WJTV – The first sports memory for Mississippi’s greatest sports writer is one of fear.
“I was at a college football game sitting with my mother up in the stands and all of the sudden, at halftime, the lights cut out,” Rick Cleveland said. “And I’m looking around, I’m kind of scared. They started shooting fireworks and the next thing I remember is that I climbed up under my mother’s dress and I was hiding under her dress at the football game.”
That might be the only time Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Rick Cleveland ever hid at a game. Over 51 years, he’s gone from catching rides to cover games as a teenager to being one of the most respected voices in the press box and eventually, becoming an inductee on Aug. 5 in the Hall of Fame he helped create.
And that all started by working for the guy giving him the rides. His dad, Robert “Ace” Cleveland, was the first member of the family to be inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
When Rick was born, Ace was the sports editor at the Hattiesburg American.
“He was making 12 dollars a week to cover sports five days a week and then he covered courts when the court reporter was off,” Rick said. “Often, to make ends meet and to feed his hungry baby, he would referee the same games that he covered. I remember asking him one time, ‘What was that like, daddy?’ He said, ‘Aw man, the zebras never got such good press.'”
Eventually, Ace became the sports information director at Southern Miss. He spent 33 years with the university, covering 325 consecutive Golden Eagle football games.
“He was like a favorite uncle to a lot of the Southern Miss players,” Rick said.
He still had to be a dad to his two sons too. Rick and his brother Bobby, who spent 30 years at the Clarion-Ledger writing about outdoor sports, spent some of their childhood living in an USM athletic dorm.
“I just remember going up and down the halls with the football players and basketball players and learning from guys that were from all over the country the different uses of words mom and dad didn’t really want us to use,” Bobby said with a laugh.
Once the games started, Bobby helped the team warm up or did whatever he could on the field. But Rick went to the press box.
“Rick was up there with the writers, watching and learning how everything went together,” Bobby said. “His relationships that he built during that time with the older writers, and learning how to listen to them tell stories, I think that’s where it came from with Rick.”
“After they’d finish their stories, everybody came over to our house for a post game party,” Rick said. “I would listen to those sports writers talking about the game and what they wrote and why they wrote it. It blew me away that people actually made a living, not a great living, but they made a living going to ballgames, writing about them and then going to parties afterwards. I didn’t see my doctor or my dentist or the plumbers having that much fun.”
As the two grew up with Ace, they started to notice the tools they’d soon possess.
“His style was clean, crisp and no-nonsense,” Bobby said. “No extraneous words whatsoever. It was kind of almost like in the movie, where the little kid would bring in his written work and his daddy would say, ‘Rewrite this.’ Ace would do the same thing but not quite as abruptly.”
“I think I learned from him and his relationships that he had with the players,” Rick said. “I figured out that they were not X’s and O’s. They were real people and they had real people strengths and real people weaknesses. The story wasn’t always that they scored three touchdowns and that they rushed for 200 yards. It was what they might’ve overcome as a child to get to that point.”
Rick had learned enough to figure out he wanted to go after a sports writing career. But Ace tried to warn him.
“If you can do this and do it well, you can make so much more money doing something else,” Rick recalled. “He said, ‘The only reason you should even do this is if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.’ Well, I couldn’t.”
He started writing professionally at 13 years old and later covered Southern Miss while attending the university. That meant he ran into his father.
“At one point, he was the sports information director at Southern Miss and I was the sports editor of the Hattiesburg American,” Rick said. “So there were times that we clashed. I would be reporting on something that Southern Miss wasn’t happy that I was reporting about. But to Ace’s credit, he never said don’t write this. He would tell me you’re not working for Southern Miss, you’re working for the Hattiesburg American and what’s more, you’re working for your readers.”
Bobby really took notice of Rick’s talent when they worked together in Hattiesburg.
“I was editing other’s people copy at the same time and the work that you’d have to do on deadline, Rick was not like that,” Bobby said. “His copy came in clean and I was just blown away with the aspects of stories he was finding. He could look at a game or event he was covering and take away an entirely different story, view or aspect of that same event that I never even pictured.”
Rick briefly left Mississippi, going from Hattiesburg to Monroe, La. before coming to Jackson to write for the Jackson Daily News and Clarion-Ledger. That was when Bobby saw his brother hit another level.
“He was a good investigative writer at that time, he wasn’t a columnist,” Bobby said. “But you could tell that within him at that point in time was to be the best columnist that we’d ever had. And I’m not talking about just sports columns. Any columnist.”
He climbed the ladder at The Clarion-Ledger, going from beat writer to sports editor to columnist. The eldest Cleveland son would go on to be named Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year 10 times. He eventually became the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame before becoming a columnist again, now writing for Mississippi Today.
His columns from The Clarion-Ledger wound up being published as a collection called, “It’s More Than a Game.” Tyler, his son, keeps a copy around.
