Interview With Cal Rugby And Football Alum Michael Freeman

Mike Freeman, left with dad, Jeff Freeman, after a triathlon.

We've been taking a walk through the Cal rugby team this spring, talking to various alumni at various positions.  We've talked with Marc TausendScott AndersonRay Lehner, and now we are talking with Michael Freeman.

Michael Freeman played football and rugby in the mid 90s for Cal.  He brings a unique point of view to this series, coming from both angles.  He can help us better understand the differences between football and rugby practices.  He can shed light on the various injuries in football and rugby.  

Also, he played the "Inside Center" position on the Rugby team.  He is here to tell us about that position and what we should know about its role on the field.  He wrote a brief introduction:


I'm 34, graduated in 2000 from Cal. I live in Lake Forest, CA and I am married with 2 boys - 7 and 4 and expecting a 3rd child in December.

I am a sales manager for Philadelphia Insurance Companies. I got into triathlons a few years back, and have done an Ironman and am training for another in November assuming our due date holds up.

After the jump, the full Q+A.  Many thanks to Michael Freeman for all his help and his answers here.  Hope you enjoy it.  GO BEARS!


1. What got you interested in playing rugby initially?

A couple of things actually, first and foremost my dad played rugby starting in college and played into his mid 40's. I grew up around it, although I didn't know what I was watching. I remember going on trips to Santa Barbara and camping out during rugby tournaments while my dad played rugby and my brother, sister and I ran around with the other kids. The dads would come back bloody, bruised and laughing about stuff that happened on the field. I never really thought about playing myself though, since there was no youth rugby around and I was into soccer, baseball and football.

After I got through high school and came to Cal as a football player, coach Clark called me into his office to introduce himself to me. I had come from the same area as he did - Orange County - and played football at the same Junior College - Orange Coast College - and he wanted to say hi. I didn't really know much about the rugby program at Cal, or college rugby in general, but I was definitely intrigued to play after meeting with him.

2. What got you interested in playing rugby at Cal?

Coach Clark, meeting him in my first days at Cal left a big impression on me, and I think I had it in the back of my mind after that time. I came to Cal in the spring semester of my sophomore year, so I had 2 football seasons left to play in 3 years. I played my 2 seasons in 2 years - although my senior year ended prematurely with a knee injury against Oregon State. I decided then that I would go out for rugby in the winter/spring after the football season was over. My knee was just healing when the first practices were starting, and I got into rugby.

3. What is the rugby recruitment process like?

I don't know to be honest, I think a lot of guys come to Cal specifically to play rugby but I was recruited as a football player.

4. Did you play on the frosh-sophs team?

No, I played with the top team from the start. Coach Clark gambled on me that I would be a good enough player by the end of the year. I was definitely not a skilled rugby player when I started, but over the course of my first season (I played 2 seasons) I learned the game and became a solid contributor. I even made it to the All Americans that first year of playing.


6. Can you take us through the average rugby practice?

Warm up, then some group drills for about 20 minutes. After that we would usually break into position drills and work on specific skills and movements. It was over 10 years ago, so the memory is a little foggy, but I clearly remember most practices ending in some brutal conditioning drills.


7. What activities outside of official rugby practice did you partake in to stay in shape?

I lifted weights, played basketball, and got a job at the Claremont Hotel doing valet. I ran a lot some days as a valet when it would get busy. Once a bunch of us went up to Yosemite, camped out in the woods for a night and then got up (late) and decided to run/speed walk up Half Dome. For anyone that hasn't been up there, it is a long way to the top and it's pretty much straight up. We booked it up the mountain - with almost no water - and then flew down the hill in time for dinner. It's a 14 mile round trip with 4800 feet of climbing estimated at 10 hours. I think we did it in 6.

8. Can you take us through the average home rugby game? What are your pre-game actives? What are your post-game activities?

