Cam Cleeland nearly lost vision in eye after hazing incident in 1998

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

The retired NFL tight end, who's personal experience with the league's culture of rookie hazing permanently altered his life, recently defended Jonathan Martin and discussed his former teammate, Richie Incognito.

When former NFL tight end Cam Cleeland discusses the dangers and immorality of rookie hazing, he's speaking from experience.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the former Saint, Patriot and Ram, who nearly lost an eye in a hazing ritual during his 1998 rookie season, discussed the recent Jonathan Martin bullying scandal and defended the Miami Dolphins tackle from allegations of passivity.

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"Any NFL player that gives Martin a hard time — I don't know him — but any guy who says, 'This guy should have been a tough guy, should have stood up to him,' it's BS," he said.

"I don't care if you're a good guy or not, you don't deserve that kind of treatment in any workplace. You've got to be tough. We're all tough guys. But in the end, you're still a human being."

As a rookie with the Saints, the now-retired Cleeland was subjected to a mandatory rite of passage in which first-year players were forced to pass through a gantlet of punishment from veteran teammates. He was forced to walk a hallway lined with free-swinging vets who doled out blows as the young players navigated the length of the hall with a pillowcase over their heads.

"You tried to make it through, and they literally just beat the ever-loving crap out of you as you tried to get through," he said. "Everything you can imagine, from kicking, punching, scrapping."

At the end of the gantlet, Cleeland was struck with a sock-full of coins. The blow shattered his eye socket and badly broke his nose, and he still suffers with limited vision in the eye to this day.

Cleeland, who went on to earn Pro Bowl honors and finish runner-up for Rookie of the Year behind Randy Moss that season, scoffs at the idea that Martin could have brought an end to the bullying from Richie Icognito and others by going to the coaching staff.

"This guy [Martin] was probably feeling threatened and bothered by [Incognito] from Day 1," Cleeland said. "He let it simmer and let it go and finally, instead of going to the coaches. ...

"What happens if you go to your coach and say, 'This guy's bothering me.' He's going to look at you and go, 'Are you crazy? You wuss. You're not tough. Get out of my office.' I'm not saying that's what would happen with [Dolphins Coach Joe] Philbin, because I don't know, but that's what's going to happen with 95 percent of coaches."

Cleeland shared a locker room with Icognito as a member of the St. Louis Rams toward the end of his eight-year NFL career, and doesn't have fond memories of the suspended Dolphins lineman.

"I'm not afraid to say that he was an immature, unrealistic scumbag," Cleeland said. "When it came down to it, he had no personality, he was a locker-room cancer, and he just wanted to fight everybody all the time. It was bizarre beyond belief."

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