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Originally published Saturday, November 9, 2013 at 8:05 PM

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Former Husky Cam Cleeland remembers his NFL hazing

The Richie Incognito case in Miami is a reminder of what former Washington tight end Cam Cleeland went through as a rookie. In 1998, with the Saints, he suffered serious injuries in a hazing.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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On Sunday afternoons this year (and Monday and Thursday nights), the NFL has in many ways never been better.

Statistically, the league is as competitive as at any time in its history. The NFL reported this week that 69 percent of games have been within seven points in the fourth quarter, the highest rate at this stage of any season.

And fans are taking it all in with an increasing fervor. The league also reported a few days ago that NFL games account for the 18 most-watched TV programs since the regular season began Sept. 5.

The rest of the week, though, could use a little improving.

A year that has already brought a murder investigation involving one of the league’s bright young stars and continuing revelations regarding the longterm impacts of head trauma yielded its most bizarre off-field controversy yet this week — the increasingly sordid Miami Dolphins hazing story.

It’s enough to make you feel guilty enjoying the games so much.

The story compelled me to reach out to former Washington Huskies tight end Cam Cleeland, who played seven seasons in the NFL.

Cleeland found himself back in a somewhat uncomfortable spotlight this week, doing interviews with reporters who wanted his reaction to the hazing scandal.

It was Cleeland, remember, who was at the center of one of the NFL’s other infamous hazing scandals when he was a rookie in New Orleans in 1998. Cleeland was among a group that as part of a team hazing ritual was forced to walk down a hallway with a pillow covering their heads and forced to endure punishment from teammates. Cleeland was hit with a sock full of coins that broke his eye socket and nose, and almost caused him to lose vision in his eye.

“Forty times worse than what happened in Miami,’’ Cleeland said this week.

Cleeland also recalled that the NFL’s reaction was to try to sweep it under the rug as quickly as possible.

“I can’t imagine if what I went through happened now,’’ he said. “They washed it under the bridge back then. The NFL investigation lasted one day.’’

Cleeland recovered well enough to start all 16 games that season, and played in 89 games from 1998 to 2005 with the Saints, Patriots and Rams.

By chance, in his last year in St. Louis, one of his teammates was then-rookie lineman Richie Incognito, now at the center of the allegations in Miami that he verbally harassed and hazed fellow lineman Jonathan Martin.

Cleeland said he wasn’t surprised to hear of Incognito’s involvement “just knowing his personality and how much it clashed with our locker room in St. Louis. He was just so ostracized and didn’t fit in.’’

Cleeland has also been at the center of the continuing debate over the longterm impacts of head trauma. In 2010, he went public with his post-career health issues related to concussions suffered during his playing days. He had eight that were diagnosed and likely others that were not and has had problems with memory loss and sleeping.

He also, he said, has “shown early signs of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in my brain.’’

Following strict health and exercise regimens the past few years, including losing about 40 pounds, has helped, and he says that today, at age 38, “I feel better than I have’’ in years.

Still, he doesn’t know what the future might bring and says, “I just try to live each day, enjoy each day.’’

He does so, he says, with no regrets.

“I would do it all over again,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t have done anything if it wasn’t for football. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know what I would be doing.’’

Football led him to UW, where he met his wife, former Husky softball player Mindy Williams. They have three kids and are in the midst of moving to Williams’ native Vancouver.

The family includes boys, ages 9 and 7, and Cleeland says their lives revolve around football. They cheer like crazy for UW and the Seahawks, play in fantasy-football leagues and often spend family time playing football video games.

His sons want to play football as soon as they can. Cleeland, though, wants them to wait until they are in high school to lessen the number of hits they take. From there, it’s up to them.

Cleeland says his hope is that with each new revelation of a health problem or off-field issues the NFL learns a little about how to better handle its business.

Hazing, he said, could be quelled quickly with clearly defined guidelines and consequences. And the 2011 labor agreement that put limits on padded practices and cut training camp two-a-days should help the players of today avoid some of the challenges faced by players of past generations.

Fans, Cleeland said, have a right to know everything about the NFL, warts and all.

“They pay our salaries,’’ Cleeland said. “They deserve to understand that ‘this is what you are getting.’ ’’

If on Sunday afternoons, though, fans want to set that aside and cheer their hearts out, Cleeland gets that, too.

“My heart still pounds like there is no tomorrow every Husky weekend,’’ he said. “I love the game, but there are things I disagree with, just like anyone. But I always tell people that this is the greatest game ever. But we are evolving — we are evolving as a culture and a game. And as these things come to light and we work through them, it’s only going to get better.’’

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