FORT MEADE, Fla. — No one asked Cleveland Reed to walk to the front of Acts Praise & Worship Center on May 15, 2010. Two weeks earlier, Freddie Solomon Jr., Reed’s younger brother, died in his sleep of respiratory failure. Freddie was only 4; his big brother was 11.
A stutter always made Reed shy to speak in public. Even now as a freshman offensive lineman for Miami, Reed tends to be quiet.
No one expected Reed to give a eulogy for his late brother that difficult morning. Reed’s family — Shaconda Nelson and her four sons — was extremely close. A rare breathing condition, central hypoventilation syndrome, left Freddie attached to a ventilator for almost his entire life. They all looked out for one another and Reed felt responsible for his younger brother.
Nelson still remembers the speech Reed gave as a shy 11-year-old.
“This is my brother. This is my heart,” he said. “God took you home. I know you’re in a better place, where you don’t have to suffer no more.
“I’m going to do everything to make our dreams real and I’m going to look out for momma.”
Nelson saw Reed change the day his brother died. As the oldest brother in a household without a father, Reed always felt as if he had to be the man of the house. Freddie’s death was a breaking point. Now Reed knew he had no choice. He had to make his football dreams come true.
In December, they finally did. Reed signed with Miami during the early signing period. Even playing in a small town in Polk County, Reed became one of the most coveted guards in the country and a prize in the Hurricanes’ Class of 2018. He arrived in Coral Gables, Fla., in May to join a Miami team in desperate need of help along the offensive line.
Contributing as a freshman offensive lineman is never easy in a conference such as the ACC. Still, Freddie’s memory provides the reason he needs to be successful.
“I started to take football serious,” Reed told DieHards. “This is my way out. I’ve got to do it.”
‘A sense of urgency’
Reed heard all about Malik Barrow. He heard about the nasty defensive lineman destined for Ohio State, with offers from schools across the country. As a freshman, Reed’s first couple of high school games had gone well, though. He wasn’t worried about the 4-star defensive tackle.
Reed started at left tackle from Day 1 at Fort Meade High School. He helped power Fort Meade to a 2-0 start heading into a Week 3 game against Barrow and Tampa (Fla.) Catholic High School.
Reed lined up across from the touted prospect, who tried to push through the young offensive lineman. For one play, Reed stuck with him and Fort Meade’s offense operated smoothly. Reed was feeling good.
“This is cake,” Reed remembers saying as he walked back to the line. He talked a little trash. Barrow, who now plays for Ohio State, didn’t even dignify a response.
“He ain’t argue with me, he ain’t talk,” Reed told DieHards. “He just looked at me like this and then the next play he hit me with a move that was so fast, so quick, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get with it.'”
Reed was never just a big body thrown into his role because of his size. The 4-star guard knew how to use his size well from a young age. Football is his first passion, but he spent the offseason on the hardwood. Reed played his entire childhood with the Lakeland (Fla.) Fire, an AAU basketball team in Polk County, and stuck with the sport all the way through his senior year at Fort Meade.
His size and footwork made him an offensive lineman without any obvious weaknesses. Defensive ends figured they could use speed to get by him, but Reed spent most of his high school years working on his drops and pass sets. As Reed played his senior year at 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds, no edge rusher ever dared to try to overpower the lineman.
Reed never expected a defensive lineman to work him the way Barrow did. No one ever did again. It had been more than four years since Freddie died, and Reed’s first taste of failure made him hungrier to do what his brother never could.
“He was like, ‘I ain’t going to let anybody ever do that. I’m going to win every matchup I have and I want to prove I’m good at what I do,'” Fort Meade coach Jemalle Cornelius said. “Now it’s more of a sense of urgency. Just because I’m big doesn’t mean I’m going to dominate everybody.”
Reed’s freshman season ended Nov. 7, 2014, with a meaningless win against Lakeland’s Tenoroc High School. A few days later, he sought out Andre Camp, a local pastor and jack-of-all-trades in the Fort Meade athletics world.
Camp helps coach the football and boys basketball teams at Fort Meade. This spring, he served as the boys’ weightlifting coach for the first time. He also runs a gym in the area and works as a personal trainer for athletes.
At his size, Reed knew he needed Camp’s help. He finished his final weightlifting season at 350 pounds — weight he wears well. If it weren’t for his constant workouts with Camp, Reed would have been at risk of ballooning even bigger.
“I think the thing he wanted,” Cornelius said, “was to not be known for just being big.”
