Husky Legend: Cam Cleeland
Sept. 5, 2008
By Matt Winter
Across the country, certain schools are known for continually producingstars at specific positions. Michigan and Notre Dame have their quarterbacks.Miami is known as Running Back U. Ohio State is a factory for wide receivers.Here at Washington, tight ends are the specialty. Players like Dave Williams,Rod Jones, Aaron Pierce, Mark Bruener and Ernie Conwell all made a bigimpact as Huskies and as professionals. However, few players played theposition with more consistency and balance than Cam Cleeland.
Cleeland, a Husky from 1993-97, was a part of Don James' final recruitingclass at the UW. At 6-4 and 270 pounds, Cleeland was a multi-sport standoutat Sedro-Wooley High School, captaining his football, basketball and baseballteams during his senior year. The gridiron was where he made his mark,however, reeling in more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns during hishigh school career earning him All-American honorable mention from USAToday. When it came time for Cleeland to select a college, it was hardlya decision.
'UW was the place I wanted to go,' Cleeland says, 'After three straightRose Bowls and a National Championship, it was the place to go.'
For Cleeland, part of the draw to UW was the aforementioned traditionat the tight end position. His development as a player was largely due to theplayers he was learning under. Before starting in '96 and '97, Cleeland servedas backup to Husky and NFL greats Mark Bruener and Ernie Conwell.
'I honestly think you learn more from watching your fellow competitorsplay,' Cleeland said. 'Our tight end lineage is unreal, and our success at tightend was a testament to our desire for success as a team.'
Don James' tight ends all fit a similar, exceptional mold -- big, strongplayers that not only had the ability to catch the ball, but also possessed adaunting presence on the line of scrimmage.
'Other than quarterback, it's the most versatile position on the field,' saysCleeland, 'You have to be strong enough to block defensive linemen and quickenough to keep up with defensive backs and linebackers.'
In 1996, once Bruener and Conwell had departed for the NFL, it wasCleeland's turn to shine. Starting every game that season, he fit perfectlyin the offense as quarterback Brock Huard's safety valve. His consistent playbrought balance to an explosive offense that averaged 35 points per game andnever scored less than 26 in a single contest. Cleeland caught 25 passes for356 yards (14.6 ypc) and three touchdowns, earning him honorable mentionAll Pac-10 honors. The Dawgs went 9-3 that year, but ended the season indisappointment as they lost to Colorado 33-21 in the Holiday Bowl.
'That was a tough one to swallow because we had such a good team,'remembers Cleeland.
The 1997 season provided plenty of promise and a top-five preseasonranking. Cleeland's consistent play was again a staple in the offense, as heyet again started every game and compiled 23 receptions, 322 yards, and twotouchdowns. Those numbers combined with his outstanding blocking, earnedhim first team all Pac-10 honors. Blocking was as much a focus of Cleeland'sgame as receiving was.
'I took as much pride in blocking as I did receiving,' Cleeland said, 'We[the offensive line] would have pancake contests -- we would watch film aftergames and count the number of guys we put on their back -- and I held myown.' Not bad considering he blocked alongside the likes of Benji Olsen, OlinKreutz, Tony Coates, Chad Ward and Bob Sapp.
Disappointment struck again in '97 after the Dawgs dropped the last threegames of the season and ended up facing Michigan State in the Aloha Bowl.However, the Spartans were overmatched, and the Dawgs rolled, 51-23.
'It was a good feeling,' he said. 'We were touted as a really good footballteam and we lost a couple games we shouldn't (have). It really let us knowhow good we could have been. It was important for those of us that had beenthere for four or five years.'
Like the tight ends that came before him, Cleeland left his mark on theHusky record book. Among UW tight ends, he ranks ninth all time in careerreceptions (55), fifth in receiving yards (824), and fourth in touchdowns (6).His play caught the attention of Mike Ditka and the New Orleans Saints, who,in the second round, made him the first tight end chosen in the 1998 NFLDraft. In an eight-year NFL career with the Saints, Patriots and Rams, Cleelandamassed 131 receptions, 1,478 yards, and 13 touchdowns.
But what Cleeland remembers most about being a Husky, is simply beinga Husky.
'The pureness of college football, and the desire and unity of the groupof guys is really special. When there are a bunch of close guys from alldifferent backgrounds working toward a certain goal, there's nothing betterthan succeeding.'
Today, Cleeland has a construction development company and hassettled down with his wife, former Husky softball and basketball player MindyWilliams, and their two young boys.
'We're definitely a Husky family.'
Despite his life away from football, Cleeland still gets nostalgic when hethinks about his days of donning the purple and gold.
'It's got to be the best feeling -- just walking down that tunnel and hearingthat crowd roar,' he remembers.
Ten years after leaving the UW, Cleeland still feels as close as ever.'We're all part of the Husky family,' he says, 'Once you're purple, you'realways purple.'
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