Work for It: Todd Clever and the new U.S. caps record

Todd Clever will earn his 68th international cap for the Men's Eagles Saturday, June 25, passing Mike MacDonald as the all-time appearance leader for the U.S. national team. From his debut in South America as a 20-year-old in 2003 to the present day, 'Toddy' has represented his country and USA Rugby with pride across six continents in both the 15s and Olympic sevens codes of the game. USA Rugby caught up with several teammates and coaches to recap Clever's ongoing career.

The names of Tom Billups, Luke Gross, Dave Hodges, and Dan Lyle still resonate with rugby fans in sections of Europe more than a decade after three of the biggest names in American rugby history retired from international duty.

Professional rugby is still only 20 years into its existence, and, back when it kicked off, few Americans wore the colors of paying clubs. Lyle was perhaps the most successful in the early years, bringing a wealth of pseudo-professional attributes from his days as a collegiate football standout to England's Bath. With only a few seasons of actual rugby experience, the forward was not out of place among lifers.

Likewise with Billups, Gross, and Hodges, the Americans playing professional rugby made a name for themselves in their respective geographic regions and began to erode the stereotype of Americans not taking rugby seriously.

Jump ahead to 2003 and the culmination of the fifth Rugby World Cup quadrennial; the USA Eagles had participated in three of four World Cups and had won just one of nine matches on the biggest stage. A young, curly-haired Nevada student-athlete - all of one cap and several All-American selections - was named to the 30-man squad for the Australian-hosted World Cup.

"Todd Clever has grown up, literally, in a USA Eagle jersey." - Former Eagle player and coach Dan Payne

Coming into a team with the aforementioned professionals in starting XV positions - and Billups as head coach - left a 20-year-old Todd Clever out of each of the Eagles' four matches. The experienced gained, however, would serve Captain America well for more than a decade.

As he put it in 2013 around the Eagles' World Cup qualifying campaign, he did not fall in love with rugby at first. But, seeing the opportunities afforded to athletes in countries around the world, Clever stuck with it, eventually earning time with the sevens team to play in Rugby World Cup Sevens 2005 and 2009 in Hong Kong and Dubai, respectively.

"I know he came in and did some really good things with us," Gross, who made his final full-side Eagles appearance in 2003, said. "His mobility around the pitch showed in the sevens, and that probably opened the doors more than anything."

With the exodus of the "old guard" at the beginning of his international career, Clever represented his country in both the long- and short-form versions of the game, despite his own self-proclaimed "small" frame.

"He plays bigger than what he is. He's one of those players that is super strong - body weight compared to strength. He's always there doing things that show him to be bigger, and he's so passionate." - Luke Gross

Following in the footsteps of Billups, Clever moved to New Zealand on his own to raise his game, knowing a more professionalized environment - with North Harbour - would serve him well heading into the 2007 World Cup.

He started at flanker in all four Pool A matches of the competition, and helped set up one of the tournament's most memorable tries - American or otherwise - with an intercept and driving run against eventual Cup-winner South Africa.

Post-World Cup, Clever was given the Eagles captaincy, and his signature look was immediately intertwined with the Captain America moniker. Again following the path of Eagles before him, Clever signed a pro rugby deal, but with Super Rugby's Lions franchise in South Africa, becoming the first American to do so in the Southern Hemisphere.

Combining the passion to play at the highest level and represent the stars and stripes with athletic ability and a yearning to rise to the top, Clever broke new ground for U.S. rugby players, all the while returning to the United States when the Eagles assembled.

"I remember well getting my first cap with him," Eric Fry said. "I've been fortunate enough to play all over the world - in New Zealand, England, with the national team in a bunch of places - and everywhere I go they know Todd Clever.

"He's a great guy that stands out because of his looks, but you watch him play and he completely backs everything up."

Following his Super Rugby season, Clever received several offers to continue his professional career and found his way to Japan, where Eddie Jones was leading Suntory Sungoliath in the country's becoming-of-age competition. In what would become a leading Tier Two rugby nation, Clever trained alongside Japanese stars as they progressed mentally and physically.

