A Utah football pro takes her talent and wisdom from field to classroom

Ally Cleveland coaches young football players, and plays the game with the Utah Falconz

(Matthew LaPlante | Utah State University) Ally Cleveland, player on the women's pro football team Utah Falconz and a coach for 10- and 11-year-old players, with her dog, LiaRhea.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Utah State University, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

A coach in a white bucket hat paced along the sideline of a youth football game, casually tossing a ball into the air.

The ball rose above the field, where two lines of young football players stood solemnly, their white uniforms and pink socks making them almost indistinguishable from one another. A small speaker blasted upbeat music, but the players didn’t move as the coach walked past them, giving instructions, still tossing the ball up and letting it fall gently into her hands.

It was five minutes to kickoff. The result of the game would determine whether the Herriman Mustangs, a team of 10- and 11-year-olds, would advance in the playoffs.

The Mustangs’ coach, Ally Cleveland, shuttled her players on and off the field, yelling instructions and affirmations to the dozens of boys and one girl on her team.

At halftime, the Mustangs and their opponents from Cedar Valley were tied, 12-12.

Cleveland’s team gathered around her. Her encouragement was effusive.

“Those were some beautiful blocks!”

“I know you can do it because I’ve seen you do it!”

“It’s a beautiful day to throw the ball, so let’s do it!”

Cleveland is completely immersed in football. Along with coaching, she plays for the Utah Falconz, a team that went undefeated in the Pacific Division of the Women’s National Football Conference in 2023 — her first year with a team that has won seven conference championships and two national titles since 2015.

At 61 years old, she is by far the oldest player on the Falconz roster — playing with athletes who are bigger, stronger and decades younger than she is.

But she’s not ready to let go. Not yet. It wasn’t an easy road to get here, after all.

She wants to savor it.

And she wants to share it.

A child of the game

Growing up as a boy in a small town in Michigan, Cleveland started playing football at age 7. Football was important to the community. It was the thing people did. It was the thing Cleveland’s father did. So, it was the thing Cleveland did.

Cleveland loved everything about the game: The contact, the physicality, the strategy and the complexity.

The coaches were harsh. They made the players run hills. They called the players demeaning names. They told the athletes that they need to work harder. Once, a coach kicked Cleveland in the rear during a running drill.

“We were fearful of skipping a practice and making a mistake,” said Dave Kadau, who was Cleveland’s teammate in high school.

The lesson: Only perfection is acceptable.

That high school team was very good. It only lost two games in four years. One of those losses came during Kadau and Cleveland’s senior year. It was the state quarterfinal. Their coach was so bitter about the loss, he didn’t speak to the players for the rest of the year, Kadau recalled.

The lesson: Winning is more important than relationships.

It was that same high school coach who discouraged Cleveland from trying out for a college team.

You’re not good enough, he said.

“I could have been, for a small school,” Cleveland said. “I could have contributed.”

The lesson: Not everyone gets to contribute.

It would be decades before Cleveland rekindled her relationship with the game. She started coaching when she was in her 30s, and began playing again on a local team around the same time. In her 40s, after her transition, Cleveland found her way onto a few of the competitive teams in the loosely knit leagues that have come and gone in the past few decades as women have sought a place on the gridiron.

Her first adult football coach was also a freeform dance instructor. He was completely opposite in every way from her coaches as a kid. She played 17 seasons with several teams since then, picking up new lessons along the way.

In 2018, most of the nation’s top women’s teams coalesced to form the WNFC. In 2022, she was a utility player for the Los Angeles Legends, registering 14 tackles-for-loss, three sacks, and even a punt return for seven yards.

But she was still trying to feel like she belonged. And she was running out of time. The level of play in the WNFC has risen dramatically since its founding just five years ago, and Cleveland knew she was not as fast or as strong as she used to be. What edge she retained, she figured, came from her knowledge of the game — her decades of experience, even if it was once punctuated by a long spell away from the gridiron.

