Long before Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi was simultaneously located at the bottom of a pile of larger-than-life teammates and in the hearts of all those watching at home, he was in the throes of the Browns practice field in Berea, Ohio, sweltering in the mid-summer sun. This Friday afternoon practice had already been going on for two hours, capping off a long day of learning and competing and hoping that somehow, someway the 24-year-old athlete with a story fit for a movie could make the team’s final roster.
To do so, Sheehy-Guiseppi (who has since dropped the second half of the last name on his No. 15 jersey top) would have to do enough to crack a wide receiver room that many feel is among the best—if not the best—in the NFL. What “enough” would be would remain to be seen, but on this Friday afternoon, the former Phoenix College player was using his time on the sidelines to do little things like cutting into routes and learning how to gain separation at the NFL level. As the Browns were in the midst of live, offense-on-defense drills, Sheehy-Guiseppi was learning how to use his arms just right as to provide himself with a window, but also one that would not get a yellow flag tossed at his feet. His teacher: Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham, the subject of both the biggest transaction in the NFL this offseason and heaps of senseless ridicule during voluntary team activities, could have easily been somewhere fulfilling the prophecies of doubters. But instead of slap-fighting Josh Norman or proposing to kicking nets or doing whatever it was that made Bronx Baby Boomers choke on that day’s tapioca, here he was attempting to help not just a kid who was fighting the most uphill of battles, but one who was—on paper, anyway—his competition. It wouldn’t be until after Sheehy-Guiseppi’s touchdown that the broad public would be made aware of the connection between the uber celebrity and the kid who slept in his own car, but anyone paying attention that very day would have had a preview into the Odell Beckham Jr. that many choose to ignore.
Make no mistake: Odell Beckham Jr. is the most culturally relevant celebrity to play for the Cleveland Browns since Jim Brown. Bernie Kosar was the Miami kid who will forever hold a place in the mid-80s lore. Tim Couch and Jeff Garcia dated (and eventually married) Playboy Playmates. Braylon Edwards once got shot down by Rihanna. Johnny Manziel was relevant for all the wrong reasons. Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Odell Beckham Jr. is in a hemisphere all his own. There’s “get a sandwich named after you” famous, and there’s Met Gala-attending, cover of GQ Magazine-donning famous.
Lest anyone shun these facts as the irrelevant, ephemeral byproducts of today’s look-at-me society, it’s important to put this all in perspective. Even if you prefer your athletes in the humble, rough-and-tumble silent variety, Beckham is in circles with not just other hyper-relevant athletes, he’s on red (and sometimes pink) carpets with the likes of Lady Gaga and Harry Styles and Serena Williams and Celine Dion and David Beckham—no relation.
Viewed through the prism of the most “celebrity” of professional sports, the NBA, Beckham is more LeBron James than a hundred Tristan Thompsons could ever be. And while he doesn’t have the same hardware of James, and the league in which he presides lends much less in the way of player empowerment, but trust that Odell Beckham Jr. is kind of a big deal.
With all of this understood, Beckham is also the most talented skill player to play for the Browns, arguably since that same running back-turned-movie star hung up his cleats at age 29. Joe Thomas may go down as the best Browns player to suit up in this era. The elite level of play for so many seasons, the consecutive snap streak, and the whole “fishing on draft day” thing are just a few elements of No. 73’s overall story. But if Thomas’s story proves anything, it’s that it’s much more difficult to turn elite, individual play into winning games let alone a championship. Coincidentally this is the same point made by Beckham’s detractors. After all, those 5-11 seasons in New York start to add up. And in professional sports, poor team play oftentimes comes with the most boisterous of scapegoats.
When he was stoic after a loss, he didn’t care enough. When he was loud and emotional, he was immature. He admits that comments from former players—specifically those with pasts like Cris Carter and Ray Lewis—get to him. Andrew Luck will get all of the attention for his recent retirement, saying he could no longer live the life he yearned to live. Beckham considered the same—but at age 24—saying he questioned his love for the game.
“I didn’t know that getting to that level—or being on the level, like, where a LeBron is at—that I would have to deal with certain things,” Beckham recently told GQ. “Like, I really didn’t know that when I was younger. People ask me what advice I would give, and I’m just like: Be careful what you ask for. I wouldn’t change anything for the world, but I wish the world would have more love than hate in it.”
Now, Beckham says he’s happier than he’s ever been. He gets to play alongside his childhood friend. He had been praying for a change and now gets a fresh start with a city that is (largely) enamored with his presence on a football team that had been bereft of receiving talent for entirely too long. According to Sports Illustrated, Beckham never bought a home in New York, even after becoming the highest-paid receiver in the league. He already has a home in Cleveland.
“I think it goes for everything I stand for when I talk about legendary,” said Beckham. “The Catch was cool. It was legendary, in a sense. But legendary is going to Cleveland and trying to win a championship.”
There’s a special realm of confidence for a man who can wear a kilt and army boots in front of a horde of A-listers. In a way, however, when you strip away the photoshoots and red carpet glam, Beckham is very “Cleveland.” His Louisiana upbringing was absent of any silver spoons. He scrapped his way to LSU, falling short of a championship. He was passed over in the top 10 of the NFL Draft, the third receiver taken after Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans.1 A hamstring injury kept him from winning Rookie of the Year, though no one will ever be able to take away that highlight.
Odell says things will be different this time. They all say that, don’t they? Mike Holmgren is notorious for it—well, that and his “playoff tickets” comment. But Beckham appears to be in the best position to say so, even if it is a work in progress.
“I think I’m just going to stop worrying so much about the politics and all that,” he said. “I’m still trying to navigate how I want to do that. If I’m going to be real and it’s going to get turned and taken, then I’m just here to talk about football.
“If there’s one thing, to narrow it down to one thing: I think I’m just going to be happy.”
Beckham has yet to play a down for the Browns, sitting out the preseason with what has been called a hip injury. This means those who have been anticipating the All-Pro receiver’s debut will have to cling to Twitter highlights of him catching passes from second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield, accompanied by the oohs and ahhs of Training Camp attendees. While the Browns have plenty of hype attached to their name this season, the realities are they are a team with electric players, but a ton of inexperience—head coach Freddie Kitchens is in his first season in that chair, Mayfield’s yet to play 16 games, and the offensive line has elicited a lot of heavy sighs through the month of August. Inexperience tends to lead to struggles, and how a team and its individuals respond to the struggles will determine how long this honeymoon phase will last.
Cleveland fans have had plenty of hype—including SI Preview covers—in the past, only to have it all crumble from under them. Playoffs or bust? Winning the AFC North? …Super Bowl? In the past, when it pertains to the Browns, expectations have typically been low and there has always been a GM or head coach or coordinator to ouster.
And while John Dorsey and Kitchens will have the light shining on them, one man will be at the top of the list when we look back at the Browns’ 2019 season. That man, for the time being, is teaching younger players how to thrive in this environment. At some point, however, the clock will begin ticking. Beckham will have to swap that bucket hat for a helmet and the Odell Era in Cleveland will begin. How one gauges the “success” of the trade that brought him to Cleveland will rest in that individual’s hands. Just know that how Beckham is gauging it comes in the form of substantially higher expectations.