For Todd Clever’s part, he got up and dusted off from the bitter disappointment and promptly signed with the Newcastle Falcons in the English Premiership. He took the field in fixtures which took place during World Cup and he played characteristically well – as if in a defiant manner speaking to critics regarding his mental and physical fitness. Clever gained admiration from the rugby community for that; many who had been watching the drama unfold stood firmly in his court.
After Tolkin’s departure from the Eagle’s staff, newly appointed coach John Mitchell had conversations with members of the team and Todd Clever himself, then reinstated Clever not only to the team, but as captain of the squad. To USA supporters, this was confirmation that the problem hadn’t been either within Todd himself or a reflection of his discipline. It was a victory of sorts, though bittersweet. But Todd Clever is not one to dwell on the past.
Once Clever was back where he belonged within the Eagle’s squad the positive energy began to build right away, for him and for his team. He became the most capped USA Rugby player on June 25, 2016, and is also the most-capped Captain. The Eagles went from strength to strength throughout 2016, both training and performing well together. Cohesively.
The same year, Clever took the plunge into professional rugby growth in America as co-owner and player for the Austin Huns, a Texas-based team in the newly formed professional league – Major League Rugby – which is set to hit the stage in 2018. Of this, it’s hoped that it will fare better than its predecessor Pro Rugby, which despite a great debut season, shut down after only one year. With Clever and other big names behind the new initiative, it’s bound to be wildly successful. It is certainly long-awaited.
Continuing in his upward momentum, Clever was appointed to the USA Rugby Board of Directors in 2017 as Athlete Representative. In this role, Clever will continue to advocate for player welfare and safety, alongside teammate Blaine Scully, who spearheaded the United States Rugby Player’s Association. Another notch in Clever’s belt. An affirmation that he’s respected both off and on the pitch.
Photo Credit: David Barpal, Source: Flo Rugby
As Todd Clever worked toward the goal of re-writing his own ending, he was aware that the time was coming regarding his playing career. He felt so fortunate to return to the fold and play out his international career and not leave it hanging as it had in 2015. But the end was looming, and the time to call it a game came this past June. He announced his impending retirement on June 19, naming the 2019 World Cup qualifying match versus fierce rivals Canada as his final appearance on the international stage. This last match was played on July 1st, close to home for Todd Clever, in San Diego, California.
He said in a statement: "It has been a great 15 years with the National Team. I am happy, excited, and a bit saddened to announce my retirement from international rugby. I have had six Eagle coaches and have captained the team under four of them. There have been many ups and downs in those 15 years representing the United States of America. I've left everything on the field and did everything for my teammates, which makes this process a bit easier. But leaving on my own terms, on home soil, in front of friends and family.”
Reflecting on his career, Clever said: “On the playing side of things, all of my goals have been checked off. I've played all over the world, represented my country in World Cups, and played with and against some of the best players in the world. We've built some great depth in the U.S. squad with very good athletes coming through. I don't want to overstay my welcome. Now's a good time to bow out and pass the torch. Qualifying as Americas 1 is my top priority and helping the team get there would be the perfect ending."
He then went on to earn his 76th cap in the Eagle’s shirt, even scoring a try in his final appearance in front of a home crowd, with his family in the stands watching proudly. If there was ever to be a player doing it on his own terms and in his own way, I would say that was it.
It is testimony to Todd Clever’s person that not only was he able to overcome the dark period in 2014-15, but he was able to bounce back from it and reclaim his rightful place at the head of the squad and in the hearts of rugby supporters, in America and beyond.
He deserves great respect for that. And one suspects that it’s not the end of the Todd Clever story either, but simply a chapter in a much richer tapestry, and a journey that only has great things to come. One thing is certain though, Todd Clever is going to continue to do it his way. His story’s going to be executed and written:
On His Own Terms.