Patriots never lost track of TE Asante Cleveland after 2014 draft

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sometimes the New England Patriots lose out on signing an undrafted free agent, but they still track the player in hopes of acquiring him in the future.

Such is the case with tight end Asante Cleveland.

“Initially, I thought I was going to the Patriots,” recalled Cleveland, 23, of his decision-making process following the 2014 draft.

The Patriots had shown considerable interest, which included scout Frantzy Jourdain putting Cleveland through drills at Miami’s pro day. But when the team also signed undrafted free-agent tight end Asa Watson, who had played with Cleveland in the NFLPA All-Star Game, Cleveland elected to sign with the 49ers instead.

The Patriots kept tabs on Cleveland over the next year and a half, and when the opportunity presented itself in August, they acquired him in a trade for offensive lineman Jordan Devey.

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Cleveland, who opened the 2015 regular season on the practice squad and has since been promoted to the active roster, played a career-high 17 offensive snaps in last Sunday’s 27-6 win over the Houston Texans.

Cleveland, whose deep voice has a Barry White sound to it, shares his “football journey” as part of ESPN.com’s weekly feature.

When he first started playing football: “Freshman year of high school.”

Why the later start: “My dad [Allen] was drafted by the Cowboys and one of his best friends got hurt and became a quadriplegic, and so he never pushed me to play football. I wanted to play real young because all my cousins played, but he wouldn’t let me play.”

First position: “Wide receiver.”

Role models growing up: “My dad, 100 percent. A real smart guy. Growing up, I’d see him always wearing a suit for work and he was just who I wanted to be. Everyone loved my dad.”

Watching some of his dad's football games and learning from him: “He showed me some clips from him back in college [at University of Pacific]. He always taught me that things are going to get hard, but you have to be tough and persevere, and you have to find a way to find a way.”

Top memories of Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, where he played football, basketball and was on the track team: “We beat our [football] rival, Jesuit High School, my senior year to break like a 10-year winning streak.”

Favorite team and players growing up: “San Diego Chargers because of Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson. Antonio Gates had the basketball background, real shifty, wasn’t all that tall, kind of fit my build.”

Why he decided to attend University of Miami: “I originally committed to Washington State, my whole senior year. [Miami] started recruiting me real late, I took a visit out there, and I just fell in love with it. It had nothing to do with the fact it was January and it was like 80 degrees, it didn’t have anything to do with the palm trees, and definitely not the beach. So I don’t know what it was,” with a laugh.

Top memories at Miami: “Freshman year, we all come in together, nobody knows anything, and you just kind of figure it out together. It was fun to build that unity. … Probably my favorite game, we played North Carolina at home [freshman year], and I caught a fourth-and-2 conversion for 25 yards. My first big play.”

Entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent: “Obviously I was hoping I would get drafted but realistically I kind of knew I wouldn’t. I had enough interest from enough teams that I felt someone would pick me up.”

Signing with the 49ers after the draft and splitting the year between practice squad (10 games) and main roster (6 games): “They showed a lot of interest and I also liked being close to home, being from Sacramento. I learned that preseason games and regular-season games are nothing alike. It’s a whole lot faster once you get into live bullets. That was a quick adjustment. And you have to be accountable because no one is going to hold your hand through it.”

Traded to the Patriots on Aug. 18: “When it first happened, I didn’t know what to think. I was a little uneasy because growing up in California, then going to Miami, and now I’m in the Northeast where it’s cold, it’s a whole new experience for me. Once I finally got here and got settled in, I felt like it is a great place -- a real smart team and you learn a lot really fast.”

Splitting time between the practice squad (10 games) and main roster (3 games): “I had been in that situation before, and knew that I just had to stay focused, stay humble, and don’t let the game get too big for me. Just be ready. It’s fun playing real football again.”

Life as a Patriot: “A real family vibe, everyone is lifting each other up, trying to help each other because they know what can be accomplished if everyone is on their game.”

What he loves about the game of football: “You learn who you are. Either you’re courageous when things get tough. Or you step back. You can get exposed real fast in football. You learn to be a tough person.”

Summing up his football journey: “So far, it’s definitely taught me to persevere. It’s not always going to look good, but coming out of college with 14 career catches, there are a lot of people with a lot better stats who don’t make it in this league. I’m still here and it taught me to persevere.”