At 6’5” and 230lbs, Joe Schroeder takes a seat in a cramped room of a trailer adjacent to USA Rugby’s training field at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center.
With just a couple of weeks until the Eagles men’s sevens team opens their 2019-20 World Rugby Sevens Series, it seems they’ve received a recent shipment of new kit. Unopened boxes fill the space.
At the moment, there’s just enough room for two chairs, an inquiring mind, and Schroeder’s shoulders.
“Big Joe with the big shoulders,” says USA coach, Mike Friday, with a smile when discussing his rangy forward from Westfield, Ind.
Within the close quarters, perhaps Schroder appears even larger than reality. It almost looks like he’s wearing shoulder pads under a red USA Rugby t-shirt. It’s this very physique, combined with a speed rarely bestowed upon players of his stature, that has him here in Chula Vista, Calif., preparing to represent his country on the sevens series. Perhaps, at the end of the road he’ll also be making an appearance at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Just over two weeks after this particular post-practice conversation, Schroeder, 26, found himself in Dubai, starting in three of the Eagles four contests, scoring a try against Scotland and showing a nuanced rugby pedigree with a notably tidy dummy against Ireland. The USA’s quarter-final loss to New Zealand wasn’t the ideal start for an American side that advanced to the semifinals in all 10 series tournaments last year, but the Eagles voyage to Tokyo is just beginning.
If Schroeder has his way, he’ll be part of it from start to finish.
In some ways, Big Joe took one of the most unique routes to becoming an Eagle. In other ways, he’s been preparing for these moments and this season for the last decade.
Attending Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, Schroeder followed his older brothers into rugby as a freshman, where he played four years with Royal Irish Rugby. He capped his high school career by winning the national high school club championship. Schroeder was named MVP of the final.
However, that seemed to have been his last rugby-playing hurrah.
Upon further review of his final year of high school, he may have been better known by his Cathedral classmates for his drumming performance at his high school’s prom. Schroeder’s band, The Scrubs, played at prom and as he tells it, the night was a wild success.
“We knew we weren’t good, but we were entertaining,” Schroeder says. “It was crazy and a lot of fun.”
After graduating, he departed Cathedral for Trine University and with an eye towards an engineering degree, he left his rugby cleats behind.
Partway through his first year at Trine, in Angola, Ind., a mass email sparked a change in the trajectory of his life. The coach of the cheerleading team sent a university-wide message, asking if anyone would be interested in joining the squad.
“I thought engineering was going to be pretty busy, but in my freshman year I had some extra time,” says Schroeder. “I figured I’d try it.”
He had done a little parkour during high school (a recent post on his Instagram page suggests he still has a few tricks), so he thought cheerleading might just be a nice fit. Trine didn’t have rugby.
“I liked it. My favourite part was co-ed stunting. It was hard and it took a lot of practice to hit certain stunts, but it was a lot of fun.”
It seems he’s long been readying himself for lineouts. And, of course, those shoulders didn’t just arrive out of nowhere. While with the Trine cheer squad, Schroeder grew an inch and added nearly 25 pounds of quality mass.
After graduating with a degree in civil engineering in the spring of 2016, Schroeder moved to Columbus, Ohio.
That summer, he turned up at a game between the Ohio Aviators and the Denver Stampede within the now defunct PRO Rugby circuit. Sitting in the stands inspired Schroeder to dust off his cleats and join The Columbus Rugby Club.
“I remember watching that game and I realized how much I miss rugby,” he says.
His journey to the Eagles was afoot.
While still with the Columbus Rugby Club, he started training with Tiger Rugby in January of 2017. But, after a few months, Schroeder took a bit of a break from Tiger Rugby. He nearly missed his big break.
Then, he got a text from now Houston Sabercats (MLR) inside centre, Taylor Howden.
Chris Brown, who was an assistant coach with the USA’s men’s sevens program at the time, was going to be in town to run a training session with Tiger Rugby.
The text was simple:
“…I know you’re taking a break, but could you come in to get our numbers up?”
Schroeder responded casually.
“Sure. I’ll come in.”
And so it began.
Brown liked what was given from Schroeder.
“When he was given direction, I was impressed with how quickly he picked things up,” Brown recalls. “He was very coachable and he did pretty well for someone of his size. So, I thought we’d have a quick look at him. All the feedback I’d been given on him was about the engine on him and the dawg in him. It was easy to take a punt on him. You don’t see too many people who are 6-foot-5 and can move like him in an endurance sport.”
From there, Schroeder was invited to an incubator camp in July of 2017 and then to a high-performance camp that September. Then, on Sept. 23, 2017, Schroeder moved to Chula Vista.
Less than three months after that, which would be about a year and a half removed from cheerleading, he made his debut on the World Rugby Sevens Series in Dubai.
Two years later, Schroder is sitting in a quant space on the precipice of the biggest sporting year of his life.
For Schroeder, it’s now been nearly a year since he returned from a shoulder injury. Since tearing his labrum and his rotator cuff on Mar. 3, 2018 during the Las Vegas stop on the World Series, Schroeder had spent the subsequent nine months building his broad shoulder back up, before eventually returning to the circuit in Vancouver (Mar. 9-10, 2019).
He’s now played in five of the last six World Series tournaments while also helping USA win a bronze medal at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru this past summer.
On a mid-November off day, Schroeder thought it’d be fun to partake in a bit of a modelling shoot. It’s casual. But it’s something different. He’s keen, which is not surprising. He’s the type of player who has roots in a punk rock high school band, who still plays the acoustic guitar, who is an avid reader (his favourite book is Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae and he’s read it several times), and who just recently completed his Master’s Degree in civil engineering from Ohio University. While training with the Eagles, he also holds a job as a project engineer with Black & Veatch. To say the least, within his sporting context, that is not the norm.
Similarly, the Schroeder American fans are getting to know the unique style he exudes on the field, but one that quite perfectly suits the Eagles style, especially with their highly effective restart efforts.
“Joe is very nimble and agile as you’d expect from his background in cheerleading, which makes him a handful and a big threat aerially, be that at lineout time or at kickoff time,” Friday says. “Obviously, the restart part of the game is a huge part of our DNA and Joe has had to work very had over the last couple of years since he came into the program to learn the game, to improve physically, and to get a better game understanding on both sides of the ball.”
Evidenced by his role within the squad in Dubai, he’s put in the work.
“It’s been a tough road for him because there are a lot of boys on the circuit with naughty feet,” Friday says. “He’s learned some tough lessons, but he’s been resilient in staying in that battle and staying committed and focused.
“He’s starting to come out the other side with his game play and his confidence and his ability to run key components of the game for us – be that in the lineouts as well as the restart game.”
With Cape Town on the horizon, he’s set to take another step forward towards his ultimate goal.
“It’s a big year,” Schroeder says. “I’m still working my way in and I’m just trying to put myself in the best possible position to make that Olympic team.”
The young man who became a musician, who became a cheerleader, who became an engineer, who became a rugby player, and who became a model, is now working towards becoming an Olympian.
You don’t hear that one every day.