Well, we would usually warm up down in the football stadium for a big game. I remember that we go really hard in warm ups so we could hit the field 100% warm and ready to go. After the game a really important part of rugby is hosting the visiting team. We would have the whole team over to one of places and give them some kind of dinner and of course a few beverages.

9. What do you love most about your experience on the team w/ Coach Clark?

Getting to play for Coach Clark was the number 1 best thing about playing at Cal. He teaches a lot more than rugby to the boys up there. I built some lifelong friendships there, I stay in touch with a lot of the guys.


10. What was the toughest game during your career and why?

We played Middle Tennessee State in the playoffs one year, they had a couple of guys that had come over from South Africa. They were amazing players, highly skilled and very tough. They had one guy - their number 8 man - that was an absolute man. He was probably 25 years old and had played high level club rugby in South Africa. He was a man among boys. I was a fullback when I played football, so I knew how to be physical. It was a war all game between us. I actually fractured my jaw in that game - although I didn't realize it until about an hour after the game when I tried to eat and couldn't.

 

11. Any good stories on how you and your teammates would go about intimidating the opposition and dominate?

We were the best team in American college rugby - back then it was not close although recently there have been some really competitive schools. We didn't do anything specific to intimidate teams but I think our reputation probably did it for us in some ways. In all ways we played the game tough but honorably. We weren't dirty, played within the rules, and just concentrated on playing tough hard rugby.

 

12. What are some of the fine details rugby fans should pay attention to when they first get into the game?

Watch the number 9 for Cal, he is running the show out there like a point guard in basketball.


13. What is the funniest moment during your time as a rugger for Cal?

Most of those I probably shouldn't tell you about, we had a lot of fun together. My second year playing rugby I was pretty injury prone. I separated a shoulder, fractured my jaw, tore my bicep muscle, and got stepped on in a pretty sensitive area not to put too fine of a point on it. It was bad enough that I had to miss a game or two. I had to get treatment for it, and I was in the training room when the fire alarm went off. All of a sudden, the entire girls soccer team came through the training room because we all had to get out of the building. I was in somewhat of a compromised position if you can picture it. Enough said there I think.

14. What was your favorite moment as a rugger for Cal?


I think it was my first year when we played Penn State for the national championship. We played at Golden Gate park and we played our best game of the year. They had a good team that year, but we had been doing 2 a days for the last month and were so fit we could run full speed all game. I think I played my best game of the year, but more importantly everyone was just flying around making plays all over the field. We all played so hard and so well that day I just remember feeling proud walking off the field. I had to get stitches after the game but it was such an awesome feeling.

15. What was your least favorite moment as a rugger for Cal?

My second year in the national championship game. I had gotten hurt all year, separated shoulder, fractured jaw, the sensitive injury I mentioned earlier, torn bicep. Then in the last game of the year I sprained my ankle about 20 minutes into the game. My dad had flown out to Tampa where the game was, and I only got to play before I got hurt. It felt like the end of the world at the time.

16. Hypothetically, if you are the coach for women's rugby @ Cal, how would you build a successful program that is comparable to men's?

I would just do whatever coach Clark does.

17. How has the experience of playing rugby transformed your career after graduating from Cal?

It changed my life. I think it really helped me to become less selfish as a person. Rugby is such a team sport, you can't afford to be selfish. In my family life, I have 2 children, expecting a 3rd, it is important to realize that it's not all about you. I think football it was really easy to get a big head and rugby really broke that part out of me. I am on the leadership team in my office, so it is imperative that I am able to work as part of team. Coach Clark specifically is someone I credit helping me develop into the man I am today. Coach Gould is the other person I really look up to from my time at Cal. I think when either of those guys retire or leave Cal will be a sad day for the Bear family.

18. What is your view on the situation surrounding the recent budget cuts at Cal that briefly imperiled rugby's status as a varsity sport? Do you believe there was a difference between "varsity" and "varsity club"? What do you think about how that process was handled by the administration?

