There are markings on the wall where Cleveland would stand and his mother would take a pencil and ruler to line the top of his head. One reads: Ben 6′ 2″ — he was 13.
You learn quickly that nothing has ever been too big for Cleveland, the Paul Bunyan of the Deep South whose sprawling beard is as enormous as his stories.
Growing up, it was easy to remember his shoe size because it matched his age through much of his teenage years. His cowboy boots these days are size 17, extra wide.
At the dinner table, he once ate a half-dozen double cheeseburgers in one sitting. As a teenager, he was known to down two whole pizzas during the few hours after football practice and before going to bed.
When he was fishing at 11 years old, Cleveland caught an 85-pound stingray at Myrtle Beach. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt on the pier, so he cut the line and let it swim away.
As a high school freshman, Cleveland was pulled off to the side by his coach, who told him Florida had offered him a scholarship. Cleveland had never even watched a college football game because the fall is hunting season.
Now, with Cleveland having wrapped up his first NFL minicamp, the notion of being considered the favorite to start at left guard in front of Lamar Jackson could become overwhelming. But he adheres to a philosophy that’s not surprising for someone nicknamed Big Country.
“I am a firm believer that if you sit here and try to control every little bitty aspect of everything that could possibly happen, that’s how you create stress, and everything just piles on top of one another,” Cleveland said in his Southern drawl. “I’m just going to show up and do everything in my power to make sure that it gets done the right way. That’s all that I can control, so that’s really all that I can focus on and worry about.”
No one who ever went against Cleveland would describe him as laid-back. While playing under-14 baseball, he knocked out the catcher in a home-plate collision. Cleveland was thrown out of the tournament.
It was around that time when Cleveland figured he wasn’t going to follow the same path as his older brother, Ryan, who finished in the top 10 in career home runs at Georgia Southern.
“We really grew up as a baseball family,” his father, Derek, said. “Both the boys played football at an early age, but it was more of a thing just to keep them in shape for baseball season. That was our whole mindset, and then Ben just kept getting a little bigger and a little stronger. It was just meant to be.”
Cleveland was raised in a small northeast Georgia town that is known more for a waterfall — it’s 28 feet higher than Niagara Falls — than for producing professional athletes. The last player from the town before Cleveland to get selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft was five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Pat Swilling in 1986.
Cleveland’s father is a production manager for a company that makes bathroom partitions. His mother, Andrea, is a receptionist at a doctor’s office.
By the time Cleveland was 2, his father had him outdoors, learning how to fish and hunt. His sons weren’t going to be spending hours playing Madden.
“To me, just sitting around playing video games is a waste of time,” Derek said. “When they had time on their hands, I wanted them to be outside and enjoying what God gave them rather than sitting in front of a television or whatever those little hand-held gizmos they used to have.”
When it comes to bragging rights, Ben is the best at duck hunting. His father is tops at deer hunting. Fishing is considered a toss-up.
Last year, Ben shot his biggest deer at a buddy’s farm. He believes it was a 10-point buck and has sent it to a taxidermist.
“I guess I’m just gonna throw him on the wall and find a pretty picture to put beside him, I reckon,” Cleveland said.
Hunting became more than bonding time for the Cleveland family. With two growing boys, they had to buy five gallons of milk and three loaves of bread each week. There were times when the grocery bill totaled $400 or $500.
“It was crazy,” Derek said. “And that’s one reason why we hunted and fished the way we did. It was to keep the freezer full and try to supplement some of the costs somewhere else, because it got expensive.”
Strength and agility
Cleveland knows how to make an immediate impact, becoming the first freshman in more than three decades to start on the offensive line at Stephens County High School. He averaged six pancake blocks a game in his first season and increased that to double digits by his sophomore year.
But his favorite play came on defense. As a junior, he turned a strip sack into a 25-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Cleveland picked up the ball and hurdled the quarterback before reaching the end zone for the late-game score.
“I went and laid down on the sideline,” Cleveland said. “I told Coach, ‘I’m done.’ I just sat on the sideline and watched the rest of the game from that one.”
At the University of Georgia, Cleveland not only drove defensive linemen off the ball in the running game, but he was also an outstanding pass protector. He allowed a total of four pressures on 473 blocks over the past two seasons (22 games), the best success rate (99.2%) by a right guard in the SEC, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Few linemen were more disciplined than Cleveland, who didn’t commit a penalty in 520 snaps last season.
At 6-foot-6, 357 pounds, Cleveland has the strength to match his size. In the weight room, he can squat 700 pounds, and his personal best in the bench press is 545 pounds. The Georgia strength coach posted a video on Twitter of Cleveland doing six reps of 160-pound dumbbell presses with one arm.
What really wowed scouts was his speed. A shirtless Cleveland ran the 40-yard dash in 4.97 seconds, which is the type of movement Baltimore needs when its guards pull and run zone-scheme blocks.
“I think we have a pretty well-defined and clear understanding of what we want to be on offense. He fits that,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s a big, strong, powerful guy that likes to rough people up, and that’s how we want to play.”
Wait is over
In this year’s NFL draft, the Ravens didn’t have a second-round pick. So Baltimore had to wait 62 picks on Day 2 — a span of 4 hours, 11 minutes — before selecting Cleveland.
The reality was the Ravens had been waiting much longer than that to grab him.
“John has been talking about Cleveland for like two months, really,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said after using the No. 94 overall pick on Cleveland. “So it was a relief for me to actually see him available when we picked. This was John’s pick.”
Harbaugh chimed in, saying, “I’m off your back now.”
Harbaugh acknowledged that he had wanted DeCosta to trade up to make sure the team got Cleveland.
“Ben was a guy who we really, really wanted to get,” Harbaugh said. “I know I was being a little bit of a nervous Nellie there for a bit, [but] we held tight and we got our guy.”
The fan club for Cleveland has grown. When the Ravens posted a video of Cleveland at rookie minicamp, former WWE champion Braun Strowman tweeted: “You fam?”
Cleveland responded: “We got separated somewhere around birth I’m pretty sure.”
Cleveland is now battling Tyre Phillips and Ben Powers for Baltimore’s starting left guard job. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman raved about Cleveland’s physical presence inside and how he will help the Ravens play “big-boy ball up front.”
“He was the best run-blocker in the draft this year,” Roman said. “We were able to draft him when we were, which is unbelievable. We’re really excited about developing Ben into an absolute road-grading offensive guard.”
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