For Cam Cleeland, hazing incident altered his NFL career — and life

Cam Cleeland spent two seasons on the St. Louis Rams with offensive lineman Richie Incognito, who is currently suspended by the Miami Dolphins after allegations of bullying and racism.
(Al Messerschmidt / Getty Images)
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The last time Cam Cleeland had two good eyes, a pillowcase was being pulled over his head.

It was 15 years ago in a University of Wisconsin La Crosse dormitory that housed New Orleans Saints players for training camp. Cleeland and his fellow rookies were herded at one end of a long, narrow hallway. Their veteran teammates, most of them drunk, lined either side of the hall, leaving about a one-foot gap to get through.

This was the gantlet, a well-worn Saints tradition of hazing and a rite of passage for the rookies. Each had to run through with a pillowcase over his head, allowing each veteran a free shot at him.

Thinking back on the situation still sends a shiver through Cleeland, and the emotional scars give him insight on what Miami tackle Jonathan Martin might be feeling after alleged bullying by Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (a onetime teammate of Cleeland’s).


The memories of that hallway are chilling.

“Guys were just rabid,” recalled Cleeland, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound tight end from the University of Washington. “And you had a couple guys in the front that would stand in a three-point stance, and you would fire off the line like he was going to knock you over.

“You tried to make it through, and they literally just beat the ever-loving crap out of you as you tried to get through. Everything you can imagine, from kicking, punching, scrapping. I remember my ankle was sore and I had missed two days of practice because I had rolled my ankle.

“Guys were like, ‘He’s got a bum ankle! We don’t care!’ And as I got to the end, I got punched in the nose, so my nose was bleeding. As I rolled my head, I got kicked in the leg and my ankle rolled. I brought my head up …”

And that’s when the fateful blow came, one that not only changed Cleeland’s life but turned a spotlight on the dark underbelly of professional football.

Cleeland was clubbed in the face by a sock filled with coins, coins that free-agent linebacker Andre Royal had spent all day collecting from teammates. Nobody knew what he planned to do with them, but they had donated them by the fistful.

Royal would later say he was aiming for the ribs. Instead, the shot shattered Cleeland’s eye socket and nearly cost him his eye, which now provides him only with partial vision. He also suffered a badly broken nose. At first, Cleeland didn’t know the severity of his injuries.


“I was full of adrenaline at that time,” he said. “You’re in that fight-or-flight mode, survival mode. You’ve got to get through. So I made it through, and next thing you know my nose is bleeding all over.”

He wasn’t the only one. Defensive lineman Jeff Danish made it through the gantlet at a sprint but wound up crashing through a plate-glass window at the end of the hall. Only a safety bar kept him from sailing out the window and falling three stories. He ended up with 13 stitches in his left arm and later sued the Saints.

The NFL largely cracked down on the most serious type of hazing after that, but beyond the physical violence today it is still common for rookies to placate veterans, including paying thousands of dollars for meals to carrying their equipment.

For years, the gantlet was unofficially mandatory. Guard Chris Naeole even hobbled through it on crutches when he was fresh off knee surgery. He still was kicked and punched.

“The guys who chose not to participate and locked themselves in their room, got buckets of water thrown under their doors,” said tackle Kyle Turley, also a rookie in that 1998 class. “The water didn’t come from the sink, but from toilets, with urine. Guys that decided not to show up, their belongings were trashed, [urinated] on, their beds, all their clothes.”

The best way to weather the gantlet, Turley figured, was to come out swinging.

“I grew up in the punk rock and heavy metal scene and was very familiar with mosh pits,” he said. “So for me, this was my moment to shine. They put that pillowcase over my head, and I went through it like a Tasmanian devil, and I actually hurt a couple guys.


“But right at the end I’d made it through, and I’m looking down through the pillowcase at the floor. I thought I had it made, and out of a doorway here comes a leg — boom! — he kicks my leg right out from under me. I fly in the air and come straight down right on my kneecap right on the concrete ground.

“It was horrible. I had so much pain medication in me to play for the first month of the season it was crazy.”

The hazing might never have come to light had Cleeland not sat out the following exhibition.

“All the media saw me standing on the sideline with a black eye,” he said. “It was, ‘What the hell happened? He wasn’t on the injury report.’ It probably would have been covered up.”

Cleeland went on to have the best season of his eight-year NFL career. He led the Saints in receptions and yards receiving, was named the team’s most valuable player, made the Pro Bowl, and was runner-up to Minnesota’s Randy Moss for NFC rookie of the year.

Cleeland, now retired and raising a family in Vancouver, Wash., said he doesn’t have many fond memories from that rookie season, productive as he was. He doesn’t have much respect for the way the Saints responded to the hazing. Yes, they cut Royal, but there was a fundamental lack of understanding about how unfair and cruel the situation was.


“Coach [Mike] Ditka gave me a speech as soon as it was done,” he recalled. “He was like, ‘Oh, man, you should have just popped those guys in the mouth.’ I said, ‘Coach, there were 60 of them.’”

Seven years later, when Cleeland was playing for St. Louis, the Rams drafted Incognito, who had been kicked off his college teams at Nebraska and Oregon.

“I’m not afraid to say that he was an immature, unrealistic scumbag,” Cleeland said. “When it came down to it, he had no personality, he was a locker-room cancer, and he just wanted to fight everybody all the time. It was bizarre beyond belief.”

Just as he shakes his head at Ditka’s suggestion he simply should have thrown punches, he scoffs at the reaction some have about the situation in Miami.

“Any NFL player that gives Martin a hard time — I don’t know him — but any guy who says, ‘This guy should have been a tough guy, should have stood up to him,’ it’s BS,” he said.

“I don’t care if you’re a good guy or not, you don’t deserve that kind of treatment in any workplace. You’ve got to be tough. We’re all tough guys. But in the end, you’re still a human being.”


What the NFL lacks, Cleeland said, is a culture in which players can be free to express their concerns, as they would be able to do in a normal workplace. NFL players are warriors, and admitting any hint of weakness simply isn’t allowed.

“This guy [Martin] was probably feeling threatened and bothered by [Incognito] from day one,” Cleeland said. “He let it simmer and let it go and finally, instead of going to the coaches. ...

“What happens if you go to your coach and say, ‘This guy’s bothering me.’ He’s going to look at you and go, ‘Are you crazy? You wuss. You’re not tough. Get out of my office.’ I’m not saying that’s what would happen with [Dolphins Coach Joe] Philbin, because I don’t know, but that’s what’s going to happen with 95% of coaches.”

To this point, that’s a gantlet many players are unwilling to run.

Twitter: @latimesfarmer