Shawn Clark’s belongings are scattered throughout the United States.
He’s called apartments in New York, Colorado, Texas, and California home throughout the last 22 months of his life. He’s gotten good at moving.
“I still feel like I have too much stuff,” Clark laughed.
That’s life as a professional rugby player in the United States. That’s a life Shawn Clark didn’t even know existed until 22 months ago.
A standout tight end at Monmouth University, Clark had his eyes on the NFL. He received invitations to minicamps with the Indianapolis Colts and the Buffalo Bills but found himself at a crossroads in November 2020. As COVID continued to alter the world as we knew it, Clark was presented with a unique opportunity to temporarily put his football dreams on hold and give rugby a try with the Colorado XOs – a new team composed entirely of crossover athletes like himself.
He made the decision to move to Glendale, Colorado in January 2021, and nothing has been the same for him since.
Getting Clark to agree to make that move was tough, though, according to American Raptors General Manager Peter Pasque.
“We went down to San Antonio to watch the Spring League,” Pasque recalled. “Shawn was playing tight end on one of the teams. We saw him running and how he moved and were really caught by his athleticism. A conversation ensued from there and it easily took seven months to convince him that rugby was something worth trying. We flew him out to our November (2020) camp. He looked at it, and it took a little more convincing after that. With COVID, some things in football slowed down for him, and this was an opportunity. He’s fallen in love with it.”
Love doesn’t always happen at first sight.
Following his first interview on the DNVR Rugby Podcast that January, Clark let me know that he was enjoying the first taste of his new sport but was just using this opportunity as a vehicle to stay fit until a football opportunity presented itself.
“I do remember that conversation back in January vividly actually,” Clark said with a smile. “I had all intentions of coming out here and giving it my all, but was planning on going back to football and to be playing football right now.”
His chance to make the move back to the gridiron came last September when the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Elks flew out their general manager to work Clark out. They offered him a contract on the spot.
“After thinking about it for a few days I was like, ‘Is that really what I want?’” Clark asked himself. “Look at how much rugby has given me already in eight months’ time at that point.”
It’s funny how life works.
Rugby had dominated Clark’s calendar by the time the Elks came calling. He had already played a full season with the XOs, had a trial run with the L.A. Giltinis, suited up with the USA U23s at the 2021 RugbyTown Sevens, participated in the USA Olympic 7s High-Performance Camp in Chula Vista, and was back in Glendale for a run with the American Raptors before having surgery to repair his injured shoulder. After turning down a contract with the Elks, he played the 2022 Major League Rugby season with the Dallas Jackals, went back to Chula Vista for a second sevens camp, and competed in the Challenge Cup of the Americas tournament with the American Raptors in June. He returned to the Raptors for the Fall 2022 campaign.
He’d officially caught the rugby bug.
“My whole view has changed,” Clark said. “Rugby has taken over such a huge part of my life, and my heart, and just my love for sport. It’s one of the most amazing games I have played. At that time, when we had that first conversation, I hadn’t really played enough to understand how much I was going to love it and the opportunities it was going to bring for me over the last year.”
There is a lesson in Clark’s story about how life can change by simply saying yes. There is value in exploring every opportunity that comes your way, but that’s all easier said than done. The bravery it takes to put your dreams on hold, move somewhere new, and do something you’ve never done before is something that very few possess, but that’s how Clark has kicked down the door into the world of rugby.
“Coming out here, first of all, was a blessing in itself and I didn’t even know it was going to be that,” Clark said of his introduction to rugby. “Getting here as an XO and just learning the game was so amazing and good for me to kind of get away, reset my mind, and recharge. Then I let my play and my hard work get me opportunities.”
Standing out has never been a problem for the 6-foot-9 Clark. The first time he stepped on a rugby pitch, his size and speed turned heads.
“Obviously, his height is an asset for any sport,” Pasque said. “That was something that we are always looking for. It’s hard to find taller players that are also hard people, and mentally tough people as well.”
It’s rare to see someone that tall move as quickly and smoothly as Clark does, and his abilities were on full display when the XOs traveled to Louisiana to take on New Orleans Rugby Football Club in the club’s first-ever rugby match.
Clark made an immediate impact in the match, scoring the second try for the XOs in a 26-10 victory.
Clark finished the XOs’ inaugural season with three tries and earned himself a trial with the L.A. Giltinis of the MLR. While that week-long trial didn’t turn into a contract, it was another opportunity for Clark to learn from some of the best players the game has to offer and to make some new connections.
“To go to L.A., to learn from some of those boys and make forever friendships,” Clark said. “I’m very close with Angus Cotrell, Billy Meakes, and some of those boys out there. Luke Carty. Those are friendships that I never would’ve made without taking this opportunity.”