“Some of those things are…they make you feel, you know what I mean,” Tyler said. “They make you feel for the people in the story, you get to know the people in the story. Somebody asked me about this the other day and I said basically that we’ve all got the same keyboard, but his just seems to work differently.”
Rick didn’t know Tyler looked at that collection until he was outside of the room where we were conducting an interview for this story.
“It really felt good, you know, and I was glad to hear him say it,” Rick said. “He’s pretty private about stuff like that where I’m concerned. I think I can read to where he might have picked up on something. It could well have been from Bobby and not strictly from me. I know I picked up a lot from my dad.”
Even how to tell his son to avoid sports writing, like his dad once did.
“He pushed me as hard as he could away from that direction,” Tyler said. “He told me early on that it meant weekends away from home and long hours, sometimes late into the night.”
Of course, Tyler already got to experience some of that. When he was younger, he described watching the Atlanta Braves with his dad every day after he did his homework.
“I remember sometimes that he’d be in another room, he had gone to do something,” Rick said. “I’d say, ‘Hey Tyler, Dale Murphy is coming up,’ and he ran in there and slid in front of the TV to watch him bat. I’ll never forget that.”
But then the weekends would come and Rick would have games to cover.
“I hated it,” Tyler said. “My dad would usually be gone and my mom would take us on trips. She was great. But for a while, it was kind of frustrating.”
“I remember being on the road covering a Mississippi State baseball game and calling home that night,” Rick said with tears starting to flow. “I had missed his first home run. Every time you hear an athlete get up to speak at a Hall of Fame induction or something, they talk about that they couldn’t have done it without their families. They miss so much of their family life because they were always away playing in games or coaching games. Well, it’s the same for sports writers. I tried to be there for all that I could be but there were some times where I’m covering a football game somewhere and my daughter is in a play or a dance recital. Or I’m covering a baseball game somewhere and my son is hitting his first little league home run and I’m missing it.”
Still, Tyler wanted to follow the family tradition.
“I didn’t realize at the time how much work went into it,” Tyler said. “And then when I got a little bit older, he started taking me along and I started meeting some of the people that all of my friends were talking about. Jackie Sherrill, Rick Stansbury, guys like that.”
Just like the other Cleveland writers, he ended up spending some time at the Hattiesburg American. After six years there, he moved on to work one year for the Jackson Free Press and then two years at the Madison County Journal. He’s been with The Clarion-Ledger for two years now and is the beat writer for Jackson State.
“I grew up reading Rick and reading Rusty Hampton and reading Mike Knobler and Orley Hood,” Tyler said. “So for me personally, it was just reading that and feeling like I wanted to contribute in some way to this ongoing story of Mississippi sports that we have. And once I learned the history with Ace and the career that he had, it just seemed like it was going to be a natural fit for me to just do this. Now those guys are way better than I am. But it kind of drives you to want to be better, be a better writer.”
“He grew up eating at the same table that with me and Bobby, another terrific storyteller,” Rick said. “There’s a lot of osmosis that happens there. And plus, in my family growing up, and that includes Bobby and Tyler’s family, words are important. We read to each other back then. My favorite part of both of my kids growing up was reading to them.”
That’s something you hear often from the Cleveland family. Their words to each other through the stories they have spun for years in the house have flowed to the fingers mashing typewriters or keyboards.
“I loved to make up stories and make momma laugh or whoever I was talking to and that probably for me was it,” Bobby said. “Rick and Ace both told me when I was trying to start writing that the best thing to do was sit down and try to type like I was sitting down with mom to tell her the story and that was probably the best thing I ever learned.”
“I think I see things that I’m doing now and the way I phrase something or the way I write that I see my dad was doing 65 years ago,” Rick said.
Now, Rick can see his and Ace’s plaques at the Hall of Fame. They are the third father-son duo to be enshrined in the Mississippi museum. Nineteen years ago, Rick gave the acceptance speech for his father’s posthumous induction.
“The one thing I can assure is this one is going to be a whole lot easier than that one was,” Rick said.
“The good thing about the event is that all of those speeches are pre-taped,” Tyler said. “So he won’t have to go up there and make a speech. That’s good because he would melt into a pile of blubbery mess because he’s a big softy. He won’t admit it but he is. His spot will be there right next to my grandfather and I’m sure that’s something he’s always thought about in the back of his mind but would never tell you,” Tyler said.
So the video fills two large screens in front of a packed ballroom at the Jackson Convention Center. Rick’s family and some of his friends are seated at a table a few feet from the stage.
Rick stares straight at you in his glasses. For four minutes and 55 seconds, he details his upbringing, the legends he’s covered and his love for storytelling.
But a majority of it is focused, of course, on his family. And that’s what he closed with.
“I grew up going to games with my daddy and my brother,” Rick said, starting to choke up. “And I’ve grown old going to games for a living with my son.”
His eyebrows raise a little. His lip slightly quivers.
“For my money, it just doesn’t get any better than that.”
Not quite a blubbery mess. But he did end up telling you.