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Today is September 28, 2022

For three generations the Cleveland family has been telling Mississippi’s sports stories

The 13-year-old boy sat at the kitchen table with a sheet of paper in the Underwood typewriter his daddy had bought him.
He had two lines typed:
By Rickey Cleveland
Hattiesburg American

By Tammy Ramsdell

For three generations the Cleveland family has been telling Mississippi’s sports stories

Tyler Cleveland, left, holds a photo of his grandfather Robert “Ace” Cleveland. Rick Cleveland, right, holds a photo of himself and brother Bobby Cleveland.

His daddy had driven him from Hattiesburg to his first assignment, a football game in Lucedale, and he had a deadline to make. 

About 20 minutes had passed when “Ace,” a semipro baseball-player-turned sports writer, came back to the kitchen to fix a drink and check on his son.

“I can’t get started,” said Rickey, who had decided at age 12 — when he “learned he couldn’t hit a curve ball and had no chance to play in the Major Leagues” — to do what his daddy did. 

What he heard next would be advice the most award-winning sports writer in Mississippi history, who turns 70 in October, still uses to this day.

“Well, if I was you, I would just start writing it like you would tell it to somebody.”

So, what would that advice look like for this story?

If ever there was a dynasty in sports writing, Mississippi’s Cleveland family is it. Since 1946, the Cleveland name has been on a byline from every nook and cranny of the state. And beyond.

 

Robert Hayes “Ace” Cleveland, a World War II veteran and Hattiesburg native, was inducted posthumously into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame for sports writing in 1998. He started his career as sports editor of the Hattiesburg American. (He told the editor, who was covering one of his games, that he could write better than the sports editor. It was vintage Ace, and it wasn’t long before he was offered the job.)

Later Ace did a stint at the Jackson Daily News before joining what is now The University of Southern Mississippi, where he was sports information director for 31 years. The press box at M.M. Roberts Stadium is named in his honor.

He and wife Carrie had two sons, Rick and Robert Hayes “Bobby” Jr. 

 

Rick Cleveland was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame for sports writing in 2017. He was the sports editor of the Hattiesburg American then spent nearly 33 years at The Clarion Ledger in Jackson. He spent four years at the helm of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum before joining the online news outlet Mississippi Today in 2016.

He has written four books and covered 25 Super Bowls, several Masters tournaments, the 1996 Olympic games, a couple of U.S. Opens, more bowl games than he can count, and the Mississippi State and Ole Miss College World Series championships.

His favorite event, though, remains the State 1A football championship. “Those games are often magical.”

He’s always wanted to cover the Kentucky Derby. Never has. 

He and wife Liz, who live in Jackson, have two children, Tyler, 36, and Annie, 33, a second-year law student at Tulane University.

One more thing of note. Rick didn’t always take his daddy’s advice. If he had, he never would have become a sports writer. Low pay. Grueling hours. Nights and weekends away from family. “Dad tried to talk me out of it.” 

 

Robert Hayes “Bobby” Cleveland Jr. worked offshore on oil rigs and as a bartender before starting to cover games while a student at USM. 

“I think he started writing mostly for beer money, but he was instantly good at it. He was a natural,” Rick said of his younger brother.

Bobby’s fishing and hunting expertise — he even met wife Pam at a bait shop — paired with a classic Cleveland family sense of humor made him a favorite among Clarion Ledger readers over the years. The award-winning writer later worked as a freelancer and then for the Ross Barnett Reservoir and Pearl River Valley Water Supply District.

When Bobby, 67, died from injuries suffered in an auto accident April 28, a petition was started to rename the reservoir in his honor. He had long advocated for a name change, given the reservoir’s namesake former Gov. Ross Barnett’s segregationist stance. On July 21, the Reservoir Board of Directors voted to change the name of Lakeshore Park to Bobby Cleveland Park at Lakeshore.

 

Tyler Cleveland, senior reporter and editor of the online site Scorebook Live, writes, edits and plans coverage that includes every high school in the state. He has worked for several papers, including the Hattiesburg American and The Clarion Ledger. Like the Clevelands before him, he earned his degree at USM.

A little over a year ago, he teamed up with his dad for a weekly podcast, “Crooked Letter Sports.” 

“It’s actually the first time we’ve ever worked together, which is cool,” Tyler said. 

They both bring a lot to the table. “I’ve done some radio work and know what will play on the air and what won’t, and he’s the encyclopedia of Mississippi sports knowledge,” Tyler said.

But if Tyler had listened to his dad, they wouldn’t be doing the podcast.

“I tried like hell to talk him out of it (journalism), because I could see what was happening to newspapers,” Rick said. “I had no more luck than my daddy did with Bobby and me.”

 

Archie Manning, Tim Floyd on the Clevelands

Both Archie Manning, who knows a thing or two about sons following in their father’s footsteps, and Tim Floyd, who coached several high-profile college basketball teams and followed Phil Jackson as the coach of the Chicago Bulls, call the contributions of the Clevelands immeasurable.

They have championed Mississippi sports at every level with a commitment to accuracy and fairness, a sense of compassion and an abundance of wit.

Ace was the sports information director at USM when Manning first met him.

He was a real “character,” Manning said, “a lot of fun.”

But it was his personal treatment of athletes that stays with him. “My first year, coming out of Ole Miss,” Manning said, brought a lot of attention from the media and fans as he entered training camp with the New Orleans Saints in Hattiesburg. “Ace took good care of me.” 

Over the years, Manning developed a deep respect for Rick, who wrote stories not only about him, but sons Peyton and Eli. “I cherish his friendship,” he said, describing Rick as a remarkable historian of Mississippi sports.

Floyd said Ace and wife Carrie were like “second parents to me growing up.” He and Rick have remained fast friends for more than 60 years. They met when Floyd’s dad Lee was basketball coach at USM. 

While Ace was the writer, Floyd said Carrie’s influence shouldn’t be underestimated. She was sensitive, he said, to how words affected people’s lives.

“Assassination,” Floyd said, has never been in the playbook for any of the Clevelands, calling it “a beautiful part of the legacy of the family.”

In fact, he said, he often sees Rick’s mother in his writing.

There’s a reason for that.

It’s his mother he often has in mind when he writes, Rick said.

“She was a huge sports fan, but she didn’t give a rat’s ass about the x’s and o’s. She was into it because of the people and the pageantry and the passion inherent in sports.”

 

Persevering through the changing landscape of journalism

Adam Ganucheau, editor-in-chief of Mississippi Today, said Rick’s writing inspired him to become a journalist. Now, the 30-year-old is Rick’s boss — and still learning from him. He also has high praise for Tyler. 

“High school sports is quite literally everything for so many Mississippians. He’s one of the few telling those important stories,” Ganucheau said. “It’s right up Cleveland alley.”

From typewriters to laptops, print to digital, and a massive number of layoffs along the way, the Clevelands have persevered through incredible change in journalism.

But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. 

When you’re part of a dynasty, it’s what you do. 

 

Tammy Ramsdell, an award-winning reporter and editor, has been writing for more than 40 years. The South Dakota native, who’s learned to like grits and sweet tea, lives in Jackson.

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