Always on the Run

Sept. 9, 2001

by Mason Kelley

For the Huskies running backs, the 2000 season was straight out of a storybook. The group of Braxton Cleman, Willie Hurst, Rich Alexis and Paul Arnold ran for a combined 1,682 yards and 18 touchdowns en route to a Pac-10 title and Rose Bowl championship.

For juniors Cleman and Hurst, the Rose Bowl victory settled a pact the two made as freshmen. For Cleman, it was the culmination of a journey that has taken him around the world and landed him in front of 72,000 screaming Husky fans.

Braxton Cleman grew up on the move. The adopted son of Vicky and Kurt Cleman, the family was constantly moving to follow the path of Kurt's military career. From Puyallup, Wash., to Texas, to Europe, the family rarely stayed in one place for long, forcing Cleman to nurture his natural ability to adjust to new situations and make the best out of anything, a skill that would be tested in his early years as a Husky.

Cleman's effort was aided by a love for basketball. Basketball gave him an easy way to meet new people, and made the transition between new homes much easier.

'I was a tall and skinny kid growing up and I was a big basketball freak,' he recalls. 'While in Europe I got the opportunity to travel around and play in a number of places.'

When Cleman was a freshman in high school many people encouraged him to play football but he shied away because he was worried that he might get hurt. That is a far cry from the player who smashes through defensive lines with reckless abandon for the Huskies.

Following his freshman year of high school in Germany, Cleman moved to the small town of Oroville, Wash., located in the central part of the state just south of the Canadian border. All of his world travels and international residences could never have prepared him for Oroville.

A predominantly white community, Cleman was one of just three African American children in town. It required a different kind of adjustment than those he had become so used to making in the past.

'It was different having always been around black people,' he says. 'But I am adopted by white parents and I have been exposed to many different cultures, all of whom I accept, so the transition went well.'

A skinny kid no longer, Cleman overcame his fears of injury and hurled his 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame at opposing defenses. As a senior in 1997, Cleman rushed for over 1,000 yards, earning all-state honors while leading tiny Oroville to an 11-1 record a bid to the state tournament.

'Being a small school, we didn't do some of the things that other bigger schools did,' Cleman says. 'We did not have any big team off-season workouts, but when it came time for the season we strapped it up and played hard. My coaches taught me the game and they taught it well.'

Coming to the big city of Seattle after three years in Oroville was not the easiest of transitions for a young man who had experienced more than his share of moves. He had been around the world, but there was little that could prepare him for Division-I college football.

'I still remember the first time I walked through the tunnel,' he recalls. 'Everybody talks about it. They say you young guys better be ready because there isn't anything that compares to running on to the field and being greeted by over 70,000 screaming fans. I still get chills every time I run onto that field.'

Cleman wasn't the only freshman running back to join the Husky squad in 1998. Highly-touted Willie Hurst, a nationally-rated player from Compton, Calif., grabbed the headlines and the spotlight when he signed with Washington that season, and was expected to immediately compete for the starting job vacated by the graduation of Rashaan Shehee and an injury to Maurice Shaw. The initial relationship between the two freshman backs, both vying for carries in the Husky offense, was cordial, but did not hint at the special friendship they would soon develop. However, while rooming together on one of the road trips, they got to talking.

'I don't know how we got into it but we just sat there and talked and got to know about each others backgrounds for a good three hours,' Hurst said.

The two emerged from that conversation realizing they were bonded both in experience and in opportunity, and have been extremely good friends ever since. Whether it comes to joking around with incoming freshmen or the success of the team, Cleman has little to say that doesn't involve Hurst. Each are quick to recall a special pact that they made to each other during their first years with the Huskies.

'Willie and I made a pact that no matter what happens during our four years at UW we will not lose to the Cougars, Cleman says. In the three years the two have played at Washington, the Huskies have not lost to their in-state rivals.

Adds Hurst: 'We also vowed to each other that we would win a Rose Bowl and we did just that.'

Cleman held up his end of the pact in 2000, helping the Huskies clinch a Rose Bowl berth with 105 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries in a 51-3 win over Washington St. He then started the Rose Bowl against Purdue and took an option pitch into the endzone for the Huskies' first score of the game, while Hurst finished off the Boilermakers with an eight-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

It wasn't the first time the two had shared a career milestone. Both Cleman and Hurst had their first 100-yard rushing gamews against UCLA on Nov. 14, 1998. They also scored their first collegiate touchdown in the same game against Arizona in 1998.

'We have gotten to see each other grow up at this university,' Hurst says. 'We both came in when we were 18 and now we are adults. We have seen each other grow as people as well as players.'

The camaraderie between Cleman and Hurst has spread through the whole group of running backs. Coach Tony Alford has been stressing the importance of being a tight-knit unit. Being placed into the spotlight as an example for younger players is a role that Cleman eagerly accepts.

'I always feel the young guys can always come up to Willie and myself to ask for help and guidence whenever they need it,' he explains. 'We are always there for them.'

This past spring, change again found its way to Cleman when soft-spoken running backs coach Wayne Moses left to coach at another school, and was replaced by the more emotive Tony Alford.

'Coach Moses and I had a great relationship. He was almost like a second father that I could go to with any kind of problem,' Cleman says. 'Coach Alford has stepped in and filled the role that coach Moses left behind.'

While he closed the 2000 season as the starter at the position, Cleman knows that all of the Husky backs will have to contribute if the Huskies are to repeat their success.

'I don't like to look at individual performances that much so I will be satisfied if the team can build from the success we had last year,' he says. 'We are just going to go out there and do what ever it takes to have a great time and win football games.'

In a sea of change, Cleman is a ocean liner, plowing through the waves while remaining focused on his chosen goals. Washington State visits Husky Stadium on Nov. 17. He has one more promise left to keep.

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