A little more than a week ago, Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi was sleeping outside. It was just him, his two bags and a patch of grass in Miami, Florida.
He was spending his nights getting as much rest as he could outdoors, just steps away from renowned NFL Combine trainer Pete Bommarito's facility, where Sheehy-Guiseppi had spent his last $200 on training services. He did so because he had no other choice: His workout with the Browns, perhaps his one and only shot at the NFL, was a week away.
If that doesn't sound preposterous enough, here's how Sheehy-Guiseppi worked his way into a tryout for the Browns: He convinced them he was supposed to be there.
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Sheehy-Guiseppi, who's based in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, was once an NJCAA All-American returner.
He racked up 1,178 kickoff return yards in his first season at Phoenix College, then improved on that by leading the nation in kick-return yardage (1,278) and kick-return touchdowns (4) in his second season. He also finished second in the NJCAA in yards per kick return (32.8) and punt return yards (400).
All the while, he yearned to grow as a football player, frequently asking offensive coaches at Phoenix College to help him become a wide receiver. They declined, telling him to focus on being the best returner he can be. Sheehy-Guiseppi thinks part of it had to do with his reserved nature, which didn't help him build a rapport with the coaches he needed to help guide him.
And even then, he really wasn't supposed to even be on the roster. He didn't make the basketball team at Mesa Community College, finding himself instead running track until a car accident derailed the end of his first season. He didn't get a call back after working out for Phoenix College, the second junior college he pursued. But while there, Sheehy-Guiseppi obtained a schedule for summer workouts and just started showing up with persistence. By the end of them, the staff really couldn't say no to his participation.
So as we move ahead in time to when Sheehy-Guiseppi had the smallest sliver of a chance to run in front of NFL-associated eyes, it comes as no surprise, then, that he carved out a spot in a place he didn't belong.
Sheehy-Guiseppi arrived at a workout in North Miami after learning of the gathering from a friend of a friend made through a flag football league in Arizona. The connection played coy on the details with Sheehy-Guiseppi, though, causing him to almost miss out on the opportunity. And there was one more catch: He might not be allowed to participate.
"I was like 'just give me the address and I'll talk to them myself,'" he recalled. "So I show up and the guy says something to me. He was like 'who are you?'"
Sheehy-Guiseppi found out Browns vice president of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith would be at the event scouting prospects, so he researched Highsmith to figure out what he looked like. Then he saw Highsmith, but only after he had to convince the man in charge of admission that he was supposed to be there, and that he and Highsmith were familiar.
They were not.
"Knew nothing about him,” Highsmith said of Sheehy-Guiseppi.
Sheehy-Guiseppi spotted Highsmith when the latter arrived, bee-lined over to the personnel man and introduced himself. That was enough to get the man with the list to write his name below the printed, expected participants, which was also enough to earn him a chance to run the 40-yard dash.
A 4.38 was good enough to catch Highsmith's eye.
"He had an excellent workout,” Highsmith said Thursday. “Caught punts well, ran fast. I called (Browns assistant general manager) Eliot (Wolf) and I said 'hey, this kid Damon Sheehy, man he ran fast.' He goes 'really?' I said 'yeah, he caught the ball well, I'm thinking we should bring him up.' And then I was like, well, maybe we'll wait, but then I thought about it and Eliot goes 'well let's just bring him in now.'"
Sheehy-Guiseppi was on Cloud 9 after receiving an invitation to Berea for a workout one week later. Problem was, he'd bought a one-way flight to Miami with the last of his mother’s rewards points. He boarded the plane set on earning a workout. He wasn't going back to Arizona, at least not until after his potential NFL chance was exhausted.
He started the following days in a bedroom rented online, but still needed to stick around in Miami beyond his stay. Set on making it on his own and knowing his mother, Shawnah, was operating on a budget, he chose the patch of grass for two nights, and a 24-hour fitness center for another, keeping these details from his mom.
