Who Was Cleveland Lewis?
Simply, Cleveland is the son and sibling of Pan American and Olympic Gold Medal winners in Track and Field who decided to break the trend and become a professional soccer player. Sounds pretty simple, right? If it was that simple, I would not be sharing this story.
The Birmingham born footballer was the first ever Black player to ever be drafted in the National American Soccer League (NASL). This is a league who has many historic clubs to have played for them, such as the Tampa Bay Rowdies, New York Cosmos (the team who drafted Lewis), Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, San Jose Earthquakes, just to name a few. Lewis was inducted into the Brandeis University Hall of Fame‘s inaugural class in 1993 as the University’s all-time leading scorer with 58 goals. Lewis went on to play with the Memphis Rogues, but his impact is felt nationwide.
Before He Was a Footballer
Cleveland was born in Birmingham, Alabama in the middle of three siblings to his mother Evelyn Lawler, who was a world renown 80 meters hurdles and was at one point the American Record holder for best time in 80 Meter Hurdles. Evelyn was at one point in major contention to represent the United States as one of the top hurdlers in the world, but injuries sidelined her career. While she ended up having a successful career in Masters athletics, earning 9 gold medals, the injuries caught up to her and ended her career.
Cleveland was the only sibling who did not follow in their mother’s footsteps in Track and Field. His sister, Carol Lewis, who competed in three Olympics and was set to compete in four if it was not for the 1980 Summer Olympics boycott. Carol was a National Champion as an amateur with The University of Houston and in the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championship.
The Lewis name is one that is known worldwide thanks to Cleveland’s brother Carl Lewis. Carl was a 9-time Olympic Gold Medal winner spanning from 1984-1996. Carl is a graduate of The University of Houston, where he competed showed absolute dominance in the Long Jump. Suddenly, Carl burst onto the Track and Field scene, gaining comparisons to another Alabama native, Jessie Owens. Carl was often disrespected by the Track and Field world for being too cocky, saying that he would, “rub it in too much,” according to Edwin Moses. If you’re going to act like the best in the world, you need to be the best in the world, and Carl was 9-times. Carl Lewis put the world on blast as he showed the strong genetics and the work ethic of the Lewis family.
The Impact of Cleveland
Cleveland Lewis was the Black Sheep. He was a footballer in a Track and Field family. He was a Black soccer player in a very white profession. He a freakishly great athlete. Cleveland was born for greatness after being named after Tuskegee University track and field and football head coach, Cleveland Abbott. He was born to be successful.
While his brother, sister, and mother all won world championships, none of them had the impact that “Cleve” had. In 1978, Cleve was the first ever Black player to be drafted in American Soccer. In the 2021 MLS Superdraft, the top 3 picks were Black. Talk about an impact.
Cleveland was successful early in his life. He had to be to be drafted. As a high schooler, he scored well over 100 goals in four years at John F. Kennedy High School in Willingboro Township, New Jersey. Over 100 goals is a number that gets most people a Division 1 offer in modern day, but unfortunately for Cleveland, soccer in 1973 was not as accepting as Track and Field. Track and Field was integrated out of spite of Nazis. The only thing that could have given Jessie Owens the opportunity he was given was the hatred for the Nazi party. Cleveland didn’t have a Jessie Owens to break the barrier, he had to be Jessie.
Instead of complaining and giving up, Lewis decided to become a legend. As I said earlier, Lewis score 58 goals for Brendeis University. He left Brendeis the all-time goal scorer, none bigger than his two goals in the Division III National Championship, where he scored the only two goals for Brandeis, including the Golden Goal winner in Double Overtime. He was an All-American and club captain for Brandeis. He had to be perfect to get noticed, and he was that and more.
In 1978, Cleveland was drafted by ’77 NASL Soccer Bowl Champions, New York Cosmos. He broke an American color barrier that impacts the way we view soccer in America. Ray Klivecka is quoted in the New York Times saying, “Lewis is perhaps the best athlete in the entire draft. He’s scored a ton of goals.” Lewis was signed and almost immediately dropped by the Cosmos for unreported reasons, but was later picked up by the Memphis Rogue, where he made 3 appearances. By 1980, Cleve retired from professional soccer, just four years before his brother began winning everything in the Olympics.
While Cleveland’s career lasted only two seasons, and only 3 appearances, him being drafted was a spark that changed the entire soccer scene in the United States. Could you imagine a world where Black footballers are not selected in the MLS SuperDraft? Could you imagine a world where a player scores over 100 goals in high school and doesn’t get a single offer to a Division 1 university based on his or her skin color? Could you imagine what soccer in the United States would look like without Cleveland Lewis? Cleve may not be the most successful soccer player in history, or even the most successful athlete in his family, but he did something nobody else did:
He gave others a chance to succeed.