It's hard to comment fully here, my understanding is that there are a lot of parts involved. I think title 9 was more of an issue for rugby than finances. We never had to use much in terms of resources because the Witter family was so incredibly generous. The bottom line to me is that Cal Rugby is an institution that deserves and needs to be preserved. I wish everyone could have the experience I had there. It was truly a life changing experience for me and I hate to think that my sons wouldn't have a chance to go through the same experience someday. I know there are some tough decisions that have to made when it comes to finance, in my business life I have seen that first hand, but there has to be a way to save a program like Cal's Rugby team. It's literally the most successful program of any kind on campus - I know that's not a fair comparison, but if people don't know much about Cal they usually say something like "isn't Cal where they have that great rugby team?"

19. What is your view on the serious injuries many rugby players incur? Do you think it is more or less safe than football? What changes, if any, do you think are necessary to improve safety? Do you think enough is done to help players handle serious injuries, such as concussions?

I had a lot of injuries playing rugby, but none of them were what I would call serious. I think when you play football you have all these pads on and you can literally use your head as a weapon - I should know, I did it every day in practice and on Saturdays. I remember, or sort of remember, a game against Oklahoma. We were trying to run the clock out, we had a lead with about 4 minutes to go. We ran the ball like 8 times in a row or something and their D End was about 290. After one play I came back to the huddle completely seeing double. I couldn't understand the quarterback telling us the play and I was panicking as I was about to get in my stance. I turned around and asked the tailback what I was supposed to do. He pointed at where I was supposed to go right before the ball snapped. I don't remember anything else from the game. I never had anything like that in rugby. You can't use your head the same way, you don't have a helmet so you learn to tackle with your shoulders instead of spearing people with your head.


20. What is your view on Rugby Sevens? Legit form of rugby or bastardization of the game?

I don't know much about sevens, I never played it and I think it's a very different game from Rugby Union. It's probably legit, but it's nothing like 15's.

21. Do you still keep in touch with your teammates?

Yes, I try to make it up to at least 1 football game and rugby game a year and I always catch up with a lot of the guys I played with.

22. Do you still follow Cal Rugby?

Yes, I keep up with it on the internet, I called Coach Clark when the news on Rugby broke.

 

 

Position: Inside Center

 

 


1. The inside center has been referred to as the "battering ram" of the Cal system. What do people mean by that?

It's a pretty apt description, the center will usually get the ball on the first phase of attack and try to make as many defenders as possible have to get involved in the tackle. If it takes 3 or 4 guys to tackle one person that is a lot few defenders available to get involved in the next phase of attack.

 

3. What is the role of the inside center in the open field?

In open play the center is slicing runner able to hit a gap at full speed and give quick passes off or support other players in attack. It's a great position to play as you get involved in all aspects of the game. You're definitely going to touch the ball a lot.

 

4. What tactics do you use to accomplish your goals in the open field?

My first year playing rugby I probably literally made 10 passes all year. My job was to take the ball up like a battering ram and draw people into the tackle. We were watching film of a game one day and coach slowed down a play for us to watch over and over. 7 or 8 guys converged on me to tackle me, and Coach Clark said something like "that's why we give the ball to that guy, he was Pac10 running back." From that moment on my fate was sealed, I was known as Pac10. Even now when I run into those guys it's the first thing they call me.

 

5. Do you have any special practices that you do to help you as an inside center?

It was a lot of rugby 101 for me, just working on the fundamentals.

7. What originally got you interested in being an inside center?

That's where Coach Clark told me to stand the first day, so that was it for me. It turned out that I loved the position, but if coach had told me to play something else that's what I would have done. I didn't know the first thing about positions when I came out that first day.


8. Are there any other positions you like to play besides inside center?

Now that I'm older, winger. I wouldn't have to have as much contact, I'm too fragile these days for the pounding inside.

