Browns TE Njoku rises from problem child to consummate pro and Pro Bowler in seven years
BEREA, Ohio (AP) — David Njoku once demanded to be traded by the Browns. Actually, he did it two or three times — in the same season.
Looking back, the complex tight end, who was just 20 when he entered the NFL, is almost amused he wanted out of Cleveland. He's evolved, and so has the team.
From problem child to professional.
"The best feeling is just being what I can be to this team,” he said Thursday, a day after being selected to his first Pro Bowl. "Crazy saying that, how everything went the past few years. But nowhere else I’d rather be.”
It's hard to imagine the Browns without him.
There isn't a player who personifies this unlikely, injury-strewn, turnaround season in Cleveland better than Njoku. His production finally intersected with his potential and he displayed incredible toughness by playing 48 hours after being badly burned on his face and hands in a home fire accident.
But nowadays, dropped passes and distractions are behind him.
He's blossomed into one of the NFL's best tight ends and perhaps best kept secrets, if that's even possible at 6-foot-5 with a body seemingly chiseled by Michelangelo with braided blond hair and an outgoing personality that has made him both a revered teammate and fan favorite.
After the Browns clinched just their third playoff berth since 1999 with a win over the New York Jets last week, Njoku was captured on video celebrating.
He screamed “We're going to the playoffs, baby!” at one youngster, jumped into the front row of seats to chug the sudsy remains of a discarded beer and joined tailgaters outside Cleveland Browns Stadium for a round of postgame shots.
“Watching it and doing it were two different things,” Njoku said of his viral moments. "Like, doing it, I was like, whatever. Was having a good time. And watching, I was like, oh, (shoot). I did some wild stuff, but it was awesome.”
Njoku's emergence as a dependable target (he leads the Browns with 81 catches and 6 TDs), consummate teammate and respected leader has been most unexpected.
It's almost unimaginable given where things once were.
In 2020, Kevin Stefanski's first season as Cleveland's coach, he and Njoku clashed over just about everything. It led to Njoku requesting a trade, something general manager Andrew Berry was averse to doing after he had a hand in drafting the former Miami standout with freakish skills in the first round in 2017.
Berry stuck with Njoku, picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract and then signed him to a four-year, $54.75 million extension before the 2022 offseason — a move that was initially panned and has proven prescient.
But nothing would have worked if Stefanski and Njoku hadn't resolved their differences.
“The player he was and then the person he has become are different versions than when I first got here," said Stefanski. "And the credit goes to him. He’s been intentional about getting better as a player and I think he’s been intentional about getting better as a teammate.”
Njoku has been reluctant to talk much about his past with Stefanski, but said the present is all that matters.
“Night and day,” he said of their relationship. "Even at practice today, just sitting together. We weren’t doing that back in 2020. It feels good. Feels really great to be on the same page, have like the same view, same goals. It’s awesome.”
Njoku's goals shifted this season from personal to team.
He admitted that for too long he was focused on his own stats, being selfish. And while he was making some strides at becoming a better teammate, Njoku said a life-altering event in September helped switch his mentality.
What was it?
“Probably after my face got burned off,” he said, almost flippantly before explaining the impact.
Njoku was lighting a fire pit at home when an explosion of built-up gas engulfed him, the flames causing second-degree burns to nearly 20% of his body, primarily on his face and hands. Initially, he didn't even go to the hospital before finally seeking medical help.
Despite being advised not to play, Njoku didn't want to let his teammates down and pushed through a game against Baltimore despite excruciating pain. He finished with six catches for 46 yards, but his dedication was immeasurable.
The experience gave him a new perspective.
“Life is a beautiful thing,” he said. "The finer things, like just being able to see, hear, senses, everything. And then as each week went by, I started noticing that I was caring more about what the team needed to win, more so than what I needed to be happy.
"And by doing that, it also made me happy as well. Funny how life works.”
Njoku said when he learned about the Pro Bowl he didn't spend much time reflecting on the crooked path behind him.
“As crazy as it sounds, throughout my whole career, it was mostly about stats and how many yards I can get, how many touchdowns I can get,” he said. "The one year where I didn’t care about it, but more so the team was more important than me, that I made it."
Did it teach him a lesson?
“Yeah,” Njoku said. “We, not me.”
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