BEREA, Ohio — On the first Saturday in August, fans draped in orange and brown and unbridled hope packed FirstEnergy Stadium, hard by Lake Erie, to watch the Cleveland Browns play against themselves. It was called the Orange and Brown Scrimmage, and it gave the denizens here their first chance to watch Odell Beckham Jr. run out of the stadium tunnel and catch passes with his Technicolor visor attached to an orange helmet — tangible proof this offseason had happened in real life, not some cruel dream.
On the sideline, taking in his new environment, Beckham found a familiar face. Browns wide receivers coach Adam Henry bonded with Beckham while coaching him in college at Louisiana State and for two seasons with the New York Giants, the only NFL team Beckham had known before a bombshell trade this March.
Beckham bopped up and down and looked around the sun-splashed stadium, at more than 37,000 people who paid five bucks to watch practice. He glanced at Henry and did something that had, for the past few seasons and after the Giants traded him, come a little harder than it once did. Beckham smiled.
“Coach, don’t take me out,” Beckham told Henry. “I’m feeling it.”
As the 2019 NFL season nears, the marriage between Beckham and the Browns is one of its juiciest subplots. Pursuing its first Super Bowl ever, seeking its first playoff victory since 1994 and still kicking at the rubble from a two-season stretch of one win and 31 losses, Cleveland craves a football savior. Processing the Giants’ rejection of him, still searching for his own first postseason success and carrying a blemished reputation, Beckham requires a new start and a warm embrace.
It is still summer, and for the NFL that means only possibility. Maybe the dysfunction inherent during owner Jimmy Haslam’s tenure strikes, Beckham’s persona takes another hit, deserved or not, and the Browns slink back to woeful irrelevance. Maybe Beckham improves the Browns without fundamentally changing them. Maybe injuries rob Beckham of another season and the Browns take flight without him.
Or maybe the energy Beckham felt from those 37,000 fans in early August carries over to the season, a risky experiment unfolds beautifully, and the city and the star will realize what they needed was each other.
“They’re going to love him,” said former Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas, a likely Hall of Famer who started 167 straight games and never made the playoffs. “He’s got a chance to be one of the all-time Cleveland icons.”
‘It’s almost Pre-Catch and After Catch’
From the text messages they exchanged in the initial aftermath of the trade, Nelson Stewart sensed the shock in Beckham. Stewart has known Beckham since coaching him in high school, at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans. For all the turmoil Beckham had created over five years in the NFL, Stewart still understood him as a vulnerable soul who loved his teammates and expected his career to unspool in simple order: Newman, LSU, New York.
“It’s an emotional time,” Stewart said shortly after the trade. “It’s bittersweet for him, because like any professional athlete, I think he gave everything he had. His heart was fully in New York. … Obviously his intention was to hopefully play there and finish his career.”
At his core, Henry said, Beckham wants to make other people happy. Before his rookie training camp, Beckham overtrained, wanting to validate his 12th overall selection in 2014 and to prove he should have been picked higher. He strained a hamstring in his first practice and grew dejected, worried that Coach Tom Coughlin didn’t understand how much he wanted to play.
“He’s such a pleaser,” Henry said. “He couldn’t show his teammates how much he loved to practice.”
On Sunday night of Week 12, Jarvis Landry walked through the airport, heading home after his Miami Dolphins had lost to the Broncos in Denver. Landry and Beckham had been teammates and best friends at LSU, and now they were navigating their first pro seasons. By that point, Beckham had become a contender to be the rookie of the year despite missing the first four games. Landry noticed people gawking at televisions.
“I looked, and everybody is, like, stopped,” he said. “Like something happened in the world.”
Landry glanced up and watched the replay of what the announcers instantly hailed as perhaps the greatest catch in NFL history: Beckham leaping for a deep pass down the right sideline. A Dallas Cowboys cornerback clinging to him so much that he drew a pass-interference penalty. Beckham’s arm reaching back. The ball sticking his right hand. The Giants’ stadium erupting in shock. A touchdown, and a life changed.
“I had seen that already; I knew he could do that already,” Landry said. “But it still was crazy. It still was like, holy s—.”
Landry had known Beckham would become a star, but The Catch “sped everything up,” he said. Beckham had previously scheduled an autograph signing in New York for the week after the Sunday night game. He ran out of pictures to sign.
“It’s almost Pre-Catch and After Catch,” said former Giants director player of personnel Marc Ross, who had a strong hand in drafting Beckham. “After that, he just became such a phenomenon. His aura, his personality kind of took on a life of its own. He became so popular. He was … 22 at the time, still growing and learning. It was a process. People weren’t patient enough with the process.”
Beckham’s career became a contrast in brilliant play and odd behavior. He gained more than 1,300 yards in each of his first three seasons. He fought with, and then proposed to, a kicking net on the sideline. The league fined him multiple times. He filmed commercials and partied at clubs.
Coaches never had to worry about his effort. (“He loved to practice,” one former Giants assistant said. “Some receivers just say, ‘I want to save my legs.’ We had to pull the reins in on him. He wanted to go.”) But they wondered if his off-field life wore on his body and mind. They likened him to a rock star for the way he became tabloid fodder.
“His teammates love him,” Ross said. “But he’s almost the symbol of the new age of player with the social media, the attention [making him] larger than life. I think that rubbed people the wrong way.”
Beckham invited drama. His Sunday outbursts included a wild skirmish in 2015 with then-Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman. Before a dismal loss in a 2016 wild-card game in Green Bay, Beckham had partied on a boat in Miami with fellow Giants receivers. In March 2018, as he was agitating for a new contract, a video surfaced of Beckham in a hotel room with a woman, a pepperoni pizza and what appeared to be illicit substances.
