With the ball at the Bengals 24 and 15 seconds to play, Donovan Peoples-Jones was the lone receiver on the right side of the field inside Paul Brown Stadium as Baker Mayfield tried to pull out a victory from what looked like defeat.
Until Week 7, Peoples-Jones — playing mostly as a kick and punt returner — wasn't a primary target for Mayfield, who had Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, two Pro Bowl receivers, as his top options.
That needed to change Sunday in Cincinnati after Beckham went down with a knee injury in the first quarter. At halftime in the Browns locker room, Beckham gave Peoples-Jones a message.
"Go be great," he told Peoples-Jones.
And he did.
In the fourth quarter, Peoples-Jones made his first reception ever on a 19-yard pass from … Landry. Yes, his first NFL catch came on a pass from the veteran wide receiver.
But a much bigger moment awaited Peoples-Jones. When Mayfield took the snap and the clock began to tick, Peoples-Jones made a sprint to the right corner of the end zone. When he got to the 10-yard line, he turned his head to the left. The ball was in the air and heading his way.
He crossed the goal line, turned around and fell backward. Though he misjudged Mayfield's throw at first, Peoples-Jones torqued his legs around and adjusted his hands just in time. He caught the ball at his hip and dragged his cleats across the orange end zone turf.
Left foot, tap. Right foot, tap.
Touchdown. Then, mayhem.
Peoples-Jones leaped in celebration with Landry before the offensive linemen mobbed him. Mayfield, meanwhile, screamed into the sky and then pointed back at his receiver.
"It was a perfectly thrown ball and perfectly timed moment," Peoples-Jones said. "It was all God."
Peoples-Jones had his moment in the NFL spotlight. After seven weeks of waiting for his first shot to make a big play, he was given his chance at a pivotal moment.
His patience had paid off.
"I'm really proud of how he played," coach Kevin Stefanski said. "He is 'Mr. Reliable.' There are going to be opportunities for him moving forward just like that."
Peoples-Jones has been looking for those opportunities since the Browns called his name on Day 3 of the NFL draft. No, it's been since he decided to forego his final season of a rocky career at Michigan. No, it's actually been since he was tagged as the No. 1 receiving recruit in the country in 2017. No, it's really been since …
It doesn't matter. For Peoples-Jones, his wait is over.
The Browns have selected Donovan Peoples-Jones in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Donovan Peoples-Jones has every big play from Super Bowl XXXVI memorized.
When he was 4 years old, Donovan watched and re-watched a tape recording from the game between Tom Brady and Kurt Warner and re-enacted every slow-motion replay. He'd slide across the carpet or dive across the couch with his own football and pretend to make the same highlight-reel grabs.
When the game ended, he'd slide the tape back in and play it again.
"A lot of kids would watch Sesame Street and cartoons," said Roslyn Peoples, his mom. "He would just watch football. You'd put that tape on, and he would just sit there for hours."
Donovan always wore a jersey when he re-created the Super Bowl in the living room, she said. He loved jerseys. They were always at the top of his Christmas wish list, and his parents were perplexed at how quickly he became attached to a jersey of any player.
He first wore a blue Charlie Batch Lions jersey. That one made sense — the Lions were the hometown team. But he also wore a red Priest Holmes Chiefs jersey. Then he had a green Brian Westbrook Eagles jersey. Then he wore a Randy Moss jersey, a Michael Vick jersey, a Donovan McNabb jersey. He'd wear any jersey he could find.
On Sundays, she nagged her son about wearing proper attire to church. He'd walk downstairs with one of his jerseys on and she'd order him back upstairs to change. He'd come back with pants and a collared shirt — over his football jersey.
"He wore jerseys so much," Peoples said. "Every day. He wore jerseys until he wore the numbers off the front. We had to turn it around, and then he wore out the numbers off the back."
Peoples-Jones scored his first touchdown when he was 6 years old. He lined up as a tight end, ran a short 5-yard route and turned around to make the catch.
After sprinting 60 yards to the end zone, he quickly realized he was uncatchable for most defenses. For most of his life, his speed was never matched.
One of his favorite hobbies as a kid was to race cars from his front yard, and he'd always win. Well, almost always.
"Some cars did me dirty," he said. "Cars are going 15 miles per hour down the street, and I'd try to catch them. Then they go 25 miles per hour on me, and I was just like, 'Come on!' It humbled me a little bit."
By the time he arrived for high school football at Michigan powerhouse Cass Tech in Detroit, his athletic talents were already ripe for an NFL Combine.
