Survival of the Fittest: With Unique Adaptability, Terrelle Pryor Makes NFL Mark

Ryan JonesContributor IOctober 7, 2016

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 25: Terrelle Pryor #11 of the Cleveland Browns rushes for a touchdown in the 4th quarter against the Miami Dolphins on September 25, 2016 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
Eric Espada/Getty Images

Sometime last summer, not long after Terrelle Pryor signed with his fifth NFL team in as many years, he came home to Jeannette, Pennsylvania, bearing gifts. "He hunted me down," Jeannette Senior High School head football coach Roy Hall remembers, "and he brought me a Cleveland Browns hat." It was a typical gesture from Pryor, at once a minor act of generosity and a subtle statement of confidence. Cleveland would be a destination, not another stopover.

Two months later, for the fourth time in little more than a year, Pryor was released.

Just over a year later, Pryor may have finally made Cleveland his NFL home. With 19 receptions and 290 yards receiving through four games, the former Ohio State quarterback has been perhaps the lone bright spot in a winless Browns season.

To Hall, who was an assistant coach at Jeannette High during Pryor's time there, and to others who know the former prep All-American from his days as a Western Pennsylvania schoolboy legend, Pryor's unlikely emergence this season as one of the NFL's best receivers is less a shock than it is confirmation.

"This, right now? I'm not surprised at all," Hall says. "He's a wide receiver now. Nobody works harder than him. He wants to play, and he wants to win."

The latter of those goals might be out of reach in the short term, but the former took a confluence of events that couldn't be predicted. An injury to rookie receiver Corey Coleman and the extended absence of Josh Gordon left the Browns threadbare at wideout, and Pryor proved willing to finally embrace the idea of being something other than a quarterback. That it wasn't easy for him explains why it took so long.

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"I asked him about that one time—switching positions—maybe two or three years ago," Hall says, "and he was upset that I asked. Well, maybe not upset, but more hurt, like, 'Coach, I can't believe that you're asking.' He just never doubted himself."

The irony of Pryor's position switch is that the confidence, and perhaps the stubbornness, that kept him focused for so long on being an NFL quarterback is the same thing that has helped him succeed in his new role. "Terrelle likes to prove people wrong," says Paul Schofield, a writer with the Tribune-Review who has covered prep sports in the Pittsburgh area for four decades. "He had a mindset that he wanted to show people he could be what they said he couldn't be."

For so long, that meant trying to defy those who didn't see him as an NFL quarterback. Then, in the summer of 2015, with his career in the balance, he set that focus on another goal.

Through the first four games of the season, Terrelle Pryor leads the Browns in targets, receptions and receiving yards.
Through the first four games of the season, Terrelle Pryor leads the Browns in targets, receptions and receiving yards.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

"I think he became obsessed with the challenge," Tim Cortazzo says, "like, 'Everyone's doubting me, I'm going to make this happen.' I think that was the switch that went off."

For more than a year, Cortazzo has been committed to helping Pryor make the unprecedented transition from lifelong quarterback to NFL receiver. Cortazzo is a former high school standout at Penn-Trafford, another Western Pennsylvania high school just up the road from Jeannette. A year older than Pryor, Cortazzo played wideout at Toledo, worked a couple of low-level assistant coaching gigs after college and then returned home to join his father's athletic training business.

One day in June 2015, he got a call from a kid he'd been training who was working out at the Penn-Trafford field: Terrelle Pryor just showed up with some friends. He's running routes. And, uh, he needs some help.

Cortazzo was at the field the next day, helping his old high school team with some offseason drills, when Pryor returned. "He's like, 'Yeah, I know you played receiver. Can you give me some guidance?'" Cortazzo says. "I took him through maybe 20 minutes of work, really basic stuff, and he asked, 'What are you doing tomorrow?'"

Pryor's transformation was underway. It would feature assists from the likes of Antonio Brown and Randy Moss and would be interrupted by one more cruel NFL cut, a reminder of the mark Pryor had yet to make on the league, one so many assumed he never would. It would lead him here, to the fall of 2016, when he would line up against the likes of Josh Norman and repeatedly beat one of the game's best cover corners. But before all that, there was a foundation—a rare, potent mix of talent, work ethic and drive.

A once-thriving town about 25 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Jeannette was widely known for its glass factories. As with so many towns in the region, however, the industry eventually left. Soon, too, so did the people, leaving the town with a population that now hovers around 10,000. The Jeannette Jayhawks football program is different. With more than 700 wins, eight league titles and nine NFL alumni, the school might be the town's brightest light.

