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Carlson Helps Cleveland End 18-Year Playoff Drought

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So an oblong ball is rocketing in your direction, as are an army of really big, really fast guys wearing different color shirts than you are.


It’s a damp, cold day. It’s a split-second choice to try to field said oblong ball or see if it’ll roll out of bounds.


And oh, the 18-year hopes of one of the most rabid – pretty much literally – fan bases is hanging on every second.


Stephen Carlson could have been forgiven if the kicker had lined up facing away from him, instead of staring right at him.


This was the situation Sunday afternoon that Carlson, a 2019 Princeton alum and a second-year member of the Cleveland Browns found himself. The Browns, whose most loyal fans wear canine masks and sit in the “Dawg Pound,” would end an 18-year playoff drought with a win at home over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cleveland was up 24-22 after Pittsburgh failed on a two-point conversion, and with 1:23 to go, it was clear that the Steelers were going to try an onside kick.


It also become clear they were coming after Carlson’s side of the field.


“We’ve had onside kick situations before,” Carlson says. “I’ll be honest. You can be a little relieved if you see they’re lined up the other way.”


Except this time they weren’t. The ball awkwardly made its way to him and was on top of him in a blink. He grabbed it, secured it and sprawled on top of it – “in the fetal position,” he says – and then waited for the pile that formed on top of him to be cleared.


“They were diving on me, jumping on me,” he says. “They were pulling at my fingers. I was holding on for dear life.”


When the pile finally, well, unpiled, Carlson still had the ball, the Browns had possession and, very shortly after that, the team was headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Stephen Carlson

“I knew this one was coming my way,” he says. “They had all their speedy guys in front of me. I wasn’t nervous or panicky. We prepare for this every week. We’re always catching onside kicks in practice. I was focused. The game was on the line. I said that the ball was coming my way and I just needed to react. It was actually a pretty challenging kick. It was a straight line drive. I just focused on the ball and grabbed it. I’m not sure if I was lucky or what, but after the first touch, I grabbed it clean. I felt confident the ref saw I was the one with the ball. Then we got to celebrate.”


The reward for Cleveland is a rematch with the Steelers in the Wild Card round Sunday night, this time in Pittsburgh. For Carlson, that will always be the most special place for him to play, since he grew up a Steelers fan.


“I was born in Pittsburgh,” he says. “My father lives in Pittsburgh. I went to a lot of games at Heinz Field as a kid. One of my biggest highlights in the NFL was just running on the field at Heinz Field before the game. I have so many memories there from when I was young. To be able to run out on that field was amazing. I’m sure it’ll be the same thing Sunday.”


Carlson went to high school in Jamestown, N.Y., in the western part of the state. He was a two-time all-state selection, but he didn’t have a ton of college offers.


“He’s great,” says Princeton head coach Bob Surace. “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.”

Stephen Carlson runs with the ball after a catch against Columbia.

He made a late visit to Princeton as a senior, and Surace told him on that visit that he wanted him. Carlson answered “yes” immediately.


His impact on Princeton football was not immediate. A wide receiver, he played in eight total games his first two seasons, with one catch as a freshman and two as a sophomore.


He then had 122 more receptions his final two seasons, and he took 16 of them for touchdowns. He finished his career ranked third all-time at Princeton in TD catches and 10th in receptions, and his 1,632 receiving yards rank eighth.


“As boring as it sounds, we loved putting in the work,” he says. “We stayed together in the summers. We had fun with the workouts. Being around the guys, growing with them, it showed me I really enjoyed football and really enjoyed the work. To be honest, it didn’t really seem like work. It was just enjoying time with your friends and teammates.”


The possibility of playing in the NFL first came onto his radar in a postseason meeting with Surace after his junior year, when the coach told him that if he made the same sort of jump again, he’d have some opportunities. That started a three-year run where he 1) was a huge part of a 10-0 team at Princeton, 2) made the Browns as an undrafted free agent and even caught a touchdown pass (in Cleveland against the Steelers of all teams) and 3) made a huge play that helped the Browns break that playoff streak in his second NFL season.


Oh, and he also graduated with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology.


“I definitely didn’t expect to be in this situation,” he says. “Even up to my junior year of college I never seriously thought I had a chance at the NFL. I mean, every young athlete has a dream of being a professional. For me, the coaches I had and the teammates I had, they made the college experience so smooth and fun.”

Carlson Yale

His experience as a rookie started to solidify his presence with the team, but then he had to prove himself all over again for a new head coach, Kevin Stefanski, who came in this season.


“After last season I was confident,” Carlson says. “Maybe I got a little nervous going into this year with a new staff, but once I got on the field in camp, I felt like I picked up where I left off. I had a lot of confidence. I was very excited when the tight ends coach called and said I made the team. I feel like I am a guy who can stick around.”


In addition to being his head coach, Stefanski is also a Penn alum.


“He jokes about that,” Carlson says. “He says Penn is a obviously a better school than Princeton. There’s constant banter about that.”


Of course, the 2020 season in the NFL was like no other before it. This was the COVID season, and the Browns certainly had to deal with their share of roadblocks.


“It’s been a wild season,” Carlson says. “It started in the off-season actually. All of our meetings were virtual. I did my workouts in my garage in Jamestown or in drills in my backyard or at the middle school football field. It was crazy. The beginning of the season was relatively smooth. The lockerrooms were spread out. You had to wear masks everywhere. They were limiting eating time and time in the facilities. Every day I’d wake up and look at the app. The building frequently has been closed. We’ve been unsure if we’ll be able to practice day to day or do something virtual. It’s been a lot of adjusting and adapting to whatever happens.”


That has continued into the postseason. Stefanski has tested positive for COVID and will not be able to coach the team this week. Neither will some of the assistants, and some of the players will be out as well. This is not the first time that has happened.


Still, it’s the playoffs, and the Cleveland Browns are in them.


“It feels really good,” Carlson says. “We put a lot of work into the season. It’s really paid off. This means the world to the city. Cleveland fans are some of the best in the world. They’ve waited 18 years for a postseason game. There have been ups and downs. There have been high hopes in the past. For them to finally see us put everything together and get to the postseason, the organization is so happy to be able to give it to them. This is our way of thanking them for sticking with the Browns.”

Stephen Carlson pushes away a defender as he runs with the ball for the Cleveland Browns against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2019 season.

january, 2023