The only person who wanted Tyrie Cleveland to score more than the senior receiver himself was Josh Hammond…and the rest of his teammates on the sideline…and the 89,000+ in attendance on a cold November night in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Cleveland took a kickoff at the four-yard line and jetted between the hashes for a return that began with a head full of steam. He had a lane and a jet pack and on senior night for the fan favorite, the entire stadium collectively and audibly inhaled a breath of anticipation.
With just under five minutes remaining in the 3rd quarter, the No. 11 Florida Gators were leading rivals Florida State by 20, a score slightly more respectable due to a Seminoles touchdown that had just came as one bright spot in a game largely dominated by Dan Mullen’s squad. This game was going to be won by Florida before opening kickoff and as such a kickoff return touchdown from Cleveland wasn’t necessary. But man was it wished for.
"I wanted Tyrie to score the kick return. That was probably my favorite moment, I wanted him to score that so bad,” admitted fellow senior receiver Josh Hammond.
The Noles kicker, Parker Grothaus, dove at the 44-yard line and tripped up Cleveland, ending the dream and causing one of the loudest reactions from The Swamp on a night where the raucous stadium lived up to its reputation.
The story of Tyrie Cleveland as a Florida Gator is coming to a close and everyone involved wanted that moment, just one last chance at home to celebrate with a man who embodied the selfless attitude of a vital teammate. In true style from the guy who blocked a South Carolina player for 75-yards so Dameon Pierce could score a touchdown and the first to be seen celebrating scores with his teammates, his favorite moments involved everyone but himself.
“It wasn’t for me, it was for my teammates. Seeing those guys back there make plays and everybody just laughing on the sidelines, having a good time, doing the right job so nothing about me, it just my teammates.
“All the smiles on my coaches and teammates' faces. Just seeing the fans out there going crazy for us. I can't even describe it. This place is great.”
“This place” has in fact been great for Cleveland at times. It’s brought heartbreak at times and it’s even kicked him down once or twice. But it’s also been what gave him a platform and an outlet.
It’s what saved him.
Cleveland is a Jacksonville native but moved to Houston, Texas in middle school. For Tyrie to come back to Florida and play for the Gators was more than a dream; it was a lifeline.
“Where we come from, not a lot of people make it out. There's bad influences or people just trying to lead you down the wrong road. I took a different route…
“Just being able just too, over the past four years, just live out my dream, play for my favorite team growing up, it’s a blessing. I’m grateful.”
As a recruit from Westfield High School in Houston, Cleveland was ranked as the 3rd best wide receiver in the country by both 24/7 and ESPN. His commitment helped raise Florida’s class that year to 12th.
His freshman season in Gainesville went from the lowest low’s with a BB-gun incident—to the highest of highs thanks to a 98-yard touchdown pass from Austin Appleby in route to a win over LSU. It became the longest play by an opposing team in Tigers Stadium. The latter fact especially ironic considering the 2016 game was meant to be played in Gainesville but was moved due to Hurricane Matthew.
One year later it was another storm that was defining Cleveland’s day. Tropical Storm Harvey hammered Houston and Cleveland admitted at the time he felt helpless in Gainesville, unable to help his family with much more than a phone call.
“[I’m] very worried,” he said at the time.
“Being out here, [I] can’t do nothing about it…I just kept them in my prayers. I’m going to continue to keep them in my prayers.”
And much like his freshman year, it was another record setting play from Tyrie that brought a smile back to his face and defined Florida’s season. The “Heave to Cleve”, a 63-yard bomb from Feleipe Franks to Cleveland in the endzone as the clock expired, defeated Tennessee 26-20. It was the only time Florida has beat an opponent with a touchdown on the final play of regulation.
Before the final offensive drive, Cleveland told Hammond and safety Marcell Harris that he was “fixing to win the game for us.” Then, he did it.
“The safety came down, so I took the middle of the field. And I just ran, ran and just ran, ran up under it.
“As a little kid, you always think about just having like kids growing up talking about the play and what happened that day. As a college athlete playing my position, a lot of guys just want to score and make a lot of plays and make a lot of plays for the team. I was grateful and blessed to be put in position to make a game-winning catch.
“It was surreal. It was a blessing first and foremost. Just making that play, it left a mark on my legacy, and I’m blessed to be able – years down the road, people can talk about it. So, I’m blessed to have that.”
Cleveland wants to do more than just provide the memories that kids remember though. He wants to help those behind him create their own. As a child himself, it was a piece Tyrie knew was missing from his life and vowed to change the narrative under his own power.
"I really didn’t get inspired so I try to take advantage of the position I’m in now. Hopefully a couple of years from now I can continue to help the kids,” he said in the fall of 2018.
“As an athlete kids look up to you. It’s your job to try to do what’s right on and off the field. Over the couple of years, I’ve been trying to stay focus. Off the field trying to keep my nose clean. Giving back I’ve always liked that and I always had a passion for that since I was little, just giving back. Hopefully one day I can build me a center for kids just too give back.”
Saturday night didn’t feature the kick return touchdown that an entire stadium was praying for to accompany the receivers four catches for 44 yards. That doesn’t mean Tyrie Cleveland didn’t have his last big moment in The Swamp though. It just came after the clock ticked down and the Gators had won 40-17, defeating the Noles for the first time at home since 2009.
Most of the the Gators team had filed back into the locker room. A handful of seniors remained on the field, not ready to leave the place that had shaped them. Tyrie Cleveland wasn’t ready to leave the place that saved him.
Cleveland had arrived at the stadium that day, admittedly with tears in his eyes. Before taking the field, he looked at a picture of his brother, who he lost in high school, and said he knew was looking down on him for the final regular season game.
And when it was time to say goodbye, he knelt in the endzone, in the same spot he caught that game winning touchdown against Tennessee, and took one last moment.
He thought back to what he would tell that 17-year old kid who committed to Florida—“No matter what, no matter how hard it gets, no matter how much adversity hits you, just stay true to yourself. Have faith and keep working hard because one day it's going to be your time”—which is a simple message that carries enough weight to become the bedrock of who he is today and the impact he had on shaping this program.
And he thought back on the legacy he hoped to leave.
“The hard-worker. Every Saturday, come out and give it my all, you know. Coming in as a freshman, I always had that dream just to leave my mark in some type of way. I hope I did that.”
He thought back over coaching changes and hurricane games and eclectic memories that lay dormant until mentioned and then zap you with the energy they still carry. Tyrie Cleveland found his way through all of that and more. He had no choice but to; and in the process, he taught those around him how to do the same.
So on Saturday night, the receiver got his last big moment in The Swamp. To an empty stadium he said thank you. It was mutual. For as much as this place saved Tyrie Cleveland, Tyrie Cleveland helped save the Florida Gators.