No one has ever shined brighter for the Jayhawks than Pryor.

"Everybody throws 'great athlete' around loosely, but he's got Michael Jordan-type ability," says Ray Reitz, Pryor's head football coach when he attended the school. "People look at you like you're crazy [when you say that], but he did some things on the field…"

Pryor—6'5" as a high school senior, with a vertical leap in the 40s and sub-4.4 speed—remains the only player in Pennsylvania high school history to throw and run for 4,000 yards.

As staggering as those numbers are, the stories—the highlights—might better tell the story.

There was the touchdown run that almost wasn't. Running toward the end zone with one defender to beat, Pryor left his feet at the 10-yard line, hurdled some poor defensive back and, Reitz swears, landed in the end zone. "We're looking for the signal, but there's no signal," he says. "The officials couldn't believe what they just saw."

Or that day at practice when Pryor decided to see if he could jump over two of his coaches. "The other coach is 6'4", and I'm 6'2"," Reitz says. "He cleared both of us. Just having fun."

Hall, who was an assistant for Reitz at the time, remembers the plays but more so the circus Pryor inspired: road games where parents of opposing players lined up outside the locker room for autographs, and the home games when fans from other towns would skip their own high schools' games to come watch Jeannette. "Some of our 50/50 raffles, we broke records," Hall laughs.

To Schofield, nobody made quite the impression Pryor did. There was the game against rival Aliquippa: Pryor rushed for 331 yards and five touchdowns while throwing for another two scores. Yet he could have had more. "Easily," Schofield says. "Instead, he would run, get the first down and take a knee. He just wanted to run the clock out." Afterward, Aliquippa's coach told Schofield, "I'm a creative writing teacher, and I can't think of any more superlatives for Pryor."

It's perhaps piling on to mention that Pryor was a top-70 basketball prospect nationally, per Scout, second only to New Orleans Pelicans swingman Tyreke Evans in the state as a senior. Three months after leading Jeannette to a state football title, he did the same on the basketball court. Pryor would play point guard when needed or in the paint when asked. "He didn't really like to play underneath, but in the WPIAL final, they told him that's where they needed him," Schofield recalls. "He ended up with a triple-double."

Oh, and there was also that track meet. Despite not wearing spikes, Pryor won a 100-meter dash while wearing high tops. Schofield laughs at the memory. "He was that special."

It was around this time that Pryor unwittingly showed glimpses of his eventual NFL future. "We all knew he could be a wideout," Reitz says, and indeed, Pryor would occasionally line up on the flank, tweaking the narrative if not the outcome of defenders' nightmares. They do not, as a rule, make high school cornerbacks who can match up with hyper-athletic 6'5" receivers. Lucky for those corners, Pryor would only make cameos at the position.

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Quarterback Terrelle Pryor #2 of the Ohio State Buckeyes throws a pass against the Oregon Ducks at the 96th Rose Bowl game on January 1, 2010 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Pryor was a quarterback, and he was recruited as one, the Vince Young clone whose choices came down to Ohio State, Michigan, Oregon and Penn State. He chose the Buckeyes, of course, and went on to start nine games as a true freshman in 2008, winning eight of them and putting up efficient, if modest, passing numbers. As a sophomore, he passed for more than 2,000 yards and ran for a team-high 779, capping the season with an MVP performance in the Rose Bowl. He was even better as a junior, throwing for more than 2,700 yards, running for 754 and leading the Buckeyes to a 12-1 season.

Then came the scandal, trivial as it looks in hindsight, particularly in light of other scandals that have rocked college football in recent years. Free tattoos and cashing in on signed memorabilia led to an NCAA investigation and a five-year banishment from Ohio State, leaving Pryor with only one reasonable option: the 2011 NFL supplemental draft. The Raiders took him in the third round that August, his success as a college signal-caller already fading under the harsh glare of NFL scouts who wondered whether his skill set would translate.

Among the first questions then-Oakland coach Hue Jackson fielded when Pryor was drafted was whether the team planned to switch him to receiver or tight end.

"He's another young athlete that we'll add to the mix that plays quarterback," Jackson told reporters at the time. "We'll work with him and get this guy to be a good player."

