Cleman's Husky career has been a roller coaster ride, to say the least. He entered the University of Washington football program in 1998 out of the small town of Oroville, Washington. Teaming that season with fellow freshman, Willie Hurst, the duo took their lumps but each saw extensive action. Cleman finished with 62 carries for 237 yards, including the team's longest rush of the season, a 22-yard touchdown scamper toward the lake at Husky Stadium versus UCLA.
After the ride to the summit in his first year, the roller coaster plummeted back down to earth a year later. While Cleman was looking to build on his impressionable freshman campaign, he instead suffered a collapsed lung and broken rib midway through the season versus Arizona State. He would never return, missing the final four games.
Then came the 2000 season. Maurice Shaw, the team's "thumper" in the backfield in previous seasons, unexpectedly bypassed his senior season and retired due to chronic back problems. That left Cleman, Hurst, and freshman Rich Alexis as the trio remaining to man the tailback position. With Cleman somewhat off the Husky radar because of his forgettable '99 season, he stepped up his game and was instrumental in the ground game that allowed the Huskies to get to the Rose Bowl for the first time in a decade. Though carrying the ball only 48 times, the junior averaged 5.1 yards per rush and provided much-needed depth in the backfield and a threat as a receiver. He saw time as a fullback in two games as well and did a great job despite being undersized.
On Washington's first offensive possession in Granddaddy of them all on January 1, 2001, it was Cleman who took the option from Marques Tuiasosopo and danced into the right corner of the end zone. He was back on top.
Heading into his senior season in 2001, Cleman felt all the pieces were in place for a special season. He envisioned himself going out with glory with the guys he came into the program with – the Willie Hursts, the Todd Elstroms, and the Kyle Benns. He worked hard all spring and summer, anxious to leave it all on the field in his final season with the Purple and the Gold. But in the second game of the season against Idaho, all those dreams were destroyed. A broken collarbone ended his season, another setback in the career of #29.
"It was extremely frustrating," said Cleman of the 2001 season. "I worked my butt off and was excited for my last year. I was going to go out with a great group of guys – the class of '97 and '98. I was excited. We were going to do some magical things, and then in the second game my injury crushed everything I had worked for."
That left the 22-year-old wondering what he wanted to do with his future. Since he had yet to redshirt, he had always envisioned himself graduating in 2002. But having suffered the collarbone fracture in just the second game of the season – it was not only available, it was a reality. After the Idaho game he sat out the remainder of the season in hopes of being granted a medical redshirt.
"My only question was if I could come back," he explained.
And since the injury happened so early in the season, prior to conference play, Cleman will be back in 2002 barring any unforeseen holdups with the NCAA.
With Hurst now gone, having left his mark on the program with an unforgettable senior campaign, Braxton knows it's going to be up to him to step up and fill the shoes that his old friend occupied a season ago.
Cleman admits that it's weird going to practices these days without Hurst there along with him.
"It is a different story," he said. "You don't see that #1 or #8 out there (the two numbers that Willie wore in his days at the UW). It's different coming out here and not seeing his smile and his leadership."
"He moved on and will hopefully be able to play at the next level so we can watch him there. He did a lot of good things for this program and he's going to be greatly missed; now we've got to move on without him."
And if this spring is any indication, the tailback position should shake out just fine even without Hurst's presence.
"Rich (Alexis) and I have been trading time at the one and it feels good," said Cleman. "I've learned, I've improved, I'm a lot stronger, and I'm going to have fun this year."
Alexis and Cleman will likely battle it out for the starting job leading up to the season opener on August 31 at Michigan, while sophomore Chris Singleton and freshmen Kenny James and Shelton Sampson enter the program with high credentials.
Through all the frustration and disappointment of a year ago, Cleman says that he was still able to take some positives from the negative situation.
"My injury allowed me to watch all the leadership between Kyle (Benn), Willie (Hurst), Todd Elstrom and all the other guys that took control of the game," he said. "I was able to build off that and learn from it. I feel like I'm one of the guys here now who've got to step it up along with seniors like Paul (Arnold, (Elliott) Zajac, and Jafar (Williams). We've got to step up and help these young guys out."
One thing that Cleman hopes to do is go out with a bang, not just for himself, but also for the guys last year who lost in their final game as Huskies.
"After the Holiday Bowl loss to Texas, the redshirt seniors - Wilbur (Hooks), Ben Mahdavi, and myself - all huddled around in the locker room and talked about how that was our class and how they just left us," Cleman said. "We talked about how they didn't go out on top, and about how we've got to come out next year and pick it up for them as well as ourselves."
Cleman, perhaps more than anyone else on the team, knows from personal experience not to take anything for granted. His time spent in Seattle as a Husky has been about as up and down as any athlete to come before him. Now, with a clean bill of health, the future again looks bright for the veteran from Oroville.
"It's great to be back out here again playing with the guys," he said after a scrimmage last Saturday. "I'm taking it all in, and enjoying every minute of it."
As you should Braxton. You earned it.