But at the highest level of the organization, the Giants determined not to act out of frustration or anger at Beckham’s antics. Owner John Mara discussed the video with him. One NFC executive said his team approached the Giants about trading for Beckham before the 2018 season and came away thinking the Giants never seriously considered it.
Instead, the Giants signed Beckham to a $95 million contract extension. But a 5-11 season opened Mara’s mind to the possibility of cutting ties. Beckham’s comments in an infamous ESPN interview — when, just months after signing his deal, he sat next to rapper Lil Wayne and questioned everything from his happiness in New York to quarterback Eli Manning — weighed on Mara’s thinking, but neither they, nor any other incident, were the primary factor, according to Giants officials.
The Giants had come to the realization that their roster wasn’t good enough, and trading Beckham would mean swapping one expensive player for multiple cheap ones. In early March, as Giants General Manager Dave Gettleman and Browns General Manager John Dorsey negotiated a trade of pass rusher Olivier Vernon for guard Kevin Zeitler, Dorsey brought up Beckham.
“Just to see if … the Giants were willing to move him,” Dorsey said.
Mara fretted over how he would tell his grandchildren, whose favorite player was Beckham. Eventually, the teams agreed: Beckham in exchange for the 17th pick, a third-round draft choice and safety Jabrill Peppers.
When news broke, Beckham and Landry spoke over the phone.
“He didn’t really say anything,” Landry said. “He didn’t say much.”
‘It’s almost just like that Louisiana feel’
The door opened in the corner of the field house after a sweltering training camp practice, and Beckham emerged, shoulder pads still on, blond curls spilling over his forehead. He interrupted rookie wide receiver Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi in the middle of an on-camera interview and executed an intricate handshake. He spotted a mustachioed teammate, who was not quarterback Baker Mayfield, sitting on a bench. “Hi, Baker. You know, because …” Beckham said, grinning and rubbing his upper lip. The teammate chuckled and rolled his eyes.
On his way to the weight room, Beckham stopped to talk with Landry. “Finito?” Beckham asked, the kind of shorthand best friends employ. Reunited in the NFL, Landry and Beckham have made the joyful discovery of the difference between electronic communication and real-life connection.
“It’s been surreal,” Landry said. “It’s been kind of hard to put in words. Looking to my left or looking to my right and seeing O, it’s like, ‘Damn.’ Or being in the meeting room, it’s like, ‘Yooo.’ Or leaving the facility and we’re at the house, it’s like, ‘God, I got my brother right here.’ ”
Those close to him say Beckham, whom the Browns did not make available for an interview, has grown comfortable in Cleveland, surrounded by Landry, his position coach from college and a rifle-armed quarterback he trusts. He senses a family atmosphere different from what he experienced in New York; Haslam introduced himself to Beckham’s father within minutes on the first day he attended practice.
Landry and Stewart, Beckham’s high school coach, drew a parallel between New Orleans, Beckham’s hometown, and Cleveland. Their vibes may be different, but their appreciation and passion for football, the way they mimic small towns when it comes to the sport, are similar. “It’s almost just like that Louisiana feel, where everything closes, all the lights are off, and the only lights that are on are the stadium lights,” Landry said. “Everybody’s there. And it’s a beautiful thing.”
“The culture of a pure football town, I think Cleveland has that,” Stewart said. “I think New York had that and more.”
‘You’re about to see the best football he’s played’
There is, and has always been, so much to celebrate about Beckham’s ability. Coach Freddie Kitchens has been particularly awed by his footwork, both precise and explosive. In one practice drill, Beckham snaked behind a cornerback in the back of the end zone, leaped over a safety, snared a bullet pass from Mayfield that sent him tumbling to his back and, in one liquid spring, bounced to his feet.
The Browns have tied their future to that talent. For years, the Browns built a cache of high draft picks and salary cap space, the spoils of losing. They expended much of that this offseason. While fans and media members pummeled the Giants for dealing Beckham, many NFL team executives viewed their return as reasonable.
It is difficult for any non-quarterback, even a star such as Beckham, to provide surplus value — a contribution greater than his salary cap hit would project. By also shedding two high draft picks and a young, cheap player, the Browns probably sacrificed more value than they received, at least in a vacuum.
But the deal didn’t happen in a vacuum. Beckham could be the rare wide receiver who transcends a big contract. Mayfield’s rookie deal — which is an outrageous bargain — runs through 2022. By that point, Beckham’s contract will be reaching its final season, meaning it doesn’t preclude the team from rewarding its other young stars, such as cornerback Denzel Ward and defensive end Myles Garrett, when their deals come due.
“You have to think of the ramifications of that two and three years down the road,” Dorsey said. “We had enough cap space to where we could still operate and do business — and do future business as well — and still be able to take on that contract. We factored that in there in our thinking.”
But the Browns also want to win big now, a departure from their recent — and not-so-recent — history. Five years into his career, Beckham has missed the playoffs four times and has never won a playoff game. At the start of their relationship, the player and fan base have embraced each other.
“They’re going to celebrate him,” Ross said. “Not just tolerate him.”
“I think he’s in a real good, mature place right now,” Stewart said. “I think this [trade] is a great chance for him to learn and grow. … It’s a chance for him to hit the reset button, tune a lot of that out and really get to being the best player he can. I think you’re about to see the best football he’s played so far.”
Browns fans, no small number of them wearing Beckham’s No. 13 jersey, filled bleachers for practices this August, many of them arriving more than an hour before the players even stretched. Near the end of one, Beckham sprinted down the left sideline, chasing down one of Mayfield’s pretty parabolas. He soared over a defensive back and snatched the ball out of the air, his brilliance and magnetism on full display.
Fans stood and roared as Beckham stretched out his arms, bathing in the cheers. Nobody can say what will happen next, but in that moment, anything seemed possible.