Coach Thomas Wilcher didn't believe what he saw when Peoples-Jones made his first attempt in the standing broad jump portion of the fitness test. It was the farthest of any player, so Wilcher checked to see what the NFL record was, too.
It was 11 feet, 5 inches.
Peoples-Jones beat the record. Wilcher doesn't remember the precise measurement, but Peoples-Jones was a hair farther.
"I was like, 'Damn, that's far!' " Wilcher said. "The numbers don't really mean much for the kids. When you're that young, you're just doing it. If the coach said do it, you do it. When we were doing drills, I was like, 'You gotta go farther, Donovan. You gotta go farther than anybody else.' "
He always did, and colleges quickly noticed.
Ohio State offered him his first scholarship in his freshman year. After that, the Peoples-Jones household was swarmed with letters from almost every football program in the country. Notre Dame sent over 100 letters. His mom, Roslyn Peoples, still has all of her son's college football mail in five plastic tubs in the basement.
"I think for a while, you just become overwhelmed," she said. "Everybody was overwhelmed, the mailman especially. He couldn't even leave it at the mailbox anymore. He'd just leave it in piles at the door."
At some point, the mail became moot for Peoples-Jones. His decision came down to five colleges: Ohio State, Florida, Florida State, Michigan State and Michigan, but football wasn't his primary focus when making the selection.
Football, actually, was secondary. He wanted to become an orthopedic surgeon, and that played a crucial role in narrowing down his selections.
"I had a friend tell me to pick a school you wanted to go to if you weren't playing football," Peoples-Jones said. "That stuff spoke volumes to me."
Dr. Eddie Jones, his father and an orthopedic surgeon, specializes in orthopedic trauma, sports medicine and joint replacement for OAK Orthopedics in Bradley, Illinois. When Donovan was 9 years old, he bought him "Anatomy: A Regional Atlas of the Human Body," a book commonly used in anatomy classes across the country. Donovan needed to study the photographs before he watched his father perform an ankle surgery.
When Dr. Jones quizzed his son on the anatomy during the operation, he scored 100 percent.
"I grabbed the forceps and grabbed something and said, 'What is this?' and he'd know the different muscles and the fibula," Dr. Jones said. "We'd show him how to put a plate in and how to drill the screws. He was really into it."
Peoples-Jones continued to study anatomy — he could usually self-diagnose any injuries he suffered in football without the assistance of a trainer — and always kept "A" grades on his school report card. That was one of the things he stressed as an eighth grader in his first conversation with Wilcher.
"We talked about how he wanted to be a straight-A student," Wilcher said, "and he talked about why he wanted to come to Cass Tech: He wanted to be the greatest player in the state."
Peoples-Jones accomplished that while fortifying himself as one of the top wide receiver prospects in the nation. He caught 29 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Cass Tech and was MVP of the state championship game his final year. But when the time came to make his college decision, he remembered the advice of his friend: Football is second.
So he picked Michigan. The university has a renowned medical school for students with orthopedic interests.
His football future, though, was certainly still bright.
"I don't have to just play football," Peoples-Jones said. "I can chase my other dreams. I wanted to do both. That's why I chose Michigan."
When Peoples-Jones talks about his time at Michigan, he uses a common phrase from coach Harbaugh.
"The biggest thing I learned," he said, "is just attacking everything with enthusiasm unknown to mankind."
That's precisely what Peoples-Jones did with the Wolverines. His college career included plenty of acrobatic catches and jaw-dropping plays, but it also included drops, mistimed throws and a lack of production many expected from Michigan's offense with Peoples-Jones at receiver.
The blame, though, was hardly on Peoples-Jones. He played with four different quarterbacks — Brandon Peters, Wilton Speight, Shea Patterson and John O'Korn — in his three seasons at Michigan.
None ever found much success in Ann Arbor. Peters transferred to Illinois after two seasons, while the other three quarterbacks haven't been on an NFL roster past training camp.
"I did what I could when I had the opportunity," Peoples-Jones said in his first interview with the Browns. "I think that the (2020 wide receiver class rankings) will reveal itself in the next couple years."
Peoples-Jones did all he could to boost his draft stock at the NFL Combine, and his measurements were first-round worthy. He ran a 4.48 40-yard dash and registered a vertical jump of 44.5 inches, which led all participants.
Oh, and his broad jump — 11 feet, 7 inches. That was the best of the class, too.
