Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of the “Next Up” series, which profiles the signees from Florida’s 2016 class. SEC Country traveled around the South to visit the recruits before they reported to campus.
HOUSTON — The memory of his brother’s murder remains for Tyrie Cleveland, but he handles the pain differently.
Cleveland no longer bottles his emotions inside him. He pours them out on the gridiron.
“The best thing that ever happened to me was being able to play this game of football,” Cleveland said. “It saved my life.”
Born and raised in Jacksonville, Fla., Cleveland lived in an area that contributed to the city becoming Florida’s murder capital.
He was 13 when the wrath of that deadly violence hit home. An assailant murdered his older brother, Timmie Johnson, who died at 19 years old. Police made an arrest in the case, but charges were never filed.
“It was tough losing him, someone I was so close to. We talked every day,” Cleveland said. “To wake up one day and he’s not there, it was hard for me.
“Where I grew up, a lot of cruel and harsh things happened in my neighborhood. I’ve seen things I wouldn’t want any little kid to go through.”
The months that followed made it even worse on Cleveland. His mother, Tracy Colton, decided to relocate to Houston with Cleveland and his younger brother, wanting to get them away from Jacksonville. Cleveland left his hometown in the middle of his eighth-grade year.
“It was a tough move,” Cleveland said. “My whole family lives in Florida, so leaving them to start new was difficult. I resisted for a few days, but that didn’t work. I couldn’t argue about the situation. I had to go.”
Cleveland’s discomfort didn’t end there. His mother came to Houston as a way to cope with Johnson’s death, but it only drove her into depression. After a couple months, Colton returned to Jacksonville to grieve while her boys stayed with their aunt, Theresa Yancey.
“My sister thought Houston was somewhere she wanted to be,” Yancey said. “But once she got here and hadn’t really gotten over my nephew, it just really stuck with her emotionally. She wanted to go back, but they were in school and they were settled. We just thought the environment here would be better, and it would give my sister some time to deal with the loss of her son.”
At the time, Cleveland couldn’t process what was happening. He was in a new state without the two family members who had been with him his entire life.
“He went into this shell,” Yancey said. “Naturally, he felt abandoned and that his mom didn’t love him. On top of that, he’s miles away from home and doesn’t know anybody. Texas was a culture shock for him. It was a big adjustment.”
Yancey said students initially picked on Cleveland for being from Florida. That changed once he laced up his cleats.
“When I got up here, I had to adapt,” Cleveland said. “I had to find where I fit in, and that was on the football field.”
Cleveland first began playing the sport when his mother signed him up for little league, and his older brother always encouraged him to stick with it.
“He’s one of the reasons I chose to play football, him and my mom,” Cleveland said. “He was living the wrong life and it eventually caught up with him. He told me to stay in my place, stay in sports, stay in school.
“He actually had a positive influence on me. He didn’t want to see me at places he hung out. Fortunately for me, I was able to escape.”
Once Cleveland latched onto high school football in Texas, his life finally took a turn for the better. He quickly moved up to the varsity team at Westfield High School and started receiving scholarship offers after his sophomore season.
“He had so much bottled up and just let it out when he got on the field. That’s how he expressed himself,” said Yancey, with whom Cleveland has lived the last four years. “He made sure what happened to his brother wouldn’t happen to him. It saddened him, but yet it pushed him to be the best he could be.
“That motivation will always stay with him. It’s one of those memories you don’t forget. The pain won’t ever go away, but he knows how to deal with his brother’s murder now that he’s matured. The memory of it propelled him to want to be successful.”
Cleveland also has built a better relationship with his mother, who still resides in Jacksonville. He now understands the decisions she made years ago, and they’ve been communicating more by phone.
The Under Armour All-American wide receiver wants to use his football career as a way to honor his family, something about which his aunt has advised him.
“He’s trying to make up for things that have happened,” Yancey said. “Leaving a legacy is wonderful, but sometimes we can become too busy trying to do things for others. He needs to do what he loves first and foremost, and I believe this is in his heart.
“Football will come and go, but we need to break these generational curses. We have relatives in prison. He knows his roots and where he comes from, so he wants our next generation to be college graduates and children with careers.”
Cleveland left Florida four years ago because of his brother’s murder. He’ll return to the Sunshine State this month to spend the next four years playing for the Gators.
“Something good came out of all this,” Cleveland said. “I know my brother would be proud of the decisions I’ve made. He got trapped in this box they call the streets, and he couldn’t get on the other side of the wall. That’s not where you want to be.
“I’m just thankful I climbed that wall and made it out.”
Zach Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow @ZachAbolverdi