by Scott Kindberg
July 24, 2021
“Yeah, I can bring it to you,” Stephen Carlson replied, followed minutes later by, “I’m just about to leave. Where are you now?”
“I’m pulling into the parking lot,” I replied.
As I drove to the gate closest to Jefferson Middle School on Jamestown’s south side, I saw Carlson, the subject of my photo shoot less than 30 minutes earlier, approaching his car. In one hand he had his workout gear. In the other, he had my camera bag.
I hopped out of my vehicle, grateful that the Jamestown native and Cleveland tight end came to my rescue before Strider Field was locked up for the day. After thanking him for his big assist with my stuff, I suggested — tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek — that maybe he could serve as a Browns’ equipment guy in his spare time.
As is his habit, Carlson laughed politely, even at my not-so-funny attempt at humor, hopped in his car and drove off. Days away from the start of training camp, the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder is taking his preparation for his third NFL season very seriously.
Would anyone who knows Carlson expect anything different?
The Browns’ roster is deep on both sides of the ball, and many prognosticators believe the team has what it takes to make a run at the Super Bowl.
“That’s something our team knows and has in our mind,” Carlson said. ” … It’s exciting, not only for me and the team, but for the people of Cleveland, the fans and some hometown people who have been fans of mine for a while.
“It’s exciting for us to finally get some credit that hasn’t been there in a while. It’s long awaited for the fans, and I’m happy we’re a team that is a little more respected now.”
Carlson has made a habit of earning that respect, because nothing has been handed to him.
After leading Jamestown High School to a state championship on Thanksgiving weekend 2014, the two-time first-team all-state wide receiver had to wait two seasons before getting a chance to see the field at Princeton University, but ended up as an All-Ivy League selection, both his junior and senior years.
Then, in a matter of months after his last collegiate snap, he added 15 pounds to his frame and was signed in April 2019 by the Browns as an undrafted free agent tight end — a position he’d never played before. Not surprisingly, however, he ultimately landed a spot on the practice squad for the first half of the regular season. Carlson was activated to the 53-man roster in Week 9 and a few games later, he sealed a Browns’ victory against Pittsburgh in prime time by catching a touchdown pass from quarterback Baker Mayfield, his first reception of his career. And last season, Carlson was a standout on special teams, securing two wins over the Steelers with onside-kick recoveries, the latter in the AFC Wild-Card round.
“I think I’ve proved to the coaches that I deserve to be in the league,” Carlson said. “Now it’s a matter of getting that much better — 1 percent better every day — so that I can not only solidify my role, but maybe step into a slightly bigger role. We’ll see what happens.”
In head coach Kevin Stefanski’s first year, Cleveland made regular use of a three-tight end offensive alignment, with Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant and David Njoku seeing most of the snaps.
“If it’s similar to last year, I’ll be the fourth tight end,” Carlson said. “Injuries happen here and there, so I’ll be the guy who will fill in for anybody at any time whenever needed, because that’s kind of who I am as a player. I know what everyone is doing on the field, so I can fill in whenever. I think the coaches appreciate that and kind of need someone like that. I think that will still be my role.”
Carlson only had one reception for 11 yards last year, but he made nine special-teams tackles which was tied for 30th in the league, according to teamrankings.com.
“That is my role for now,” he said. “I’m happy to do that. I think special teams is gritty, it’s tough and that’s the kind of player I think I am. (Special teams coach Mike Priefer) has a lot of trust in me. … I think I work pretty hard on special teams stuff. … I’m happy about my role. Obviously, I’m trying to increase it all the time, but I think special teams are really important. If I can be a leader on special teams and make a good impact, I’ll make my team and the fans proud.”
To get himself ready for camp, Carlson has spent the last two weeks working out at Strider Field, a venue where he first made a name for himself eight years ago.
“It feels like home,” he said. “I feel comfortable here. It gives me a little bit of confidence knowing that I played well in this stadium. Coming back to it, the feelings (return) from high school and it helps me through some workouts. I’m happy to be back.”
The Browns open the 2021 season at Kansas City on Sept. 12. Playing before sellout crowds again is something Carlson is looking forward to.
“It’s definitely pretty crazy, running out of the tunnel, especially home games,” he said. “It puts you into a zone that you can’t really get into internally. Once you hear 80,000 fans screaming for your team that just takes everything up a notch. We missed that last year (because of COVID-19) … so I’m excited to get back to that.”
Until then, Carlson plans on doing what has made him successful, on and off the field, his entire life.
“(I’ll be) putting in the work, grinding day in and day out,” he said. “That’s something that is central to me. If I were to lose that kind of mentality of ‘whatever it takes,’ I wouldn’t be who I am or where I’m at.
“Hopefully when I’m in (the lineup) in weeks where someone is down and I’m the third tight end, they’ll be … more looks or a little bit more trust coming my way,” he said. “That’s kind of the next step. I’m not gunning for anybody’s spot, I’m just trying to help the team, just make improvements as they come and control what I can control.”
I guess that job in the equipment room will have to wait.