GLENDALE, Colo. — Last November, Potsdam Central graduate Dan Stone became a professional rugby player.
A month later, so did former classmate Shawn Clark.
And, for the same team.
The one-time Sandstoners varsity basketball teammates have coincidently reunited nearly 1,800 miles west of where they grew up, as members of the Colorado Raptors, a founding member of Major League Rugby.
“I was invited to come to a five-day camp here in Glendale last November the week before Thanksgiving,” said Stone, who competed in five different varsity sports as a member of the Potsdam class of 2014. “On the third day of the camp, I had a very small-world moment. I was on the field and I heard a voice call out — ‘Danny Stone’. The only time people called me Danny was back when I was in high school. I looked around to see who it was and it was another Potsdam guy. What are the odds, right?”
“Shawn and I were in the same class together but he left to go play football at prep school after he was a junior. I knew he played college football but I had no idea he was going to wind up here. We’ve had completely different athletic paths,” he added.
Both Stone and Clark were multi-sport standouts at Potsdam but Stone joined the Raptors with a decided edge in rugby playing experience, having started out with the club team program at Stonehill College then emerging as a leading contributor to the University of Notre Dame club team, which competes against many of the other established NCAA Division IA programs in the country.
Meanwhile, Clark, who competed in football, basketball and baseball at Potsdam, matured into one of the top tight ends in NCAA Division I football over the course of his career at Monmouth University and joins the Raptors while maintaining his status as an NFL free agent. His performance at the most-recent NFL recruitment showcase that he attended last fall in San Antonio, Texas, is what caught the attention of Raptors’ personnel.
“I was competing at The Spring League back in October and one of the Raptors’ coaches approached me about playing professional rugby,” Clark said. “The Spring League ended and I went right from San Antonio to Glendale where they were finishing up a five-day camp. I looked out on the field where the guys were working out. I kept looking, looking and I realized, no way, that’s Dan Stone. I had no idea that he was out here, too.”
“When I was growing up, I always wanted to play sports but I never would have believed this is how things would be working out,” Clark added. “Having two guys who grew up together in a small town like Potsdam wind up on the same pro rugby team really is amazing when you think about it. I can’t wait to tackle him in practice for the first time.”
Despite coming from different backgrounds in collegiate athletics, the two former Sandstoners are just the type of all-around athletes that Raptors Director of Rugby Mark Bullock and his staff have been actively seeking out as the organization turns the page to a new chapter.
“The goal when we started the league in 2017 was to develop American athletes into rugby players who could help the US National Team become more competitive in the World Cup,” said Bullock, who serves both as coach and general manager of the Raptors in his role as Director of Rugby. “The league started going in another direction though. We were seeing teams having more and more foreign players. It got to a point where none of the 15 players that a team might have on the field would be from the United States.”
The Raptors opted to withdraw from the league last April and, according to Bullock, are now in a “redevelopment” phase. The six-year plan would ultimately lead to a team comprised solely of American players competing in the Pro14, one of the three major professional leagues in Europe (along with the English Premiership and the French Top 14).
“When you look at the way sports are set up in the U.S., the elite athletes go where the money is, whether that means a college scholarship or playing in one of the major pro leagues. And, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Bullock said. “Our goal is to find crossover athletes, guys who were elite players in their sports in college but were overlooked by pro sports.”
“Our goal is to become a member of the Pro14 league for the 2026 league. If things work out and we’re able to join sooner that would be great but for now, we just want to build one step at a time,” he added.
Working from a data sheet that included more than 3,000 collegiate athletes, the Raptors wound up inviting just 27 players to their first official training camp, which got under way in early January. Most of the players had their final tryouts last November at the Rugbytown Crossover Academy where Stone and Clark were reunited.
Following training camp and depending on what will be allowed under strict worldwide COVID-19 guidelines, the Raptors are hoping to play games and tournaments in the United States and abroad starting the first week of March. The team practices and plays home games at Infinity Park, which was built in Glendale as the first rugby-specific, municipally-owned stadium in the United States.