He was one of three receivers to receive a 99-athleticism score from Next Gen Stats. The other two receivers were Henry Ruggs III, the first wideout taken in the draft, and Denzel Mims, a second-round pick.
Every NFL team craves players with the measurables Peoples-Jones had. Yet when Day 2 of the draft ended, his name was still on the board. He was one of the best players available, but no team had selected him as the draft crept into the sixth round.
Sure, his college numbers weren't as high as some other receivers, but the athleticism was palpable.
At least that's what Peoples-Jones thought.
Peoples-Jones was angry.
As he laid in his bed in Detroit and scrolled through social media on Day 3 of the draft, his anxiety was about to hit its breaking point. The draft was moving into the sixth round, and his phone was silent.
He had enough.
He set his phone down, stood from his bed and walked to the bathroom to turn the shower handle. He needed a few minutes to clear his head from the stress. Each swipe of Twitter and Instagram revealed a new drafted player. Each selection was another punch to the gut.
"I was waiting for calls," Peoples-Jones said. "Just waiting, waiting and waiting."
Peoples-Jones had one foot in the shower. Then his phone vibrated. It was a 216 area code.
"I didn't know if it was a friend calling me or checking up on me, or an old coach trying to pick my head up," he said. "I'm just like, 'Man, I hope this is it.'"
With the 187th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns selected Peoples-Jones.
He rushed out of the bathroom and went back into his bedroom. He was so excited he forgot to put a shirt on minutes later for his video call with Executive Vice President and GM Andrew Berry and Stefanski.
"You gonna put a shirt on or what?" said Peter John-Baptiste, the senior vice president of communications, with a smile at the beginning of the call.
"Yeah, I'm putting one on right now!" Peoples-Jones replied with a laugh.
The Browns had already patched other areas of need on the roster with their previous five picks and loved Peoples-Jones' athleticism. Wide receivers weren't at the top of their draft needs, but the opportunity to select one of the fastest, most athletically gifted athletes in the sixth-round rarely happens.
They couldn't ignore him any longer.
"I think that Donovan is a talented young player," Berry said after the draft. "I think that this was a pretty deep receiver class. I think there are a number of players from the first round down that fell in spots that, in a given year, they may have gone a little bit higher. We think he is a very talented individual."
Peoples-Jones, however, needed to wait for his shot to make an impact. He performed well in training camp and made a few leaping grabs, but the Browns had all they needed at the receiver position with Beckham and Landry.
The Browns had a plan for Peoples-Jones. It required patience.
"There is a lot this kid can do," Stefanski said after Peoples-Jones was drafted. "It's going to be a matter of him showing it to us."
On Monday afternoon after the Week 7 win over the Bengals, Stefanski sat down, looked at the laptop connected to the video call with local reporters and confirmed unfortunate news about the Browns' receiving room: Beckham was out for the year.
"Incredibly disappointed for him," Stefanski said. "I know injuries are part of this game, but I just hate to see that."
Stefanski, though, didn't lose confidence in his receiving corps. All of them rose to the challenge and found ways to help the Browns win Sunday, and Stefanski was sure to express his faith in them after he announced an injury to their top guy.
"We will just have to huddle up and find some different ways and find some different people and put them in that role," he said. "I will tell you: I like the guys we have in that room."
One of those guys is Peoples-Jones. He's developed a strong reputation among his new teammates as a player ahead of the standard rookie curve. Peoples-Jones has mastered the playbook — he flashed his knowledge in all three catches Sunday — and has built trust with Mayfield.
After he originally misfired on a pass to Peoples-Jones earlier in the third quarter — a play that was nullified by a Bengals penalty — Mayfield told him they were going to connect again soon. He knew Peoples-Jones would be ready for a big play. They just needed to wait for the right moment.
That moment arrived with 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
The result was a game-winning touchdown.
"He made an incredible play," Mayfield said. "He has just been locked in on terminology and learning the offense a lot quicker than most rookie receivers would be in terms of learning and the pace. He is just all about his work and all about his business."
Now, Peoples-Jones is in line to see a significant uptick in snaps and has an opportunity to carve an even larger role with the offense. He's waited for his opportunity ever since the draft.
"I just needed one chance," he said on the day he was drafted. "I don't feel like I started (showing my full potential), personally. I feel like I'm ready."
Peoples-Jones proved he was ready Sunday. His game-winning touchdown instantly became the biggest highlight of a career that's been full of untapped potential.
He's ready to add more big plays to the list.
"I'm going to keep coming in and showing everything that I have," he said. "Every tool and asset I have that they can utilize, I just want to show it."