From Shaw Cross Sharks to Cleveland USA - how Monte Gaddis is spreading the rugby league gospel stateside
HE gained his first real education of rugby league at Shaw Cross Sharks and now Cleveland native Monte Gaddis is one of those at the forefront of trying to grow the game within the United States.
The 29-year-old got his first taste of the sport when he was a trialist with Canadian club Toronto Wolfpack in 2016.
He was part of an 18-man squad that played in a game against Brighouse Rangers in late 2016, as he was named ahead of 300 other players aiming to make the cut for the transatlantic club.
That was as far as he got with the Wolfpack but that did little to stop him wanting to make it in rugby league.
His athletic background made him a popular target for community clubs in England, with Shaw Cross landing his services in 2017. He also played in Serbia for a season when he joined Red Star Belgrade the following year.
The Cleveland native is originally an American footballer by trade and was defensive captain at Towson University before he moved to Poland to play with the Gdynia Seahawks.
Following his spell in Europe, he went back to America where he played indoor football for the Iowa Barnstormers.
Gaddis was named in the 2014 NFL draft but was not picked up by a pro club.
He still wanted his shot so resorted to standing outside the training base of the Cleveland Browns until they gave him a chance to prove himself.
His NFL dream never came to fruition but now he has his sights set on making rugby league a major sport in the USA.
In 2018, he established Cleveland Rugby League and last year the club became a founding member of the North American Rugby League, which will kick off in March 2022.
“The inspiration came from not having rugby league in my city,” Gaddis said.
“I came and played at Shaw Cross, I came back home and was only training by myself. I did end up training with some rugby union guys but then I went and played for Red Star Belgrade in 2018 and I felt like I had to bring it back to Cleveland.
“There were a lot of athletic players like me who were playing rugby union, American football and even basketball but I really thought the transition would be smooth.
“That is why in 2018 I created Cleveland Rugby League and things are really starting to take off now.
“I saw a few players that were interested, we went to Chicago and played in a 9s tournament and we won that.
“We have kept the momentum going from that.”
Cleveland played rugby league 9s shortly after forming and Gaddis admits there was originally no plans to join a professional league.
He continued: “In 2018, the NARL was not thought of and we were not thinking about being part of the USA RL.
“We thought we were going to be more of a developmental team.
“I was still at that stage and wanted to play around players who were developing into rugby league players.
“We didn’t want to go up against big, experienced teams. Those first couple of years were about me helping people learn about rugby league.
“Things are going well, I am loving what is going on. We got a call about the NARL and I felt the time was right so I took that leap of faith.”
There will understandably be scepticism over the ability to grow rugby league in America after the Toronto Wolfpack were not admitted back into Super League prior to the 2021 campaign.
However, there are those who see the sport’s potential for growth in North America, including former NRL and Super League player Glenn Morrison.
The Australian has been appointed director of rugby at Cleveland and Gaddis hailed Morrison’s involvement as “amazing”.
The pair first met when Gaddis was at Shaw Cross and Morrison even invited the American to some training sessions with Dewsbury Rams, where he was head coach at the time.
Morrison’s involvement represents a big coup for Cleveland, with the 45-year-old making over 300 appearances during his playing career.
Morrison is now the head of athletics and the rugby coach at Bradford Grammar School while carrying out his duties for Cleveland remotely.
Gaddis explained: “He helps out with very detailed and very intense training sessions, workouts and uses his own playbook.
“It has been amazing to have him. I met Glenn when I was at Shaw Cross and he was at Dewsbury Rams.
“Glenn let me actually train with Dewsbury. That was a great opportunity to do my drills with a semi-professional club.
“Glenn is working remotely for us at the moment but if we did have a season he would definitely be over here to give us his knowledge and really dig in with the players. He is committed, we have him for the rest of this year and for 2022. I really appreciate what Glenn brings to the table.”
Gaddis holds a number of roles in the fledgling organisation, adding: “I wear a couple of hats. I am the general manager, founder and right now I am the head coach as we couldn’t get an actual coach with years of experience in rugby league because of Covid.
“I feel like I am doing a great job in giving players the fundamentals of the game. I am also a player and I will play in any position the team needs me to put us in the best position to win games.”
For sports fanatics, Cleveland seems the ideal location for an Ohioan rugby league team. The city is home to three major sports teams. In baseball, it is home to the Cleveland Indians, in the NFL, it is the Cleveland Browns and in the NBA, it is the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Gaddis is hopeful that within the next two decades, America will be home to one of the world’s major rugby league clubs.
Despite their inaugural competitive season being delayed, Gaddis is still hoping to play plenty of games before the NARL kicks off in March.
“We are still looking at having friendlies with other teams in the league and we are committed to staying strong during these times,” added Gaddis.
“Everyone is still connected and we are pushing forward the best we can.
“The players are taking to the game. With the season being delayed, we have a lot of players who are playing 7s rugby this summer.
“They are still committed to Cleveland Rugby League because there is no other rugby league club in Ohio.
“This is their chance to be a part of history and we have some of the best exposure of any rugby league club in America at the moment.”
Gaddis’s drive will certainly give Cleveland the best chance to grow into a strong club, as he concluded: “In the next 15 to 20 years, I hope that the USA will have one of the biggest clubs in rugby league.”