Just about everything about the look of recent Masconomet grad Clay Cleveland oozes "football player."
A hulking fullback chiseled at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, the imposing Cleveland's three-point stance looks like it was plucked from the golden age of Nebraska's power running game. In short, the Chieftains captain appears to have been born to bowl over offensive guards and linebackers.
Yet the signature moment of Cleveland's high school career was a fingertip touchdown catch that helped Masco beat Wilmington for the first of three straight Cape Ann League crowns in 2006. His official college scouting highlight reel is full of crisp passing patterns and the kinds of soft and smooth receptions normally reserved for those with the lanky, track star build.
Such is the dual identity of Cleveland, whose skills will be in display tonight at Manning Field in Lynn in the 48th annual Agganis Football Classic. He is one part bruiser, one part finesse and 100 percent football.
"I'm a fullback at heart. That's my favorite position," said Cleveland, who also played in the Shriner's all-star game last month. "It's kind of a dying breed. You don't see too many teams pounding the ball like old school Big Ten football."
There is little doubt that Cleveland would've been ideal for one of those smash mouth power teams from an era gone by. But he is no relic. His unique skills in the passing game fit perfectly along the bridge to college football future — one that seems destined to be filled by the spread offense and H-backs that are adept at blocking, running and catching.
"He's bigger than the guards and tackles on some teams we see," said Masco coach Jim Pugh. "This kid is a football player."
Where Cleveland eventually lands as a college football player remains up in the air. He's decided to spend a post-graduate year at Phillips Academy in Andover, where he'll play football and lacrosse in hopes of attracting more concrete interest from a big-time program.
Cleveland is looking for a mix of strong, reputable academics and a spirited football atmosphere. Among those that recruited him last winter were Ivy League schools like Princeton and Dartmouth, and upper-echelon Football Championship Subdivision teams such as Delaware.
"Obviously there are no guarantees, but a lot of the Ivys said I was very close (to getting in) and a year at Phillips might help," the multiple-time Cape Ann League all-star said.
The spoils of that exposure are already visible on ESPN.com, where Cleveland is rated among the top prospects in Massachusetts complete with a highlight video and a scouting report that describes his unique ability to make difficult, over-the-shoulder catches and calls him a "very versatile ... reliable and productive athlete in all phases of the game."
"Clay is such an amazing athlete. Even watching him play basketball and lacrosse, he's so athletic and strong that you just know good things are going to happen for him," said Pugh.
Cleveland will be joined at Phillips by Masco teammate Keaton Cashin, who will play football and has his sights set on landing in big-time college hockey. He's also familiar with the school through another Masco-to-Phillips hockey stud — Chris Kreider, who was a first round pick of the New York Rangers recently. The pair work out together in Mike Boyle's strength and conditioning program.
"It's a little weird for me because Phillips is 15 minutes from home — I'll be home every night," said Cleveland. "But I've heard great things about PG years. One of my best friends is Teddy Reed, who PG'd and wound up at Dartmouth. So hopefully it'll be worth it for me."
Cleveland's legacy at Masconomet is a proud one that includes three straight CAL titles and the playoff berths that come with them. He scored 19 touchdowns (10 on the ground, nine on receptions) and opened countless hole for the likes of Eric Bunker, Craig Bunker, T.C. Mannetta, Chris Splinter and Evan Bunker.
His miracle catch that came on 4th-and-19 as Wilmington was looking to put the Chieftains away in 2006 will never be forgotten.
The real legacy, though, might simply be his presence in Masco's weight room.
"I can't remember him not being there — three days a week at 6 in the morning his whole career. He's been lifting with us since the eighth grade," said Pugh. "He's one of the hardest working kids we ever had, and a great leader as a two-year captain."
As Cleveland prepares to don the bright red helmet of the Chieftains one more time in the Agganis Classic tonight, his emotions are mixed with a keen eye on the future and a reverence for his time as a Chieftain.
"It's pretty crazy. I watched my older brother Joe play in some games like this, and a lot of guys that were older than me the last couple years," Cleveland said. "You never think it'll be your turn and then it comes so fast."