During the toughest of weeks, NH/TV senior shines on, off mat
I remember the day like it was yesterday even though the story I’m about to write occurred in August 2010.
Mason Cleveland was a fourth-grader playing flag football, and I was his coach. He had scored three touchdowns in the first half of a game, and at halftime, I made the decision to move him to the line so that other kids could carry the football
About halfway through the second half, Mason looked up at me and asked, “Am I going to play line the rest of the game?”
I replied, “Yep.”
“How am I going to score my fourth touchdown?”
I was wrong, for a few minutes later, Cleveland picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown. As he ran by me, he flashed four fingers so only I could see them, and I couldn’t help but laugh.
In the years since then, I’ve watched Mason Cleveland from many different vantage points — as his coach, as a reporter and as the father of one of his teammates — and I have often thought back to that day at Mikkelson Park.
And it still makes me smile.
In some ways, he’s a tough nut to crack. Getting a laugh out of Mason isn’t always the easiest thing, and there are those who might think he’s surly at times, yet in many ways, he’s always been one of my “favorites” because I had a chance to coach him when he was just a little kid.
One summer night in Denver, he was struggling with his pitching, and I went out for a little “mound visit,” a task his dad usually handled.
He asked me “why didn’t my dad come out?” I said something like “we’re going to save the fireworks for the Fourth of July,” and I got that little mischievous grin that I still love seeing on his face.
So last week, it pained me — even worried me — to see the hurt on his face as we talked the morning after Cleveland and several of his football teammates gathered for an academic all-state picture.
To say Cleveland was going through an excruciating week would not be doing excruciating justice.
Four days earlier, Caleb Ulrichs passed away at the age of 18 due to complications from leukemia. Cleveland’s mother, Heather, and Caleb’s mom, Tori, are cousins, which made Mason and Caleb first cousins once removed or at least that’s what the internet told me. But make no mistake about it, they were family.
“It’s just tough, it’s hard to put in perspective,” Mason said. “To know what their family, our family, was going through, I’m not going to lie, I was really down. To know you can’t help someone who has been battling so hard for so long … that’s hard.”
On Wednesday night, Cleveland and his family attended Caleb’s visitation, one in which hundreds of people from all over Iowa and beyond came to support Ulrichs’ parents and his younger brother, Keegan.
On Thursday morning, the Clevelands returned to Nashua for a funeral service that literally filled Nashua-Plainfield High School’s gymnasium, and that night, Cleveland and his New Hampton/Turkey Valley wrestling teammates took to the mat for a triangular against Decorah and Osage.
The Chickasaws wore “Calebstrong” t-shirts, raised more than $1,200 for the Ulrichs family and celebrated Senior Parents Night.
Mason received a forfeit in the Chickasaws’ win over Decorah and walked with his parents, Wes and Heather, before the Osage dual and then prepared for what he felt was a revenge match.
Last month at the Battle of Waterloo, Cleveland was pinned by the Green Devils’ Averee Abben, and although New Hampton/Turkey Valley had won that dual, Cleveland was, well, sorry for the language, pissed.
“I looked like absolute dog crap,” he said when asked about that performance in Waterloo. “I was just really embarrassed, and I knew I had a rematch so yeah, I was looking forward to it.”
And he wrestled like it, too — jumping out to a 4-0 lead — and then finishing off Abben with a pin in the match’s final minute.
I missed the meet because of some bug that dang near knocked me out for 12 straight hours, but on Friday, I left a text for Mason, asking him to give me a call.
A few minutes later, the phone rang and we chatted for 20 minutes, which with Mason is like a lifetime.
We talked about what has been at times an up-and-down wrestling season, joked about that flag football story and then I asked him about wrestling on the night after attending Caleb’s funeral.
“I didn’t know where I’d be at,” he said. “Seriously, I really didn’t know. I mean I was really down, but to feel that support my teammates had for me and to see that support that our school had for Caleb’s family, it was probably the best thing for me to just be able to go out there and wrestle.”
I asked him what he had learned from the short, remarkable life of Caleb Ulrichs, and although we were talking on the phone, I swear I could see that unmistakable Mason smile — that little grin that makes it seem like Mason’s up to something.
“He was just Caleb,” Cleveland said. “He was his own man, and he didn’t really care what anyone else thought; if he wanted do something, he was going to do it. He was the first-ever male cheerleader at his school, and maybe some people thought that was weird, but he didn’t care. He enjoyed doing it and that’s cool. Anything he did, he gave it everything he had.”
For a moment, the phone line went quiet.
“That’s how I’m going to remember him, and I hope that’s the lesson he taught me that I’ll never forget.”
Me too, Mason, me too.
But as we said our goodbyes, I knew one thing for sure. Even though he had endured one of the toughest weeks of his 18-year-old life, Mason Cleveland was going to be OK, and it wasn’t because he got his revenge win, it was because of the words he so eloquently spoke.