There is an unofficial award tied to the NCAA Wrestling Championships called the “Road Warrior Award.”
This typically goes to an individual who loses in the first round, but has the resiliency to battle through the backdraw and earn All-American honors.
If this had been around in 2008, one would look no further than Tullahoma native and University of Tennessee Chattanooga’s Cody Cleveland as the perfect recipient. In fact, “warrior” is a great way to describe the 2008 All-American’s entire career at UTC.
Cleveland battled injuries in an impressive six-year journey that included ties to four different head coaches. Despite the changes and obstacles, he is still one of the greatest to put on a Power-C singlet, and is now a member of the UTC Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2019.
Recruited by former head coach Terry Brands, Cleveland was first coached by Joe Seay. He then had three years with Chris Bono, and the last two under Heath Eslinger.
Cleveland won three Southern Conference individual titles in his career and is one of only two Mocs to win SoCon Wrestler of the Year and the Most Outstanding Wrestler at the SoCon Championships in the same season.
“The biggest thing was that I wanted to wrestle Division I, and at the time when I was a senior in high school, Terry Brands was the coach,” Cleveland said. “Being in Chattanooga at McCallie, I wanted to wrestle for him. Right after I signed, he actually left to go to the Olympic Training Center, but just what Brands was doing and the direction that the program was heading was the biggest reason I wanted to go there.”
Cleveland had shoulder surgery and redshirted the 2005-06 season under Seay, who was replaced by Bono for the 2006-07 campaign. Cleveland went 4-7 that year, but exploded as a redshirt sophomore with a 29-9 record and his first SoCon title at 141 pounds in 2007-08.
He entered the 2008 NCAA Tournament as the 10th seed, matched up against Army’s Matthew Kyler. That first match did not go as planned, with Cleveland losing 5-2.
That put him in the backdraw against Harvard’s Corey Jantzen. He won that one 3-0, but then had to face Oklahoma’s Zach Bailey, who had been nationally ranked during the year. Cleveland went up big, but had to hold off a late charge to win 15-13.
Next up was a 5-0 win over Liberty’s Tim Hamer, setting up a blood-round match against the No. 3-seed Kellen Russell from Michigan.
“The mindset that I remember having is just that there is no reason to hold onto anything because you lose one more time and then you’re out, so just let it fly,” recalled Cleveland. “That was the biggest thing, especially in the Round of 12 match. He won BIG 10s that year, and I watched him wrestle on the BIG 10 network.”
Cleveland’s mindset of just letting it fly, along with his “warrior” mentality, allowed him to do some things against Russell he had not done before. One of those was to hit a Standing Peterson that would be the difference in the 7-6 win.
As his hand was raised, Cleveland felt a sense of accomplishment that very few get to experience. No matter what happened the rest of the way, he was now the ninth Division I Wrestling All-American in UTC history.
“For me, it was surreal,” said Cleveland. “Being at McCallie, Gordon Connell used to take me to Nationals every year to film, so I had been on the floor multiple times leading into that tournament. I had seen people accomplish that a lot, but it was a really cool feeling for me because three or four of my high school coaches were literally mat-side watching me.
“Of course Bono and Nate Gallick were right there coaching me, so it was just a really cool feeling to immediately high five and hug those guys, knowing that I had accomplished part of my goal. Obviously I wanted to be a National Champion, but being an All-American was huge.”
Cleveland’s success didn’t stop there. He went on to dominate the Southern Conference in 2009, posting a 21-8 record that included sweeping all of the league’s postseason honors. He was undefeated and ranked in the top-5 in 2009-10 when a knee injury ended his season early.
The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility, but those same knee problems kept him out for most of the first half of the season. He was able to return and win another SoCon Championship to close out a stellar career.
Cleveland’s sense of accomplishment recently returned with the call from UTC Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Mark Wharton informing him of his pending induction.
“It was exciting,” he added. “I didn’t know when or if it was going to happen, but then I got that call it was kind of cool realizing that I was getting in the Hall of Fame. Especially when you look at some of the other people in there.
“Being in the same Hall of Fame as T.O. [Terrell Owens] is cool.”
When he reflects on his career, Cleveland makes no excuses. He doesn’t talk about the injuries or the coaching changes. In a true “warrior” fashion, he constantly gives credit to those coaches that helped him along the way.
“It may have been a little frustrating at the time having all of the different personalities and coaching styles to adapt to,” continued Cleveland. “But I had a good relationship with the staffs that came in. Bono and Nate helped me tremendously. Both those guys were still competing which was different at the time but it allowed me to practice with them, and not just learn from them coaching wise but get to see how they trained and the effort they put into it. It was a really unique opportunity.
“I also had a good relationship with Heath, and had known him since I was a little kid. [Assistant coach] Rocco Mansueto and I immediately developed a great relationship and [volunteer assistant] Mike Hatcher had been around a bunch too.”
Cleveland was equally as eager to point out his teammates that pushed him in the room every day.
“Being around the Keefe brothers, one of them was an All-American and the other one was very capable of being an All-American, and then having Matt Keller who was a two-time All-American to practice with was tremendous.
“Probably the biggest influence was Javier Maldanado. Even when I got too big to wrestle with him live every day, we were still drill partners and he was a huge asset and a huge reason that I was able to accomplish anything that I accomplished.
“Wrestling is hard and he was definitely a big mentor and definitely a big reason I was able to accomplish everything.”
Cleveland is now as assistant coach at The Citadel. Cleveland grew up in Tullahoma, but attended high school at McCallie. He returned to Tullahoma as the head wrestling coach in 2012, spending one season at helm of the Wildcats’ program.
The Class of 2019 UTC Athletics Hall of Fame Inductees and award winners will be honored at the annual Hall of Fame Banquet on Friday, at the Chattanooga Country Club. The banquet is open to the public, but seating is limited and reservations are required. The cost is $50 per person, which includes dinner. Submit payments and RSVP’s to the UTC Office of Alumni Affairs at (423) 425-4785. For more information, email Jayne-Holder@utc.edu.