By Matt Williams
Picture yourself walking into a football locker room and seeing the Heisman Trophy, portraits immortalizing legends like Jim Brown and Ernie Davis, and a banner commemorating a national title.
Not bad for a "second" choice, right?
That's exactly the atmosphere Boxford's Clay Cleveland walked into during a late recruiting trip last winter as he feasted his eyes on the campus of Syracuse University.
"I got chills," said Cleveland. "Just the history — to see those photos, the trophies when you walk into the (athletic) complex. It's a cool thing to be a part of."
What began as a fallback option collegiately for the Phillips Andover and Masconomet Regional product turned into the perfect solution. Cleveland will join the Orange as fullback this fall.
"It was late," Cleveland said of his recruitment to Syracuse. "I probably didn't start talking to them until the middle of February because I thought I'd be playing in the Ivy League."
A 6-foot-1, 220-pound specimen, Cleveland got looks from Dartmouth, Princeton and Delaware coming out of Masconomet in 2009. He elected to do a post-graduate year at Phillips intent on cementing a chance at the Ivies, but it just wasn't meant to be.
"I didn't send my (highlight) tape to many Division 1-A schools because I was so set on Ivy," Cleveland recalled. "My test scores just weren't quite there, though, and even then my I-A options were limited because a lot of schools don't use a fullback."
The 19-year-old Cleveland also drew interest from Division 1 squads Miami of Ohio and Connecticut, but Orange coach Doug Marrone's Pro-Set offense made the most sense for him.
"The Big East is the Big East," Cleveland said of Syracuse's conference. "When I went up to Syracuse, it hit me that this is where I want to be. They didn't sign any fullbacks and they had an injury (at that position) in the spring."
Landing with the Orange — arguably college football's most storied program in the East — is a bit like the gridiron gods saying, "We're sorry we can't approve you for this Mercedes, Mr. Cleveland ... but we do have a Ferrari we'd like you to take a look at."
"I told (Syracuse) they were my first choice if I didn't get into an Ivy," Cleveland recalled. "I'm not a full scholarship guy, so I had to wait to get in (to Syracuse), but the football program supported it and I got accepted."
To get a sense of the type of player Cleveland is, picture a dazed Cape Ann League defender wondering what the license plate number was on the locomotive that just hit them before T.C Manetta, Evan Bunker or Chris Splinter scampered to the end zone.
The freight train was usually Masco's No. 26 — Cleveland, at his natural position of fullback. It's the place he's always felt most comfortable and a craft he refined in the fall at Phillips.
"From an athletic standpoint, the competition is stronger. Football was very different. It's not the Friday night lights atmosphere, but the opposition is tougher and more physical," Cleveland, who also plays lacrosse at Phillips, said of the prep school level of football.
A gym rat, Cleveland still works out at Mike Boyle's Strength and Conditioning in North Andover. His high school resume speaks for itself: He helped lead Masco to three CAL titles, was a Salem News, Agganis and Shiners all-star as a senior and scored 19 career TDs.
As versatile as he is bruising, Cleveland's signature moment came when he caught a TD pass on 4th-and-19 to beat Wilmington in 2006. He was able to build on all those skills at Phillips.
"It was a weird season because we had a game canceled because of swine flu, and the Tufts jayvee team couldn't play us because of injuries. With only six games, it was tougher from a recruiting standpoint," said Cleveland. "But I loved the coach and the staff. Practices were so much quicker and you got a lot done. It helped me a lot."
So much that a major college football program — one that calls Donovan McNabb, Marvin Harrison and Dwight Freeney among its recent alums — came calling. Cleveland is planning to spend the summer at Syracuse, working out and getting to know his new teammates.
"I don't think it's really hit me," he said. "Obviously you dream about playing Division 1 and it's what I always wanted, but I don't think it'll sink in until I see that orange helmet and run onto the field for a home game."