“Glendale also has the USA National Rugby Training Center,” Bullock said. “With our team being here as well, it gives USA Rugby a better opportunity to observe players like Dan and like Shawn.”
During his high school days at Potsdam, Stone, capped an outstanding varsity boys soccer career by being named the NAC Central Division Defensive MVP as senior center fullback for Sandstoners. In the winter, he started in the basketball program but eventually migrated to indoor track by his senior year where he emerged as one of the top sprinters and long jumpers in the section. He was part of a Section 10 record-setting 200-meter relay along with classmates Peter Clark, Will Coleman and Peter Clark. In the spring, Stone evolved into one of the top 10 golfers in the section and was part of the Potsdam team to win the team title in 2012 as a sophomore. He then followed up on a successful indoor track season by joining spring track for the 2014 season and placed second in the shot put and combined with teammates to win the 400 relay.
Stone, who is the son of Fred and Carolyn Stone, went on attend Stonehill College in Easton, Mass, where he began the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering in the fall of 2014.
“I reached out to the soccer coach there to see if I might be able to play but I didn’t have any film or video of me playing at Potsdam,” Stone said. “Basically, the answer I got was that if I wanted to stay active in athletics, there were plenty of other options at Stonehill.”
Stone turned to track and field as an option at Stonehill and earned a spot on the team his freshman year. He was due to continue running track the following school year but wound up taking his first steps toward his budding career in professional rugby.
“It was before the start of track season my sophomore year and I was playing some intramural soccer on a field next to the where they play rugby,” Stone said. “After I was done, the rugby coach approached me and asked if I’d be interested in playing. I told him that I couldn’t because I was already committed to being on the track team and we kind of left it at that.
“Two weeks later, I had a really bad day at practice and I decided that track didn’t wasn’t for me anymore. I saw rugby as being something that I could be good at. I found it to be a lot like soccer. The biggest adjustment for me was learning to be more aggressive and physical. When I played soccer, I avoided doing slide tackles and you’re not supposed to have a lot of contact. Rugby’s just the opposite.”
Already slated to complete his degree with two more years of study at Notre Dame following his third year at Stonehill, Stone worked his way into a starting position on the Irish rugby squad.
“In the spring of my senior year at Notre Dame, I asked the coach if there was a way for me to continue playing after college. He told me about Major League Rugby and I wanted to know what I had to do about getting in the pipeline. Coach put me in touch with the Director of Rugby for the Raptors, Mark Bullock,” Stone said. “I had to put together a player CD and come up with two recommendations. I submitted everything and they invited me to a summer camp that they were holding in Vail, Colorado.”
Based on his performance at the camp, Stone was invited to attend more tryouts later in the year but wound up suffering a torn ACL in his knee during an All-American rugby tournament later that summer.
“Dan really met the criteria for the kind of athlete that we were looking for. Even though he was injured and couldn’t play, we still wanted him to be part of our organization,” Bullock said.
Stone wound up having knee surgery in September 2019 and spent nearly a year working his way back into playing form, just in time to attend the Rugbytown Crossover Academy where he clinched a spot on the Raptors roster, signing a pro contract with the team on the last day of the camp, Nov. 22.
“Dan is one of just two players on the team with previous rugby experience,” Bullock said. “He played some very competitive rugby at Notre Dame so he brings rugby leadership to our team. He has the kind of speed and strength that we look for. He has a very positive persona and a very good sense of the game and he really wants to play professional rugby.”
Once someone who played for the love of the game, Stone now earns a living from the game he loves.
“From the first time I played, I fell in love with rugby,” he said. “What I’m doing now isn’t much below Major League Rugby. This is my job. I’m getting paid to play a sport. Ever since I started playing rugby in college, it’s just been about chasing every opportunity that comes my way and this is definitely a great opportunity. It’s all pretty exciting.”
