Soldier of Misfortune

Times Staff Writer

Kellen Winslow, activated again after spending most of his first two NFL seasons on the injured list, was so jacked up last Sunday that he all but hyperventilated before the Cleveland Browns’ opener against the New Orleans Saints.

Teammate Braylon Edwards said he was “gasping for air.”

Later, after scoring his first NFL touchdown on an 18-yard, third-quarter pass from quarterback Charlie Frye, Winslow nearly knocked the air out of trainer Marty Lauzon, so vehement was their celebratory bear hug.

And after the game, Winslow said of Saints safety Roman Harper, whose interference of Winslow set up the Browns’ other touchdown in a 19-14 loss, “He couldn’t hold me, pretty much.... Nobody can guard me one-on-one.”


What, you expected a fade-into-the-background, shrinking-violet reentry from the irascible, effervescent tight end from Miami?

On Wednesday, Winslow called teammate Leigh Bodden the NFL’s best cornerback and said he would “shut down” Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson in today’s game at Cincinnati, “as he did last year.”

Responded Johnson when told of Winslow’s comments: “I feel our defense is going to shut down Kellen Winslow. How about that?”

Browns Coach Romeo Crennel suggested Winslow zip it.


Even in high school, Winslow, 23, was full of steam.

Said Sergio Diaz, football coach at Scripps Ranch High in San Diego County and an assistant when Winslow played there, “He would fly a hundred miles an hour at practice. Sometimes he would injure our other guys because they weren’t going hard enough and he only knew how to practice at one speed. But you don’t want to tell a kid not to work hard. We just told everybody else, ‘You’ve got to pick it up or he’s going to hurt you.’ ”

In training camp this summer, Winslow told reporters that although he hadn’t played since the second game of his rookie season two years ago, and might never again operate at 100% efficiency, they probably wouldn’t notice.

“I hate to be brash,” said Winslow, son of the Hall of Fame tight end of the same name, “but I think my 90% is better than every tight end out there.”

Who could argue? Nobody in Cleveland had seen enough of Winslow to dispute him.

Highly touted at Miami, where his speed, power and playmaking ability labeled him a top prospect and a rambling “I’m a ... soldier” rant branded him a knucklehead, Winslow helped the Hurricanes win the Bowl Championship Series national title as a freshman in 2001 and reach the championship game again the next season.

He caught 119 passes in 38 games at Miami, a school record for tight ends, and was the sixth pick in the 2004 draft. Some predicted that, like his father, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Winslow would redefine the position.

But in the final minute of the second game of his rookie season he suffered a broken leg while covering an onside kick. Eight months later, his leg injury healed, he suffered a career-threatening knee injury when thrown from a high-powered motorcycle while attempting stunts in a parking lot.


He also suffered a broken thigh bone in the accident, later developed a staph infection and lost 30 pounds. Last season, he sat out again.

While rehabbing, he visited his high school alma mater.

“It was hard for him to talk about it,” Diaz said. “He knew what everybody was saying. Even people in the community were saying, ‘There goes Kellen again, screwing up.’ It’s not fair. It’s not that he’s screwing up. Taking chances is part of his personality....

“I know it was hurting him not to play, but when you talked to him about it, you knew he was going to rehabilitate the same way he practices.”

Winslow swore off motorcycles. He married his junior high school sweetheart. And he and Frye bonded, often working out and attending Cleveland Cavaliers games together, the quarterback seeing the potential in Winslow to pump life into a team that scored a league-low 232 points last season.

“He can play receiver, tight end, line him up in the backfield,” Frye told reporters before the opener. “He’ll provide a lot of mismatches, not just for him but other guys. If you split him out wide, who’s going to go out there? A corner? A safety or linebacker? So he’s going to cause some confusion.”

Last week, Winslow caught eight passes for 63 yards. He nearly made a ninth catch, a one-handed grab of an end-zone lob, but couldn’t quite corral it for a touchdown while drawing the interference call against Harper.

After the game, Winslow said of his return, “I can’t even describe it. The game was here, and I thought it was my time to shine.”


The Browns, of course, hope more sunny days are ahead.

Ben Coates, who coaches their tight ends, thrived in the same offensive system while playing for the New England Patriots. A five-time Pro Bowl player, Coates ranks among the NFL’s top 10 in receptions by tight ends.

“It’s a system that gives the tight ends an ability to show what they can do,” Coates said. “I can’t put a finger on how good Kellen could be, but the potential is there. You just have to wait over time to see how everything comes out and how he fully develops, but I see him getting better and better.”

That surely would excite him.

“He’s excited every day,” Coates said. “That’s how he is.”