San Diego coach Duane Maley said it best: “He can run sideways faster than most backs can forward.”
Maley spoke of a favored player, 5-foot, 4-inch, 145-pound halfback Cleveland (Smiley) Jones, who literally carried the 1956 Cavemen.
Jones was the City Prep League player of the year despite missing almost all of two games and parts of others.
San Diego was 6-0 when Jones was healthy, 1-2 when he was sidelined.
OFF TO 3-0 START
In what was supposed to be a major rebuilding season after Jones and teammates won the 1955 Southern California championship and were declared national prep champions, the Cavers won their first three games in impression fashion.
Jones was hurt in the first quarter of the fourth, an upset, 20-12 loss to Hoover. He played sparingly the following week, a 54-13 win over Mission Bay, and missed much of the 35-21 loss to Downey in the first round of the playoffs.
OFFENSE, DEFENSE, SPECIAL TEAMS
In between, Jones scored 96 points, with 12 touchdowns and kicked 24 points after. He also played defense, but was player of the year because of a 10.8-yard rushing average, 17-yard pass-receiving average, and a stunning 45-yard average on punt returns.
“Jones is a great broken field runner, the greatest I’ve ever coached,” said Maley, who was not given to hyperbole.
Of Jones’s many long runs, the most memorable came in the showdown with Lincoln, playoff berth and tie for the CPL title on the line.
Lincoln scored first to take a 7-0 lead on a short run by quarterback Russ Boehmke.
Jones juggled the ensuing kickoff and the ball bounced back to the one-yard line. The diminutive Caver almost lost his balance, but recovered, and ran 99 yards for a tying touchdown.
Jones scored one other touchdown as San Diego won a thrill-packed game, 26-19, earning a first-round playoff date with Downey at Long Beach Veterans’ Stadium, site of San Diego’s epic 1955 semifinal victory over Anaheim.
PLAYED DOWNEY CLOSE
Jones was hurt in the loss to Downey, the eventual, 13-13 tie co-champion with Anaheim.
The Cavers’ 14-point loss, with Jones out much of the game, compared well to the Vikings 41-point victory over Beverly Hills and 33-point win over Lancaster Antelope Valley in other playoff games.
Comparatively, Downey defeated Long Beach Wilson, 13-7. San Diego defeated the Bruins, 21-7, and had three touchdowns called back.
This wasn’t a championship Cavers team, but it might have been had Jones not been sidelined with some untimely injuries.
PLAYED ON AND ON
Jones was on a conference championship team at San Diego Junior College in 1957, was a two-year star at Oregon, a late roster cut of the NFL Dallas Cowboys, and then starred for the powerful San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot team.
Jones still was playing semipro football at age 38. Compared to 21st century NFL players, he most closely resembled Darren Sproles, who thrilled San Diego Chargers fans a couple generations later.
Jones went on to a long career as an officer in the Orange County Probation Department.
He was known as “Smiley” because his facial bones were such that his countenance is a perpetual pleasant expression or smile.
Cleveland brought a lot of smiles to those who watched him and played with him.