A few minutes after the Giants’ 33-21 win over the Jets in Thursday night’s preseason opener, coach Pat Shurmur gathered his players in the locker room to review some of his impressions, particularly when it came to the team-building aspect of the game. He then looked around the room.
“Where’s Carlock?” he said, trying to find free-agent rookie linebacker Jake Carlock, who had scored a touchdown on a 59-yard interception return and added a sack in a bid to earn a roster spot on a crowded defense. “Holy smokes.”
The team then broke into a chant of “Car-lock! Car-lock! Car-lock!” before demanding a speech. “Hey, man, I’m just thankful for the opportunity to play ball with my brothers,” he said, eliciting more cheers.
In April, Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi was flat broke and sleeping outdoors near Miami when he begged the Browns for a tryout. Coach Freddie Kitchens gave him a chance, and near the end of the Browns’ 30-10 preseason win over the Redskins, the free-agent rookie receiver/kick returner made the most of it, scoring an 86-yard touchdown on a punt return. He was mobbed by his teammates in the end zone, and it was as if the Browns had just won a playoff game at First Energy Stadium.
“It’s good to see hard-working, good people succeed,” Kitchens said after the game. “And he definitely fits the bill with being that.”
Meaningless preseason games? Not for Carlock, Sheehy-Guiseppi and hundreds of other lesser-known players fighting to earn roster spots around the NFL. No, these games mean everything to the bottom-tier players trying to find a place in the world’s premier football league.
And it’s in these circumstances that teams often find hidden gems who had otherwise slipped through the cracks during the draft evaluation process.
Babylon’s Carlock was a 6-3, 225-pound defensive back at LIU Post — sort of a hybrid safety/linebacker — and he’s trying out as a linebacker with the Giants. Teammates and coaches adore his high-motor intensity, and the interception return and sack endeared him even more to his teammates. It remains to be seen if he’ll make the final roster of the team he grew up rooting for, but even if it doesn’t work out with the Giants, other teams in need of linebacker help will have seen him on tape and might express interest.
Same with Sheehy-Guiseppi, 24, who already is the feel-good story of this year’s NFL preseason. He once played at Phoenix College in Arizona, but after failing to get a scholarship offer after the 2016 season, he continued to dream of playing football.
Last spring, he spent what little money he had working out with noted Miami-based trainer Pete Bommarito. He found out about a tryout at which Browns personnel director Alonzo Highsmith, a former NFL running back, would get a look-see at several local prospects. Sheehy-Guiseppi wasn’t invited but decided to talk his way in, telling workout organizers that he knew Highsmith — even though the two had never met. By that point, Sheehy-Guiseppi was sleeping outside because he didn’t have enough money to pay rent.
He finagled his way into the workout and ran a blazing 4.38 in the 40-yard dash, prompting Highsmith to extend an invitation for a workout at the Browns’ facility.
Now you know why his Browns teammates were so jubilant after his touchdown Thursday night.
The final score may not have counted, but Sheehy-Giuseppi, like Carlock, had created his moment. Now he hopes to use it as a springboard to live out his NFL dreams.
It’s the kind of story that plays out routinely in a league in which players create their chances, even against all odds. Such as when Victor Cruz walked into Giants camp as an undrafted free agent out of Massachusetts in 2010. When he caught six passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns in a preseason game against the Jets, he gave coach Tom Coughlin no choice but to find a roster spot for him. A year later, Cruz was a major part of the Giants’ fourth Super Bowl championship run.
Sometimes the dreams come late.
Kurt Warner’s NFL hopes took him from the waiver wire to NFL Europe and the Arena League to the NFL mountaintop with a spectacular MVP season on the way to a Super Bowl championship with the Rams. It was reminiscent of another Hall of Fame quarterback who was virtually ignored in the draft — the great Johnny Unitas, a ninth-round pick of the Steelers who was released even before the start of the 1955 season. He played semi-pro ball for a year, making $6 a game, before the Colts gave him a shot the next season.
In 1979, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after one of the most brilliant careers in NFL history.
No, the games don’t count over the summer and the scores don’t matter. But Carlock and Sheehy-Giuseppi — and so many others like them — will be the first to tell you these chances do.