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DB Brandon Stephens transitions from arena league to hometown Browns

Odds are you've seen Brandon Stephens at some point over the past few months. He was just wearing a different uniform.

Stephens' image looms large in downtown Cleveland. Wearing Cleveland Gladiators red and black, the Browns defensive back can be seen on a banner draped along the outside of The Q on the side that can be seen from Progressive Field's home run porch.

The significance isn't lost on Stephens, a Strongsville native who signed with the Browns after an impressive showing at May's rookie camp. The Gladiators were there for Stephens when he looked to extend his fledgling football career in 2014, and the Browns were there to scoop him up for OTAs when he proved, at 27, he was worthy of one last shot at the NFL.

"Not many people get this opportunity to play for their home team, let alone getting their second chance in the NFL," Stephens said. "I'm representing more than just my name and me. It's the fans of Cleveland and the people that support me. It's a blessing to be here."

This particular blessing came because of Stephens' diligence.

Stephens signed with the Gladiators in 2014 but only played in two games because of a dislocated elbow. It was a familiar, sinking feeling for Stephens, who suffered an injury during training camp with the Detroit Lions in 2011 and never saw the field for any of their preseason games.

Stephens flashed enough potential, though, to show he could be a star player for the 2015 Gladiators. Thus, the banner.

After each of his six games with the Gladiators this season, Stephens sent a highlight tape to the Browns. Days after the Gladiators scored a 56-55 overtime victory over the Orlando Predators, Stephens finally heard back. He was one of the last of 50 to be invited to the Browns' rookie mini-camp and was one of the few who checked in north of 22 years old.

After three days of intensive, on-field work with first- and second-year players, he was one of eight who was told to stick around.

"I think from their perspective they thought at my age I was just another guy coming in for rookie camp but I ended up competing and doing really well to the point where they signed me," Stephens said. "It's rare for someone my age already who has been through it and been out of the league so long and getting another shot like this. I believe my performance had a lot to do with that."

That's exactly how secondary coach Jeff Hafley explained why Stephens stood out and impressed the coaches enough to add a body to an already crowded room of talented defensive backs.

Stephens played at both cornerback and safety with the second- and third-team defense during OTAs and at mini-camp. He's one of 17 defensive backs who will be on the field when training camp opens later this month.

"He's a little bit older so he has that maturity to him where he wants to learn, he wants to be around," Hafley said. "It's important to him, he knows it's his shot. He's still got to learn the scheme and I think you're going to see him get better as we go on in this scheme and he learns it more. I'm excited about him."

That Stephens has already played in multiple, regulation football games in 2015 worked to both his advantage and disadvantage during his first few months with the Browns.

It helped, of course, because Stephens, at a chiseled 5-foot-10 and 199 pounds, was clearly in football shape while the players around him hadn't played in a real game since late December or early January. But there's also the wear and tear factor, and Stephens admitted he's been going "non-stop" for months.

You just won't hear him complaining about it.

"God blessed me enough to keep playing through arena football and led me here to my home town," Stephens said. "I'm getting a lot of feedback, a lot of positive feedback. Everyone wants to be a part of what's happening. It's great to hear support from the hometown. It's a blessing. I say that every time."

That support includes his former coach, Steve Thonn, who lost a valuable defensive back when the Browns signed Stephens midway through the Gladiators' season. There's no hard feelings from Thonn, though, as he prides himself on grooming players who carry the kind of goals Stephens has maintained since he went undrafted out of Miami (Ohio).

"He realizes this is his last shot," Thonn said. "I think it's an advantage for him because he's more mature than he was three or four years ago. I think he knows what to expect more going into camp. And just keeping in shape and playing arena football. The speed of our game just helps him when you go back to the outdoor game because everything's a little slower.

"I hope he doesn't come back. I hope Brandon makes it. He's such a great guy."

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