The Browns open preseason play this Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium against the St. Louis Rams. The big storylines will be how the team performs in brand new offensive and defensive systems. Brandon Weeden’s plays will be put under the biggest microscope Cleveland has to offer. Whether or not Trent Richardson plays will get its fair share of attention. Jabaal Sheard’s move to outside linebacker and whether rookie Barkevious Mingo looks good will all get columns devoted to them.
For these players, it is the beginning of a long season. For others, it could be the end of their time in orange and brown. Long after the first unit has left the field and some fans start leaving the stadium, players will be playing for their football lives.
Wide receiver Tori Gurley is one of those players.
Gurley is a 26-year-old wide out from the University of South Carolina. He was an undrafted rookie free agent signee of Green Bay in 2011. He spent that season on Green Bay’s practice squad.
In 2012, after camp was finished in Green Bay, Gurley was offered another practice squad spot, but opted instead to take a spot on Minnesota’s practice squad. It was the start of a four city journey. Gurley was cut from the Vikings’ practice squad after three weeks, and signed with Oakland. He spent a week on their practice squad before being cut again.
He bounced from there to Tampa Bay, where he spent two weeks before being cut and catching on with San Diego’s practice squad. He was cut from that squad as well.
For those that don’t know, space on a team’s practice squad is limited. Gurley was signed mostly as an injury replacement with these teams. He never saw the active roster on Sunday.
In January, he signed a future contract with the Ravens. He was cut shortly after the draft.
So what does the coaching staff have to see from Tori to make the team? “I don’t even know,” Gurley said with a laugh. “I just go out and leave it all out on the field. I’m just out here enjoying it. You know I don’t have any worries, I’m playing football. I’m trying to play fundamentally sound and the rest of it is gonna take care of itself.”
Gurley does many of the little things you want to see from a receiver. He is a physical player at 6’4″ and 230 pounds. In the first week of camp Gurley has already made a key block to spring Dion Lewis for a touchdown, and set a pick on a defensive back at the goal line for another receiver to grab a touchdown.
He has soft hands. He may have been the recipient of the two hardest hits in camp so far on catches that he went high in the air for and came down with both passes. He isn’t afraid of the middle of the field. WFNY asked him if he thought he was a tough receiver.
“Oh yeah, you know I’ve been cut seven times,” he said. “I’m like one of those old school boxers. You just take a punch in the face and just get back up. Every time you think I’m down for the count, I’m very resilient and persistent.”
He works hard on special teams, knowing that everything he can learn and do make him that much more valuable to a team.
“All units of special teams,” Gurley said. “Any and everything. Just be a utility man. I can’t put my finger on it, I’m just doing my best to do everything humanly possible to do.”
One of those tough catches was Saturday night in front of 24,000 fans at Family Night. He went up high and caught a pass while being undercut by Buster Skrine. He came down hard and popped up fast, pumping his arms at the crowd who cheered loudly. “The Dawg Pound is great. It reminds me of being at school, at the University of South Carolina where the fans are die hard. I feed off the fans.” Gurley added, “I’m out there having fun.”
Making the Browns isn’t going to be easy for Gurley. On coach Chudzinski’s first depth chart, he was listed fifth behind Josh Gordon, Travis Benjamin, David Nelson, and Cordell Roberson. He was tied for that spot with Naaman Roosevelt. Of course, there are six other wide outs listed on the other side of the field as well.
The Browns have a lot invested in the wide receiver position. In addition to second round draft picks Greg Little and Gordon, the team spent money in free agency on Davone Bess and David Nelson. Travis Benjamin is faster and returns kicks. Jordan Norwood has much more experience. Josh Cooper has been working with QB Brandon Weeden for years.
That doesn’t deter Gurley.
“My goal is to be active one day,” he said. “I would love to make this team and help this team get to a Super Bowl.”
He knows that these next two preseason games are very important if he wants to make the team. When asked how important it was for him to make a play Thursday night, Gurley said “It’s urgent. I’m playing with a sense of urgency. I practice that way and it’s going to carry over to the field. I’m just hoping for opportunities.”
Tori left college after his red shirt sophomore season. He wasn’t drafted.
“I just felt I was ready, even though I really wasn’t,” Gurley admits. “I look back at it now and I was just young and dumb, but it’s one of those things I’m going to continue to just live life. I don’t regret that mistake, it’s only made me into a better man. I’m a football player, that’s what people know me as, but if you know me personally, I have faith in God and everything happens for a reason.”
He has at least one famous fan on his side. In high school, Gurley led his basketball and football teams to South Carolina state titles. He also played AAU basketball with current Golden State Warrior Steph Curry. They still speak regularly.
“I support him, he supports me. I still can beat him in basketball. People fail to realize I taught him how to shoot. No, that’s a lie.”
So which sport was his first love?
“Soccer,” he said. “I love playing soccer. I love basketball as well. On my off days here I play basketball. I enjoy it, it takes me away from camp. When it’s time to come play football I’m back on the football field.”
If he ever comes running out of the tunnel on Sunday in Cleveland, it will likely be because of his tenacity.
“It’s not over until it’s over,” he said. “Anything can happen. I just gotta go out and put my best foot forward and the rest will take care of itself.”
(Photo: Jon Cole Photography for WFNY)