Suspended by the NFL for the Raiders' first five games (a carryover from the NCAA suspension he didn't serve because of his early departure), Pryor made his professional debut in late October against the Chiefs. He lined up at receiver before going in motion, took the snap from center and ran for an apparent first down. The gain was negated when Pryor was called for a false start, and his rookie season was essentially over before it started. The moment could hardly have been less auspicious.

In his one season as the Raiders' starting quarterback, Pryor threw for seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 11 total games.
In his one season as the Raiders' starting quarterback, Pryor threw for seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 11 total games.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

He didn't see much more of the field in 2012, appearing just twice before a meaningless season finale, when he started in place of Carson Palmer in a loss to the Chargers. With Palmer gone in 2013, Pryor won the starting QB job and initially played well, but as his production dipped, the team struggled. He eventually lost his job to career backup Matt McGloin, a former college walk-on.

The Raiders decided to cut their losses the following April, trading Pryor to Seattle, where he was eventually released during the team's final preseason cuts. He worked out for a number of teams that fall but failed to sign on and spent the 2014 season out of the game. In January 2015, he signed with the Chiefs, who released him that May. He quickly signed with the Bengals, who cut him five weeks later.

Back in Jeannette, there were rumors, secondhand whispers that coaches and general managers held the Ohio State nonsense against him, that certain starters didn't want a backup with that much talent on the roster. "I'm not knocking anybody else in that league, but I'm telling you right now: Look at some of the other quarterbacks out there," Hall says. "You're telling me he couldn't make a team?"

The fact remained: Barely four years removed from his draft day, Pryor had signed with or tried out for nearly a third of the league's teams. None of them seemed to want him.

Then he went home and decided he was ready to make a change.

"I'm pretty confident in what I do," Cortazzo says, "but I'm like, 'Holy
s--t, I've gotta take Terrelle Pryor in the middle of his career and turn him into a wide receiver in two months.'"

Pryor had signed with the Browns in June, so he and Cortazzo knew they were on the clock to have Pryor ready before the team cut down to its 53-man roster. He had a tough task ahead of him. "If a high school kid who had never played wide receiver came to me, these are the kind of drills I'd put him through," Cortazzo says. "How to line up, how to get in a stance, and then we got into breaking down his routes. Really the basics.

"I knew he could pull it off," Cortazzo adds. "It's not like he was awful. He was just really raw."

Others, more experienced receivers, helped. Josh Gordon, Mike Evans of the Buccaneers and the recently retired Moss all signed on to help Pryor learn the finer points of the job. But it was Cortazzo for whom the task became almost a full-time job.

Pryor naturally had a few advantages. He was a football player, and a gifted one, so he picked things up quickly, with his athleticism and size buying him time as he developed his technique. It seemed to pay off in early September, when the Browns included his name on their 53-man roster.

Pryor returned to his hometown of Jeannette, Pennsylvania, to work on the finer points of being a wide receiver, an effort that saw him re-sign with the Browns last December after being cut earlier in the 2015 season.
Pryor returned to his hometown of Jeannette, Pennsylvania, to work on the finer points of being a wide receiver, an effort that saw him re-sign with the Browns last December after being cut earlier in the 2015 season.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Five days later, he was waived.

"That was a kick in the face," Cortazzo says. "At the same time, we knew they saw his potential. He just needed to get reps."

Pryor worked through the fall, tightening up his route running and working through a fitness regimen designed to help him endure the wear and tear—all those 20- and 30-yard sprints, all those open-field hits—specific to an NFL wideout. Tryouts followed—a string of auditions for the Jets, Giants, 49ers, Seahawks and Patriots.

In December, the Browns asked him to return. A month after that, Pryor found himself reunited with the coach who drafted him in Oakland, Hue Jackson, who became the Browns head coach in January.

"This relationship with me and him goes way back to 2011," Jackson recently told reporters. "There are a lot of things I know about Terrelle that maybe a lot of people don't. I'm talking about as far as what he is really capable of doing. … He hasn't even scratched the surface of what he is."

"I don't know if I necessarily thought he'd be this good, this fast, but we still have a long way to go in this process," Cortazzo says. "He's not even close to where I believe he can be."

Ask those who've known him best and longest, who know his ability better than anyone else, and they won't tell you they predicted this, but they also won't say they are surprised. After all his false starts, Pryor is now making his switch to wide receiver appear almost, well, easy.


Ryan Jones is a writer living in Pennsylvania. He's the former editor-in-chief of Slam magazine and has written about sports and culture for XXL, Spin, Vibe and Reach him on Twitter @thefarmerjones.


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