"I kept using guest passes," he said. “I went to the laundromat (to charge his phone), used that. Those were my three spots. (The fitness center) was showing the most love, they kept letting me come back."
When he explains the story, Sheehy-Guiseppi sounds like he just finished running down the beach. There's so much to tell in so little time, and it spills out of his mouth, information arriving in rapid fire. He was planning on sleeping on the beach, drifting off to the sound of the surf. For a few hours, that was his temporary home.
Eventually, he grabbed his bags and decided to move camp closer to his place of business: next to a fence surrounding Bommarito's, the training home of multiple NFL standouts (Chiefs DL Chris Jones and Panthers WR Curtis Samuel, to name a few).
He trained there for a week, waking up and walking in at 6 a.m. and staying until 3 p.m. before deciding where he'd head to shower and charge his phone. For food, he wandered up to side-street cookouts and had his mother and friends back in Arizona remotely order him meals.
"I ate like maybe once or twice a day," he said. "I just had to see if I could get a meal that's going to hold me for the whole day."
He was doing everything he could to make sure he was at his peak performance when his time came in Northeast Ohio, which surprisingly isn't far from a place he'd called home for a few years.
In high school, Sheehy-Guiseppi moved from Arizona to Traverse City, Michigan, following his older brother to his father's home. That's where the second half of the hyphenated last name comes from: his father, John Guiseppi. Damon is one of three boys; the youngest, Dylan, is a guard on the VCU basketball team. Dylan's VCU bio offers a peek into their interesting journey, with the listing of hometown (Lake Havasu City) resting right above the high school (Saint Francis, which is located in Traverse City, Michigan).
Damon attended Saint Francis for his final two years of high school, too, making the difficult decision to leave his mother behind in Lake Havasu City.
"I went because my mom just felt like the Catholic school, private school was just a better opportunity for me," Sheehy-Guiseppi said. "She wanted me to go to private school so I could get the best education and hopefully I could go somewhere."
Sheehy-Guiseppi said he gets his unflappable determination from his mom, who is a Saint Francis graduate and built her own career from restaurant serving to marketing while raising he and his athletic brothers as a single parent. His dad provided the direction to pay attention to detail.
"Growing up, I didn't know it at the time, but as I got older I realized how hard she worked for everything she did," Sheehy-Guiseppi said. "That was just a blessing. She didn't have anybody come help her out. She did it all by herself. We didn't have no stepdad growing up, nothing like that. It was all her by herself."
If Sheehy-Guiseppi sounds like a bit of a football nomad, it's somewhat true. He was born in Orlando, Florida, moved to Lake Havasu City with his mother, and then ended up in Traverse City. He played Pop Warner but was headed to junior college to play basketball. Around that time, he got seriously involved in weight training (leading to him eventually major in kinesiology) and after the car accident, he decided he'd instead pursue football at a second junior college. In between, he took a year off athletics, working as a door-to-door home alarm system salesman, at which he was “very successful,” according to Shawnah.
He succeeded at Phoenix College, too, but couldn’t convince the school to give him an athletic scholarship, even after he'd earned his All-American status and after his friend had given up his own full scholarship in an unrelated matter. The plan shifted to selling himself as a Division I scholarship athlete.
Sheehy-Guiseppi dropped out of Phoenix College, went to a bank, applied and received a credit card and maxed it out, traveling to every FBS school from Arizona to Florida with the same request: Watch my film.
Before he could even attract an offer, though, he found out he only had one more year of eligibility remaining because he didn't start playing football until his third academic year of school. To make matters worse, he was nine credits short of being able to transfer.
He was stuck.
"Only one school wanted to watch it," Sheehy-Guiseppi said, "but I went to every big-time school in the SEC you could think of, Big 12, and then I came back and I didn't have any money to go back to school."
