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Old 11-08-2013   #253
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Default For Cam Cleeland, hazing incident altered his NFL career and life

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

Cam Cleeland was a New Orleans Saints rookie 15 years ago when he nearly lost vision in an eye after being hit with a bag full of coins. He has strong feelings on Miami's Richie Incognito.

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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...
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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...
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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."
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