School days

Cleveland stood in the doorway of classroom number 34 at Hillsdale Elementary in West Valley City, where she has taught 6th grade for the past two school years.

A small poster was taped to the top of the door: “Play like a champion today,” it read. Cleveland reached up and tapped it before stepping into the brightly lit room. A painted cardboard sign that says “Clevelandia” sat atop the whiteboard, welcoming visitors.

It was the Falconz’ offseason, and when Cleveland was not working on strength and flexibility in the gym, or coaching her youth tackle team, she was teaching elementary school kids at Hillsdale.

People say the three R’s of education are “reading,” “writing,” and “arithmetic.” Cleveland said they really are “relationships,” “relationships,” and “relationships.”

“You’ve got to fill up a kid’s tank before you can give them criticism,” she said.

At Hillsdale, 84% of the students are members of racial minorities, according to the Granite School District. Across that district, more than 50% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch — a common marker of economic need. At Hillsdale, it’s closer to 80%.

“We’re classified as a ‘turn-around’ school,” Cleveland said. As in, the school was going in a bad direction a few years ago and a new principal was sent in to turn it around.

“There’s a lot of love that has to go out because everybody doesn’t get enough of it,” she said.

And things are looking up at Hillsdale. Cleveland said a survey done in the school showed a 21% positive increase in students’ relationships with teachers.

She attributes the attitude change to the kids applying the process of “the learning pit.” A small poster on her classroom wall illustrates this. Once someone falls in the pit and is stuck, they ask for help and collaborate with others to get out. After they receive the help they need, they reach a higher level than they were before.

“We can’t do it alone. That’s really the heart of it for me,” she said.

(Utah Falconz) Ally Cleveland, a player on the women's pro football team Utah Falconz.

Fly with the Falconz

Before Cleveland even moved to Utah, the culture of the Falconz drew her in. Whenever she interacted with players from the Falconz at games, she said, she noticed a difference in the team’s culture.

She’s in Utah for that reason.

“We’re a team. We do everything together,” Cleveland said. “We’re not there for the show. You know we’re not going to do a big fancy dance in the end zone for a touchdown. We’re going to hand the ball over to the ref and go back to the next play.”

Tara Faatili, Cleveland’s teammate on the Falconz, agreed.

“We just play the sport and go home. We don’t have a big head about our positions,” she said.

Faatili said the Falconz are professional and family-oriented.

“We have a thing called the Falconz way,” she said. “We’re like a big family. Everybody looks out for each other.”

Cleveland added to that atmosphere in her first year.

“She was all for it,” Faatili said. Cleveland was immediately invested in the Falconz, using her knowledge and passion for football to help the team learn and understand the game better, all while sharing her positivity and energy with the team.

“She’s just a happy-go-lucky girl,” Faatili added.

The Falconz — with Cleveland back on the field — are scheduled to start their 2024 season on the road, against the Seattle Majestics, on April 6. Their first home game is set for April 13, against the San Diego Rebellion, at Highland High School.

More love

It was fourth down with nine seconds left on the game clock and the score was still 12-12. The Herriman Mustangs were on defense, and Cedar Valley was two yards from the end zone.

Cedar Valley passed the ball to their best player and he ran it in for a touchdown.

It was a tough loss, but Cleveland’s positivity didn’t fade. She congratulated her kids on a hard-fought end to a great season.

Parent Allie Gerona’s son wears number 7. He has autism and struggles with anxiety. But Gerona said her boy has become a completely new person since the beginning of the season. He had very little self-confidence in the beginning. Now he’s a team captain.

Gerona said Cleveland helped build that confidence in her son.

“She’s priceless to me,” Gerona said.

Cleveland is fond of noting that a teaching job is a coaching job. It goes the other way, too.

So, each morning before class, her students repeat an affirmation: “Today is a new day full of new opportunities to make the world a better place for myself, my family and my community.”

And she believes that’s the same spirit that belongs on the football field.

“More love,” Cleveland said, “is almost always the answer.”

Reagan Thomas wrote this story as a journalism student at Utah State University. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.