Clark, the son of Jeff Clark and Kim Kelley, moved into the Potsdam school district from Parishville as a seventh-grader. He was a multi-sport standout at Potsdam where he made lead contributions to the varsity football, basketball and baseball programs. Already standing 6-foot, 8-inches tall by the time he was in high school, he left the school district after his junior year to attend prep school at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., where he spent the next year-and-a-half developing his potential on the football field. After playing tight end in his first three games at Cushing, Clark shifted to quarterback for the rest of his career there, serving as team captain for the 2014 season.
His play drew the attention of several NCAA Division I programs and in 2015, he landed a full scholarship to Monmouth University, where he made the transition from quarterback to tight end. A knee injury caused Clark to redshirt his freshman season. As a sophomore in the 2016 season, he was second on the team’s depth chart at tight end and saw time playing special teams. The next season, Clark helped the Hawks make team history as they earned their first-ever NCAA playoff bid. He played in all 12 games his junior year and finished second on the team among tight ends with 83 yards on six catches and notched his first career receiving touchdown. The injury bug struck again four games into his senior year where he was limited to just two receptions for 26 yards.
Clark, who earned a bachelor’s degree in communication at Monmouth, returned to play as a graduate student and saved his best season as a Hawk for the fall of 2019. As the team’s primary pass-catching tight end, he started all 14 games and played a lead role as Monmouth went undefeated against Big South opponents and went on to notch its first-ever playoff victory. Clark played his last game for the Hawks on Dec. 7, 2019, as the Hawks came up short to James Madison.
In his final season, Clark emerged as the top receiving tight end in the Big South, pulling down 18 passes for 254 yards and four touchdowns. He was named First Team All-Big South and All-ECAC as Monmouth set a number of school records, including a nine-game win streak and 11 wins in a single season.
“I just thought that I had the ability and the size to play pro ball and that going to prep school would be the best career path for me,” said Clark, who is listed at 245 pounds in the 2019 Hawks’ team almanac. “Going to Cushing Academy was one of the best things to happen to me. I was recruited by several colleges because of what they saw me do while I was there.”
“I had a couple of injuries that slowed me down at Monmouth but I wound up having a pretty good year my last season,” he said.
Following the 2019 season, the university football program held a ‘Pro Day’ on its campus last March for players who were done with their college careers. The event drew scouts from 28 NFL teams and while Clark got serious looks from a handful of teams, his name was not called at the 2020 draft held in late April and he became a free agent prospect.
“I wasn’t drafted but I was invited to come work out with the Indianapolis Colts for a week in August and I had a great tryout,” Clark said. “They told me to stay ready.”
Clark was unable to fully participate in the Rugbytown Crossover Academy due to a scheduling conflict with The Spring League, a premier professional football development league consisting of six teams made up of players who have spent time on an NFL active, practice, or preseason roster. This year’s TSL season was cut short due to a COVID-19 outbreak, allowing Clark the chance to at least go to Glendale and catch the last two days of the final tryout camp.
“One of the things that we talked about with all the players is how they have to be willing to take a risk and Shawn is taking a big risk since he is pursuing a career in pro football. He’s coming to a sport that he has never played but I can tell you right now that he has an outstanding future in rugby,” Bullock said. “We were so impressed with him in the personal tryouts we had that we offered him a contract right away.”
“One thing Shawn has over other players is his height. You don’t coach 6-foot-8. Right away that gives him an advantage but he also has great hand-eye coordination and his pass-catch skills are really good,” Bullock added. “Another thing we like about him is that he runs straight up the field. With a lot of guys, it’s step-to-the-right, step-to-the-left, but he just goes forward.”
While he fully intends to continue chasing his dream of playing in the NFL, Clark, who signed his professional contract with the Raptors on Dec. 21, believes that becoming a cornerstone player for the team is well worth the risk.
“The toughest part right now is learning all the rules,” he said. “From what I’ve seen so far, you have to be physical and you have to be tough. It’s definitely different than playing football. It’s more of a player’s game because play is continuous and decisions have to be made right on the field all the time. I know I can adapt.”
“This is a win-win for me,” he added. “I’m a professional athlete, which is something’s I’ve always wanted to be. Who knows where this could lead for me? I’m just trying to keep all my doors open.”