Sept. 5, 2008
By Matt Winter
Across the country, certain schools are known for continually producing stars 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 big impact as Huskies and as professionals. However, few players played the position with more consistency and balance than Cam Cleeland.
Cleeland, a Husky from 1993-97, was a part of Don James' final recruiting class at the UW. At 6-4 and 270 pounds, Cleeland was a multi-sport standout at Sedro-Wooley High School, captaining his football, basketball and baseball teams during his senior year. The gridiron was where he made his mark, however, reeling in more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns during his high school career earning him All-American honorable mention from USA Today. When it came time for Cleeland to select a college, it was hardly a decision.
"UW was the place I wanted to go," Cleeland says, "After three straight Rose Bowls and a National Championship, it was the place to go."
For Cleeland, part of the draw to UW was the aforementioned tradition at the tight end position. His development as a player was largely due to the players he was learning under. Before starting in '96 and '97, Cleeland served as backup to Husky and NFL greats Mark Bruener and Ernie Conwell.
"I honestly think you learn more from watching your fellow competitors play," Cleeland said. "Our tight end lineage is unreal, and our success at tight end was a testament to our desire for success as a team."
Don James' tight ends all fit a similar, exceptional mold -- big, strong players that not only had the ability to catch the ball, but also possessed a daunting presence on the line of scrimmage.
"Other than quarterback, it's the most versatile position on the field," says Cleeland, "You have to be strong enough to block defensive linemen and quick enough to keep up with defensive backs and linebackers."
In 1996, once Bruener and Conwell had departed for the NFL, it was Cleeland's turn to shine. Starting every game that season, he fit perfectly in the offense as quarterback Brock Huard's safety valve. His consistent play brought balance to an explosive offense that averaged 35 points per game and never scored less than 26 in a single contest. Cleeland caught 25 passes for 356 yards (14.6 ypc) and three touchdowns, earning him honorable mention All Pac-10 honors. The Dawgs went 9-3 that year, but ended the season in disappointment 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 preseason ranking. Cleeland's consistent play was again a staple in the offense, as he yet again started every game and compiled 23 receptions, 322 yards, and two touchdowns. Those numbers combined with his outstanding blocking, earned him first team all Pac-10 honors. Blocking was as much a focus of Cleeland's game 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 after games and count the number of guys we put on their back -- and I held my own." Not bad considering he blocked alongside the likes of Benji Olsen, Olin Kreutz, Tony Coates, Chad Ward and Bob Sapp.
Disappointment struck again in '97 after the Dawgs dropped the last three games 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 football team and we lost a couple games we shouldn't (have). It really let us know how good we could have been. It was important for those of us that had been there for four or five years."
Like the tight ends that came before him, Cleeland left his mark on the Husky record book. Among UW tight ends, he ranks ninth all time in career receptions (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 NFL Draft. In an eight-year NFL career with the Saints, Patriots and Rams, Cleeland amassed 131 receptions, 1,478 yards, and 13 touchdowns.
But what Cleeland remembers most about being a Husky, is simply being a Husky.
"The pureness of college football, and the desire and unity of the group of guys is really special. When there are a bunch of close guys from all different backgrounds working toward a certain goal, there's nothing better than succeeding."
Today, Cleeland has a construction development company and has settled down with his wife, former Husky softball and basketball player Mindy Williams, and their two young boys.
"We're definitely a Husky family."
Despite his life away from football, Cleeland still gets nostalgic when he thinks about his days of donning the purple and gold.
"It's got to be the best feeling -- just walking down that tunnel and hearing that 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're always purple."