After some well-deserved rest in the summer, Clark got his first taste of sevens rugby at the 2021 RugbyTown 7s where he competed as a member of the USA U23s with XO teammate David Still. Together, they helped the U23s defeat the Houston SaberCats in the Bowl Final, and both received invitations to attend the USA Olympic 7s High-Performance Camp in September.
Still stuck around and has become a regular on the HSBC Sevens Circuit with the Eagles, and Clark again took advantage of the opportunity to learn from some of the best sevens players in the world.
“Fast forward another couple of months and I am playing in the USA camp and learning from (head coach) Mike Friday, Perry Baker, and Martin Iosefo,” Clark said.
The USA Sevens team consists of several players that Clark can relate to. Perry Baker was a wide receiver at Fairmont State University and earned an opportunity with the Philadelphia Eagles before a knee injury derailed his football career. He made the switch to rugby shortly thereafter and turned into one of the best sevens players in USA Rugby history, winning the World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018. Baker joined his teammate Carlin Isles – another football convert that was briefly signed to the Detroit Lions practice squad in 2013 – as the only two USA players to score 200 tries.
Along with the dangerous duo of Baker and Isles is Martin Iosefo, who was a walk-on wide receiver at the University of Montana. Iosefo learned the game of rugby when he was younger and has gone on to represent the United States in both sevens and fifteens. What Iosefo has been able to accomplish made an impression on Clark.
“I never thought I would idolize another player around me, but meeting a guy like that, an Olympian, a football guy, a crossover athlete that came and did it himself is so inspiring,” Clark said of Iosefo. “I just can’t say how thankful I am for all of the opportunities and all of the people that I have met.”
Clark returned to Colorado to play one final match with the Raptors before having shoulder surgery. With a pain-free shoulder, Clark accepted an opportunity to join Major League Rugby’s Dallas Jackals for their inaugural season in 2022. On a quest to play as much rugby against the best competition he could find, heading to Dallas made the most sense to Clark.
“My reasoning for going to the MLR in the first place for a full season was to get more experience,” Clark said of his decision. “Anyone you’ll talk to will say that this is the best competition in North American rugby. I wanted to be able to fully immerse myself in that at least for a year to give myself an opportunity to grow, to see what it’s like to play against that top competition, to see how I match up, and I think I got that.”
From an outsider’s perspective, Dallas’ first season was one to forget. Several factors contributed to the fact that the Jackals became just the second team in league history to finish a season without a victory and a point differential of -554. The season started off on the wrong foot when their head coach, Michael Hodge, never arrived from Australia due to visa processing delays. Nine of their players were injured when a walkway collapsed in March. Combine those circumstances with both the grind of a rugby season and standard roster shapeshifting that occurs in pro sports, it’s no wonder Dallas had to roster 58 different players – including their strength and conditioning coach – just to make it through the season.
“Anything that could go wrong did go wrong,” Clark said of his one season in Dallas. “The one thing it taught me was perseverance. You have to be able to fight through all of the shit and be able to see the sunshine and rainbows on the other side. I think as an organization, they also felt the same way. It was encouraging every day. Nobody ever came to training feeling down. We never thought we were out of anything and we fought right to the end. It was awesome to be a part of something like that. I’ve never been on a winless team, but it is a humbling experience and it’s one I will remember forever.”
Part of the reason that Clark will never forget that season is because he rewrote rugby’s history books when he started a match at wing instead of his usual flanker position and became the tallest professional rugby player in the world to do so.
Some space outside gave Clark some more room to show off his athletic ability and made for some fun clips on the internet that went viral in rugby circles all over the world. He gained 2,000 new followers on his social media accounts overnight.
“It kind of caught me by surprise,” Clark said of his internet fame. “Being 6’9’’, that makes me the tallest winger ever in the world which is kind of something cool that I can say forever. Especially in a sport that is worldwide. You’ll have the internet warriors that will have things to say, but at the end of the day I am still learning the game and I give it 150 percent every time I’m out there. Whether they have anything positive or negative to say, I still did it.”
While in Dallas, Clark earned his second invitation to Chula Vista for the USA Rugby Sevens National Team High-Performance camp. He made the trek back to California in March for a trip that served as one of the biggest learning experiences of his young rugby career. Before his first trip, Clark had only played in five sevens matches ever, and those were all with the USA U23s at the 2021 RugbyTown 7s tournament. The first trip was all about getting his sea legs under him, which is something that Clark acknowledges is still happening every time he takes the pitch.
“I still am learning,” Clark said of his first experience with the USA Sevens program. “I don’t quite know everything going on in the game, so that was really a big learning experience for me.”