Reed spent most of his time as a three-sport athlete at Fort Meade. Of course, he was a star lineman, but he also stuck with basketball all four years and competed in weightlifting.
Five days a week, Reed had something to do — usually multiple activities. He’d practice with whatever sport was in season and lift weights with the football team. Reed knew he needed to do more, though. Camp only has one rule for his trainees: Show up on time and they can work out with him for free. Every day at 5 p.m., Reed was knocking on the door of The Sweat Box.
He started out by coming five days a week, after all his workouts at school. These workouts were all about cardio. For 45 minutes, Reed worked with light weights to sculpt his core and stay in shape. By his senior year, Reed anchored both the Fort Meade offense and defense as a tackle, guard and defensive tackle.
“Sometimes as a big kid — and one of the better kids on the team — you sometimes have a tendency to take it easy or take it slow because you’re pretty much better than other kids, but Cleve’s always been a hard worker,” Camp said. “You have smaller kids who can’t make those workouts, but he has the size and determination to stick with it.”
‘He didn’t get a chance’
For Freddie, football was about family. Life hooked up to a ventilator meant he could never really talk and, of course, never play football himself. He loved the sport anyway and, most importantly, loved to watch his brothers play.
Central hypoventilation syndrome of the congenital variety is one of the rarest medical conditions worldwide, leading to a total failure of autonomic control of breathing. Essentially, the brain wouldn’t unconsciously allow Freddie to breathe properly. In 2006, only 200 cases were known across the world.
Freddie’s condition meant he could come off a ventilator for about an hour at a time. Usually, this meant a quick trip out to the field to watch Reed and his other brothers play.
There are plenty of reasons Reed had no choice but to play football. He was always one of the biggest kids his age, so coaches spent years badgering Nelson to let her son play before she finally let him loose. Both sides of Reed’s family are filled with football players, too. The offensive lineman estimates the number of relatives to suit up for Fort Meade is in double figures.
None of this guaranteed he could be an FBS-level player, though. Freddie provided a reminder for Reed not to take his gifts for granted.
“He always wanted to play football,” Nelson said. “It’s not his fault he was born like that, you know what I’m saying? He didn’t get a chance.”
Freddie died in the middle of the night on May 2, 2010. His death hit the tight-knit family hard. Reed’s environment made him mature at a young age, and Freddie’s death changed him even more. Reed’s eulogy in Bartow, Fla., confirmed what Nelson had suspected. Even at 11, Reed wasn’t just her shy preteen son anymore.
Reed had seen plenty in his young life. Cleveland Reed Sr., Reed’s father, had died just two years earlier. Nelson struggled at times to raise four boys and provide for them on a single salary. Freddie’s medical issues only complicated things further.
“He saw a lot of things I went through,” Nelson said. “He always wanted to be that man of the house, he always wanted to help me. I’d cry about where I’m going to get bill money or whatever, he’d always look up and say, ‘Momma, it’s going to be OK. Momma, we ain’t going to have to live like this one day, we’re going to live stress-free. I’m going to make you happy.'”
Football became the family’s joint passion. Reed plays for all of them — to help provide for his mother and to live the dream Freddie never could.
He could have coasted on his size alone. Reed was about 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds when he arrived at Fort Meade for his freshman year. At graduation, he was a muscle-bound 350. He medaled in the heavyweight division of the Florida High School Athletic Association boys weightlifting championship as a senior.
Building strength was the first thing Reed dedicated himself to. Before he was old enough to start serious weight training, Reed would bang through sets of push-ups in his bedroom. He didn’t look out-of-place as a freshman playing left tackle in Florida and anchoring Fort Meade to a winning record.
With a single season of varsity film, Reed caught the eye of former Miami wide receivers coach Kevin Beard, who became the first to offer the lineman a scholarship. When the Hurricanes fired coach Al Golden and most of his staff, Miami faded a bit until coach Mark Richt brought Reed and his mother to South Florida.
This one for you pops 🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/Kxd1fwX7Mr
— D1 cleve (@55clevelandreed) April 5, 2017
Soon after, Reed committed to the Hurricanes. He admits Miami was never really a school he thought much about when he was younger, but Reed’s journey has never gone quite as he expected. What’s important, though, is Reed has carved out his next step. Whatever comes next, Reed is on his way to doing what he and Freddie always hoped he could.
“I put my mind to it,” Reed said. “I was like, ‘This is what I’ve got to do.’ In order to do what I want to do, I’ve got to start training hard. I’ve got to do this.”