9. Is there anything about your body that makes you a natural fit for a inside center?

I was a good sized athlete, around 235 or so, and I could run a little bit. I was pretty ideally sized for that position.

10. What is your role during a scrum?

A center is in the back line we don't get involved in the scrum. As a back, you are lined up outside of the pack waiting for the ball to come out so we could run with it. I probably could have held up in the scrum, but who would want to? It's a mess in there.

11. What tactics do you use to accomplish your goals during a scrum?

Stay as far away as possible.

12. What is your role during a line out?

Same idea as the scrum, you are lined up in the back line waiting for the ball to come out, or if you are on defense get ready to come up and make a tackle.

13. What tactics do you use to accomplish your goals during a line out?


If you are on offense, you have a set play called so you want to execute your role on that play. If you are on defense you want to fly up in a line with the other backs so that you are all together. When one person gets ahead or behind the line it creates gaps that the offense can run through.

 

 

Football.


1. What positions did you play for Cal football?

Fullback

2. When did you play for Cal football?

97 and 98

3. What did you learn with Cal Rugby that helped you at Cal football?

I didn't play the 2 at the same time. I took 5 years to graduate, after my 4th year of football I played rugby in the spring then played again my fifth year. To be really honest, I dragged out my graduation a semester so that I could play one more season of rugby.

4. What did you learn with Cal football that helped you with Cal rugby?

I learned how to really go 100%. In high school football, the speed is so much less you don't realize that even though you think you are going full speed, there is another gear inside of you. I still remember my first practice, spring ball, I had a good block on our Outside linebacker. We ran the same play again, and he was ready for me. He knocked me flat on my back. I remember hearing one of the guys shout out "welcome to the Pac-10." It was a real eye opener for me, but you got used to the speed of the game and you learned how to really play at full speed.

5. How difficult was it to balance football and rugby at Cal?

I never had to balance them since I didn't play them at the same time, Shaun Paga did though, he could give you a good perspective on this.

6. How were the rugby practices different from the football practices?

Football practice is probably the worst thing ever. I remember once in football camp, we used to go out Cal State Stanislaus in a place called Turlock. It's hot in August out there. We were 3 quarters of the way through practice when a couple of the linemen got into a fight. The coaches got mad and kicked us all out of practice. As we were walking back to the locker room I heard another lineman say "If I knew they would kick us out of practice I would have started a fight during stretching." That's a pretty apt description of football practice. It's tough everyday, and you better not come out on that field with your head in the wrong place or you will get it knocked off. Rugby was a little more fun for me because you got to do everything. You got to run, pass, play defense while in football you became a specialist at one thing only. Rugby practice could keep things more interesting because it is a freer sport, the ball moves all the time and as a player you get to be involved in everything.

7. How do the football players view the rugby players at Cal?

I don't know if they know too much about them, I didn't know anyone on the team except Shaun Paga since he played football too. I definitely knew the reputation of Cal Rugby and knew about the success. I had a lot of respect for the program and the people that ran it and were involved in it.


8. What was your favorite moment on the Cal football team?

Playing Stanford in the 100th big game, that was awesome. The Blue Angels flew over before the game, Chelsea Clinton was there, I almost ran into Tiger Woods on the sideline after a play. Maybe a tie was 98 against USC in the coliseum. We were down by a bunch early, I was a captain that day, and we came all the back and won the game. It was an incredible feeling to stand inside that stadium after winning. That was Carson Palmer's freshman year, and he got sacked for a safety and threw a big pick that helped us come back.

9. What was your funniest moment on the Cal football team?

Camp was always fun, as brutal as it was, we all stayed in the dorms and had some down time. Practical jokes were pretty standard, but the O-Line was the usually involved somewhere. I think it had to be the fight that ended practice, it may not have been the funniest, but at least it ended practice for the day.

10. Do you still keep in touch with any of your football teammates?

A few, but not as many as I would like.

 

 

Many thanks to Michael Freeman for his awesome answers.  GO BEARS!

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