A memorable moment at the 2011 World Cup saw the Eagles play Ireland on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with the red, white, and blue flying high in the leading rugby nation of New Zealand. Though they would only win one match in pool play, the Eagles proudly represented their country, led by Captain America.

When Clever returned to Japan, he was part of a championship-winning Suntory team before signing with NTT Shining Arcs, where he plied his trade until last year. During his six years in the Land of the Rising Sun, he earned 32 national team caps - including a first against the All Blacks on home soil at a sold-out Soldier Field - to bring his total to 63, one more than Gross and five behind the then-recently-retired Mike MacDonald.

As much as Clever was notable for his on-field representation, he has very much been the face of USA Rugby in the media, enjoying red-carpet like activities at movie premieres and ESPN award shows, making sure to deflect the personal accolades onto the game in a country mostly unfamiliar with the 15-a-side sport.

"He's completely different off the field," MacDonald said. "On the field he's a great leader; he leads from the front. Being in this setup for so long, you can kind of lose a little bit of the way you're seen on the field, but that hasn't really happened to him. To be a captain that long means that your voice carries a lot of weight and that it hasn't been drowned out over time. Full credit to him for changing the way he approaches it, and making sure people keep reacting to him."

In 2015, the Eagles played four matches in the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup, two World Cup warm-up matches, and four matches in the eighth quadrennial in England. Clever was not on the field for any, released from the team prior to home matches in northern California that summer.

The long-time captain refused to hang up his boots in the face of adversity, and joined a list of a select few Americans to have received a call-up to the famous Barbarians Football Club touring side. Playing with the team in England, Clever was approached to join Eagle teammate Fry at Aviva Premiership's Newcastle Falcons, bringing his professional career to its third country.

"He's had a different taste of rugby playing in the Premiership," MacDonald said. "I'm sure he would've liked to have had more game time there but I'm sure it made him a better player, and had him focused on getting back to where he is today. It's paid off massively."

A staff change with the national team brought former All Blacks coach John Mitchell into the Eagles program, and a new competition for Americas teams - the Americas Rugby Championship - brought more opportunities for professional and non-professional U.S. athletes alike. Clever was one of several veterans called into the squad earlier this year, with most professionals only able to play in one or two of the five matches.

"He can unwind and unplug when he needs to, and then on the field he plugs right back in; he's a guy that plays with a lot of flair and a lot of excitement. He's such an animated person in all aspects of life, and it's really inspiring to see that on the pitch." - Eric Fry

"Every rugby player has had his challenges, ups and downs, and he's experienced it no different than other players," Mitchell said. "But he's endured it and he's also learned from it, as well, which is important."

Clever recorded his first career hat trick of tries in his personal-fourth win against Canada in the Americas Rugby Championship, and tied MacDonald's caps record in last weekend's Summer Series match against Italy in his hometown of San Jose, Calif.

The overall record of the Eagles with Clever in the team is 23-43, a greater winning percentage than the U.S. has had since 1994. Despite the lack of World Cup successes or upsets of Tier One nations - and a losing record to rival Canada - Clever has maintained that the Eagles are on the precipice of something greater. With the advent of PRO Rugby and more and more Americans signing contracts overseas, the gap is surely closing.

"I don't want to speak for him, but, in his actions, he truly believes that the next one's going to be a better performance," MacDonald said. "So when he says that, it's not from him just saying it because that's what people want to hear - the whole 'Sleeping Giant' persona. He believes it.

"Unfortunately results haven't gone our way at times, but, on the flip side of the coin, there have been games where we've taken teams to the limit, and that's what he tries to convey to people. Sometimes things go wrong, and in previous years being half amateur and half professional, it was hard to get guys to completely buy into the plan when things weren't going right. Now everything's starting to filter through."

As co-captain along with Blaine Scully, Clever still holds leads his teammates on and off of the field of play, clutching the USA Rugby crest whenever the anthem is bellowed.

"Even when everyone outside of him is talking about the milestone, he hasn't spoken about it at all," Mitchell said. "At the end of the day, he just cherishes the next opportunity to play for the United States as a USA Eagle. That's the mark of a guy that has respect for his country, the situation, and is extremely confident in what he's got to offer."