DENVER -- Tyrie Cleveland told his mom when he was 5-years-old that he would play in the NFL.
"It was my dream," Cleveland said.
Last week, Cleveland took another step toward realizing it. He pulled on his No. 86 Broncos jersey and helmet for conditioning work as the team ramps up for padded practices in a few weeks. Cleveland appeared comfortable in orange and blue, having produced a strong career for the Florida Gators.
"It's been great. A year ago, I was sitting at home watching these guys on T.V. They are sharing their knowledge, and I know it's about a being a professional," Cleveland told Denver7 on Monday. "Then, there are those moments where it hits me, and I am like, 'Wow, I am playing with Von Miller. And I am playing with Drew Lock and Courtland Sutton."
Cleveland prides himself on rolling up his sleeves, his football character shaped by adversity. When Cleveland was 13, his older brother Timmie Johnson was shot to death in Jacksonville during an altercation, according to the police.
It shook Cleveland. He slowly turned his loss into motivation, and sports a tattoo -- MBK for My Brother's Keeper -- as a constant reminder of Timmie.
"It hit home hard, being a young kid, a freshman in high school in 2012. I didn't know how to take it then. I wanted to give up on everything. But I came back from it," Cleveland said. "I began to work a little harder for my brother. I had to put my emotions aside and chase my goals. It was a constant reminder to take nothing for granted. It taught me a lot. He's watching over me."
Cleveland, who says football saved his life, brings strength and humility to the Broncos. After moving to Houston and finding solace on the field, Cleveland arrived at Florida as the second-ranked receiver in the country. His career featured breathtaking bursts -- a game-winning catch to beat Tennessee and a 98-yard touchdown reception as a freshman at LSU -- and frustrating moments. He finished with eight touchdowns, not the total he sought, but a figure that has narrowed his focus.
Cleveland knows to stick on the Broncos' roster, which boasts a much deeper receiver group with the additions of Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, he must show versatility.
"I am a hardworking guy. I will continue to work at my craft each and every day. I am a guy who is going to stretch the field. I am guy who is going to be physical. I am a guy who will help his teammates out if they need it," said Cleveland, who finished his Gators career with 79 catches for 1,271 yards in 46 games. "I am just a big-time player. I am going to show that when I am catching the ball, blocking, on special teams, it doesn't matter."
Sutton praised Cleveland during the virtual OTAs for showing up and "working his butt off in the (Zoom) meetings."
Cleveland brings intriguing athleticism. He is 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, and runs a 4.46 40-yard dash with a 40-inch vertical leap.
That size could make a difference on special teams, which is typically how the final roster spots are determined.
"The key to be a good special teams player is paying attention to the details. You have to be smart and coachable," Cleveland said. "It's about creating good habits and showing it on the field."
Whether Cleveland makes it or not in the league, football does not define him. He left an impression at Florida with his volunteer work. He was one of 14 players named to the SEC Community Service Team. Cleveland spent countless hours as a mentor at a local elementary school, his visits so common he became part of the fabric of the classroom.
"I have been like that since I was a little kid. I wanted to give back, share love, spread love," Cleveland said. "I was able to give back to the kids, and set a pretty high standard for myself and I look to do the same thing here."