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Left with no collegiate options, Sheehy-Guiseppi resorted to training "for two years straight," with his sole focus centered on making it to the NFL. He loved training so much and wanted so badly to find a way to professional football, he frequented every notable training facility in Arizona, connecting with quarterbacks like former Browns camp participant Brogan Roback and former Florida and Notre Dame passer Malik Zaire for whom he'd run routes. Sheehy-Guiseppi even spent nights in former NFL safety Toby Wright's gym so he could get a chance to make as many NFL connections as possible.
Now, this isn't exactly a tale of a wandering, homeless football player. He stayed with his mother, who supported his pursuit of his dream because she knew he’d only get one shot at it, and even if he didn’t make it, he’d learn something from the experience.
“I was as supportive as I could be, trying not to crush his dream,” Shawnah Sheehy said. “But making sure I wasn’t being a detriment to (Damon) really being a productive member of society. Goals are great, but he was getting older. I was like ‘hey, you can do this, and you need to do it. You need to follow through, you need to show up. It’s not just always about training. It’s about a bigger picture, too. So if that’s what you want to do, then put 110 percent and I will support you any way that I can support you. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
But that's how badly Sheehy-Guiseppi wanted a chance. That's how his collegiate success happened, a product of pure effort and determination.
A Phoenix College coach noticed him finishing first in the team sprints during Sheehy-Guiseppi's first season and asked him if he could return kicks. Sheehy-Guiseppi, who had never returned a kick in his life, said yes. And then he became an All-American returner.
When considering this, it comes as no surprise that he decided to sleep outside the Miami gym, with his NFL chance closer than ever.
That chance became a reality -- albeit potentially temporary, as nothing in the NFL lasts forever -- when he arrived in Berea with the same two bags slung over his shoulder. Soon after, he'd impressed Browns scouts enough to earn a contract -- and a free meal.
"Incredible,” Highsmith said. “To be out of football as long as he's been out, and still have that type of speed? That means he's fast. And now he's eating three square meals a day, sleeping in his own bed. The sky's the limit for him."
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Highsmith sees Sheehy-Guiseppi fitting in as a returner with potential to also play slot receiver, calling the former All-American “quick, strong and athletic.
"So far, he's done a phenomenal job,” Highsmith said. “Smart, knows every position. It's interesting, it's going to be a fun story. The next four months, he's got a place to stay."
Sheehy-Guiseppi could be seen in head-to-toe Browns gear walking through the team facility with a noticeable bounce in his step Thursday.
"I couldn't be more happy. It's a grind, you know what I'm saying? I wasn't mad that I was sleeping on the beach. I wasn't upset," Sheehy-Guiseppi said. "I was happy, because I got an opportunity and that's all I wanted. ... I was blessed for that. I was more happy for that. I wasn't even thinking about where I was sleeping, I was thinking about the opportunity that I had in my hands right now and I just wanted to make the most of it."
The reason why this inspiring tale is still a work in progress is the known fact that Sheehy-Guiseppi could be back on the job hunt at any minute. A healthy amount of NFL players have that possibility hanging over their heads as they take the practice field or load up a barbell in the weight room. They all know a long-term career in the league is fleeting.
But for Sheehy-Guiseppi, that career wasn't even a possibility two weeks ago.
"I didn't shed no tears or anything because I know this is like for OTAs and stuff," Sheehy-Guiseppi said. "I want to make the real deal. I want to make sure I can make the 53[-man roster]. I just want to grind so I can make it to the 53."
In the meantime, he's made friends with new Browns safety Morgan Burnett, whom Sheehy-Guiseppi ran into at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. They're both staying at a nearby hotel, where Sheehy-Guiseppi can pick his brain about the complexities of opposing NFL coverages.
For as long as he's part of the Browns, whether it's a week or a year or more, he's focused on learning the playbook and understanding NFL defenses. He'll approach it the same way he's attacked every slight opening of an opportunity: with heart.
"It doesn't happen very often, trust me,” Highsmith said of Sheehy-Guiseppi’s path to the Browns. “I've been in this 22 years now and that doesn't happen very often. And the chances of him making the team are even slimmer.
“But if he does, it'll be one of the greatest stories of all time."