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Practice Makes Perfect

Carlson Signed To Browns’ Practice Squad A Day After Being Cut From 53-Man Roster

Stephen Carlson P-J file photo by Scott Kindberg

Just shy of five years ago, Stephen Carlson stood at a podium at City Hall’s Tracy Plaza and spoke to his coaches, his teammates, school administrators, city officials and the large crowd gathered to celebrate Jamestown High School’s New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class AA football championship.

Three months into his senior year, the first-team all-state star was the only player from that talented Red Raiders’ squad to share his thoughts publicly on that bitterly cold, late-fall afternoon.

It was hardly a surprise, though.

After all, the young man from the city’s northside has always been comfortable in all settings — big and small — and he has possessed the innate ability to succeed in all of them.

Carlson added yet another milestone moment — arguably his greatest to date — on Sunday when he was signed to the Cleveland Browns’ practice squad, less than 24 hours after being released by the team as it pared its roster to 53. Carlson, who has been training with the team since he was signed as an undrafted free agent tight end out of Princeton University in late April, is just the second JHS alumnus in history to sign a contact with an NFL team.

Cleveland tight end Stephen Carlson makes a catch during a training camp practice in Berea, Ohio on July 29. P-J file photo by Scott Kindberg

The first?

Jim McCusker, who just happened to graduate 65 years ago.

To suggest that Carlson is in some rare company would be an understatement.

“Hopefully,” he said Sunday afternoon, “I can live up to his name and to his honor.”

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Buffalo-based agent Shane Costa of Pillar Sports Management has nearly a decade of experience in professional football, and joined forces with Carlson late in 2018 after the latter completed his eligibility at Princeton.

“I’m from Allegany, New York, just being right down the road, and being a Western New York guy, we immediately had that connection, and it made a lot of sense,” he said Sunday afternoon.

A mutual-admiration society was born.

Costa maintains that the Browns like Carlson a lot, too.

“They can’t rule out at some point that he’s on the active roster and playing for them this year,” Costa said. “That’s kind of the nature of the business. They want to see him develop, but they like his potential, they’re excited to have him, and we are, too. It’s a good fit.”

The Browns announced nine additions, including Carlson, to their practice squad on Sunday.

“I tell people all the time that … practice squad is literally the next people up,” Costa said. “Most people who start on the practice squad at the start of the year end up being on somebody’s active roster at some point. It’s a game with a lot of injuries, unfortunately, and it really means, ‘Hey, you’re the next guy.’ It’s sort of akin to Triple-A baseball vs. the (Major Leagues). … He’s one injury away from having to go play for them on Sunday.”

Costa confirmed that other teams expressed interest in Carlson, too, but the Browns were deemed the best situation.

“He knows the system, he knows the playbook, he’s with the team and he can continually get better and develop,” Costa said. “They’ve identified him as someone that can help them in the future. Whether that’s in the immediate future or the far future remains to be seen, but they believe in him. It makes a lot of sense to stay there and continue to develop as opposed to going somewhere else where he has to start fresh. … It’s a nice organization, they like him. It’s a really good fit all around.”

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Carlson is usually pretty calm, cool and collected, but he admitted that the run-up to signing with the Browns’ practice squad Sunday morning was “pretty nerve-wracking.”

Arriving at the Browns’ facility in Berea, Ohio by early morning, Carlson fielded calls from Costa and weighed potential opportunities with other teams before deciding to stay with the franchise that gave him a shot four months ago.

“I’m pretty excited to finally get it down on paper that I’ll be on the practice squad,” he said. “When I first got signed … my goal was to make it on the practice squad. I knew that … if I could spend a little bit of time working on my technique … I could be a decent tight end in the NFL. That’s the plan so far. Everything is kind of coming into play with what my initial plan was.”

Support from Cleveland tight ends coach John Lilly has helped, too.

“Everyone has kind of embraced me (even though) I’m an undrafted tight end converted from wide receiver,” Carlson said. “(Lilly) has helped me out a lot since the beginning, giving me words of encouragement, telling me how good he thinks I can be. That’s really helped with my confidence. … Overall, the kind of people that are here — from the front office to the guys on the field — have a winning attitude.”

The Browns open their season this Sunday when they entertain Tennessee at FirstEnergy Stadium. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. Carlson will be watching from the sidelines.

“Hopefully I can contribute to the Browns this year,” he said. “That’s the plan and that would be my goal. For now, I’m just going to do what they tell me to do, work on my skills and my technique and put myself in the best position.”

Asked if he planned to celebrate his practice-squad signing in any way, Carlson said he was thinking about going out for dinner, but it wasn’t going to be a late night.

“I have a 6:30 lift (this morning),” he said. “It’s back to work.”

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