Arguably the most important lesson he learned during his first trip to Chula Vista wasn’t even about rugby. That’s where he learned that he could compete with some of the best athletes in the country, and that caught Mike Friday’s eye.
“That gave me the opportunity to have (head coach) Mike (Friday) ask me back, consider residency over this next year, and compete for an Olympic spot, and that is exactly what we talked about when I went back the second time,” Clark said.
His second trip to Chula Vista put his Olympic dream in perspective. Representing his country was what originally sold Clark on the idea of giving rugby a try with the Colorado XOs nearly two years ago, and his second experience with the USA Sevens program gave him a real taste of the hard work and dedication required to make that dream a reality.
“To be a sevens athlete, especially an Olympian, you have to be so in shape that every single day is dedicated to being great,” Clark said. “You have to be in that mindset. That’s something I love as an athlete, but it’s also very challenging. The mental side of that is realizing that if I am here every day I am going to blackout every day. I have to give it 150 percent every day because if you want to be an Olympian if you want to be there and not waste your time, you have to sacrifice.”
If Clark’s goal is to represent the United States, there are a few ways he can achieve it. But he can also sense the proverbial fork in the road – a choice between focusing his energy on the sevens or fifteens game – closing in on him, and he’s simply not sure what it is he wants to do just yet.
If you think he’s leaning towards one thing or the other, think again.
“I honestly can’t answer that because I do love them both,” Clark said. “They both bring so many different things to the table.”
It’s tough to blame Clark when you really look at his situation. Before he rejoined the Raptors for the Challenge Cup of the Americas in June, Clark still hadn’t even played in 20 rugby matches. Between the Challenge Cup of the Americas, the 2022 RugbyTown 7s, and Aspen Ruggerfest, Clark has a few more matches under his belt, but he’s still very green. He doesn’t want to make career-altering decisions, he just wants to keep playing rugby.
“Being over a year into my rugby career, people want me to start choosing between one and the other,” Clark said. “If I want to be an Olympian, that’s something that you can’t just come in and out of camp for. To really compete for a spot you need to be there. Also, fifteens is an amazing game. It reminds me so much of football which is a big part of the reason I wanted to come here, to begin with. It is hard for me.”
The reason that both of these opportunities are on the board for Clark is the same reason the video of him playing wing for the Jackals exploded. It highlights an interesting dilemma that he has dealt with since picking up the sport of rugby. You can’t put him in a box. He doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional lock and has the speed and athleticism that allows him to do different things on a rugby pitch. That makes him one of a kind and leaves the possibility to do so many different things on the table.
“He’s tough because he’s a little bit in between some positions,” Pasque said. “He’s not your big-bodied lock, but he’s also really athletic. Some people think he could be a sevens player. He’s put on weight and he’s healed up a shoulder injury that he’s had before this. We believe that now he can be this big-bodied, tough lock in the middle of the field playing fifteens, which people are always looking for. He’s been playing that role more with us this fall, and it’s been going well.”
Every little piece of experience he gains is making him a better player, and the people around him are noticing. American Raptors Assistant Head Coach Sarah Chobot has seen Clark progress from a tight-end-turned-lock to a rugby player knocking on the door of his true potential.
“I think the biggest thing is you see a ton more confidence in him,” Chobot said. “He’s done a ton of work just understanding the game and being a student of the game. For us, he’s become a lineout leader. He’s in charge of that. His confidence in the air is going up. I would still like to see a bit more physicality, but everything is a work in progress.”
If you spend any amount of time talking to Clark, you’ll know he’s serious about his goals. His goals aren’t small, either. He doesn’t do anything halfway, and his approach to rugby hasn’t been any different.
“Number one, my goal is to represent my country, whether that is in fifteens or sevens,” Clark said. “I truly hope it’s both. That is the ultimate goal to be able to do that.”
According to Pasque and Chobot, Clark’s goal is an attainable one.
“He’s already in (United States Men’s Eagles Head Coach) Gary Gold’s sites,” Pasque said. “Within a year, he has the potential of being a USA National Team player, and honestly he’s the type of guy that can even get contracts abroad in Europe after that.”
“Shawn’s size automatically puts him in the conversation because there are not a lot of guys in that conversation,” Chobot said. “There are not a whole lot of six-foot-nine guys cruising around the neighborhood.”
Those goals are on the table because Clark is determined to improve his game. He’s always trying to get better, and that’s apparent to the people that have helped him get as far as he has in such a short period of time.
“Anything I do I want to be great,” Clark said. “I pride myself on that. I work my hardest every day to be that. When I am done with this game and when I am done playing I want to be recognized as one of the best American athletes to ever play rugby.”
For now, though, Shawn Clark is just having fun.