JHS grad Carlson ready for Browns’ biggest game in years
First, it was The Catch.
Then, it was The Stiff-Arm.
And, finally, it was The Recovery.
Boy, has Cleveland tight end Stephen Carlson found ways to inject himself into critical moments against rival Pittsburgh during his two seasons in the National Football League.
The Jamestown native will have another opportunity Sunday night when the Browns meet the Steelers at Heinz Field in the former’s first playoff appearance in 18 years.
“We believe within the organization, regardless of what people outside our organization are saying, that we’re going to go in and take care of business, do our job, play our game and, hopefully, the outcome comes out in our favor,” Carlson said Friday night.
Personally, he does have a history of making significant plays against the Black & Gold.
In 2019, he leaped over a Steelers’ linebacker to snare a touchdown pass from Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield in the fourth quarter of a nationally televised 21-7 Cleveland victory. The reception was the first of Carlson’s career.
A couple weeks later at Heinz Field, the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder caught another pass from Mayfield and, before being brought down, he sent a Pittsburgh defensive back flying with an All-Pro stiff-arm. The Steelers won that game, 20-13.
Finally, last Sunday, there was Carlson again, this time recovering a Steelers’ onside kick with a little more than a minute remaining in a game Cleveland won, 24-22, to finally secure a postseason berth.
“Honestly, it was a pretty tough kick,” he said. “It never took a big bounce, but it just kind of kept rolling. I thought maybe I could have let it roll out of bounds, but I wasn’t too comfortable with doing that. … With it coming right at me, I had to make a decision. I waited for the jump, (but there was) no jump, so I just tried settling it down, pushed it toward the ground and did kind of like a between-the-legs recovery while I was getting hit.
“Luckily, as people were hitting me, the ball just kind of slipped right into my chest. In the bottom of the pile there were just no other hands even on the ball, so it was a pretty clean recovery for how messy it looked to start. … On the bottom of the pile I remember just saying, ‘We’re headed to the playoffs!’ … I was letting people know we had the game in the bag.”
Since that win, the Browns have had their share of challenges as their practices were limited this week by COVID-19 concerns, including the absence of head coach Kevin Stefanski, who tested positive for the virus and will not be at Sunday’s game.
“It’s definitely been tough, but it’s something we’ve prepared for,” Carlson said. “We just go day by day. … We have plans when stuff like this arises. I think everyone, especially on offense, is super confident in Coach (Alex) Van Pelt (who will be calling plays), and other coaches who will be stepping in.”
Not surprisingly, Carlson’s impact on his fans back home is as strong as ever.
In fact, earlier this week, Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame president Randy Anderson found a pleasant surprise when he picked up the mail at the Jamestown Post Office.
“We received a donation today ‘in honor of #89’s first playoff appearance with the Cleveland Browns,'” Anderson posted to Facebook on Monday. “How cool is that! Good luck, Stephen!”
“That’s awesome,” Carlson said. “I love seeing stuff like that. I’m glad I’m on someone’s mind and (they feel) I’m making a difference in the community.”
Whether or not Carlson will continue to make a big difference against the team he rooted for when he was growing up remains to be seen — he attended games at Heinz Field with his father who lives in Pittsburgh — but the undrafted free agent from Princeton University has had an uncanny ability to find ways to make major contributions.
“He’s great,” Princeton head coach Bob Surace said of Carlson in an article on the school’s website earlier this week. “Nothing has come easily for him. He’s had to work hard for everything he’s gotten. He didn’t have a lot of interest out of high school. Only one NFL team offered him a free-agent chance. But when you get him on your team, you love him. He works hard. He’s a great teammate. He’s the exact kind of guy winning teams need.”