Niyo: Determined sales pitch lands Traverse City's Sheehy-Guiseppi a football career

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi wasn't afraid to take some risks to further his football career.

If he’d heard the sales pitch once, he’d heard it a thousand times. But the night before he left home to chase his dream once more — and maybe for the last time — Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi knew he’d hear it again.

And it’s a good thing he listened, because had the Traverse City St. Francis graduate not heeded his mother’s advice, he might not be where he is now — running through drills in the Cleveland Browns training camp as the feel-good story of the NFL preseason.

Shawnah Sheehy built a career in sales, and as the CEO of a marketing company in Arizona, the Michigan native always had a rather direct response for the three sons she raised as a single mother.

“You put the work in and you follow through,” she said. “And when that opportunity does come about, you better be prepared. That’s all I ever told my kids was just be ready for that opportunity.”

But this opportunity? Well, this one took more than a little work. And after years of preparation, following through sent Sheehy-Guiseppi on a journey that had even his mother shaking her head at times.

There was the time in April when she found out he’d been sleeping outside like a homeless person in Miami as he awaited his NFL tryout. Or the day he’d come home in late 2016, after dropping out of junior college, and announced, “I’m gonna go on a road trip.”

“And I said, ‘You’re what?!?!’” Shawnah recalls with a laugh, speaking by phone from her home in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

Only this wasn’t your typical college road trip. This was Damon, her middle child, deciding it was time to try his hand as traveling salesman, shopping his services as a football player as he drove cross-country from Arizona to Florida along Interstate 10.

“He said, ‘I’ve got a credit card, Mom, and I’m gonna hit every school that I think needs me,’ ” his mother said. “I’m gonna show ’em my highlight tape.”

Obstacles in his path

But the road trip turned out to be one pothole after another for Sheehy-Guiseppi, who’d earned junior college All-American honors in 2016 with Phoenix College after leading the nation in kick-return yardage.

There was a special teams coach at LSU, Bradley Dale Peveto, who’d been interested in signing Sheehy-Guiseppi as a juco transfer, but the holdover from Les Miles’ staff wasn’t retained by new head coach Ed Orgeron after the 2016 season. And few other coaches were willing to listen to his sales pitch.

Sheehy-Guiseppi only had a year of college eligibility remaining, thanks to an earlier false start. And he was still nine credits shy of his associate degree. So when he returned home with no money and no offer, he was understandably “devastated.”

Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi runs for an 86-yard punt return during the second half of an NFL preseason game against the Washington Redskins on Aug. 8.

But thanks to a solid family support group, including an uncle, Cal Sheehy, who is the mayor of Lake Havasu City, and a stubborn streak he says he inherited from his mom, it wasn’t the end of his dream. It was just another obstacle.

Sheehy-Guiseppi was born in Orlando, but spent the first few years of his life in Michigan before moving to Arizona at age 4 as his mother sought relief for her youngest son Dylan’s severe asthma. The three “rambunctious” boys grew up playing sports, and midway through high school Damon followed his older brother, Devin, back to Traverse City, where their father, John Guiseppi, still lives. Devin was a two-sport star in football and basketball at St. Francis, while Damon focused on basketball — St. Francis made the Class C state finals in 2012 — as did Dylan, a junior guard who just transferred from VCU to NAIA Bethel University.

After high school, Dylan planned to join Damon again at Mesa Community College back in Arizona. But he didn’t make the cut for the basketball team there, and after a car accident later that freshman year put his track career on hold, too, he took time off from school to rehab his injury, got hooked on weight training, and started working as a door-to-door sales rep for ADT security systems. ("He was really good at it," Shawnah says.)

It was only after he joined his brother and some friends in a flag-football tournament that he decided to give tackle football a try for the first time since his Pop Warner days. That led him to Phoenix College, where he kept showing up at summer workouts until a new coaching staff had no choice but to give him a roster spot.

It was another flag-football connection — a friend of a friend, he says — that mentioned something about an invitation-only NFL tryout in Miami this year, prompting Sheehy-Guiseppi to plan another road trip. One his mother supported again, buying him a one-way ticket using her frequent-flier miles and giving him $200 for the trip before delivering one last reminder.

“I told him, ‘This is your chance,’ ” Sheehy said. “But I also said, ‘Do your research. Use the skills that you’ve learned. Get past the gatekeeper and know who the decision makers are inside.' I said, ‘When that person asks you when you go to check in and you’re not on the list, what’re you gonna do?’”

What he did was tell a little white lie, convincing security that he knew former NFL star Alonzo Highsmith, the Browns’ vice president of player personnel who was running the tryout. Once inside, Sheehy-Guiseppi immediately sought out Highsmith and introduced himself to a man he'd never met. Then he went out on the field and clocked a blistering 4.38-second 40-yard dash.

“He had an excellent workout,” Highsmith told Browns’ website this spring. “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.’”

'Dream come true'

Wolf agreed, which meant Sheehy-Guiseppi had a week to prepare for the Browns’ rookie minicamp as a tryout invitee. Problem is, he was essentially broke after spending the last of his money to train at Pete Bommarito's gym in Miami where dozens of current NFL players and other pro athletes work out. So he spent most of his time using guest passes at a 24-hour fitness center, popped into a nearby laundromat to charge his phone, limited himself to a meal or two a day, and actually spent a couple nights sleeping on a “patch of grass” just outside Bommarito’s facility. Until his mother found out about that last part in a late-night phone call and insisted on finding him a room.

“I’m OK with roughing it,” she said. “I’m not OK with sleeping outside.”

A few days later, everything really was OK, though. Shawnah’s cell phone rang, and Damon was on the line from Berea, Ohio, sharing the news that he’d been offered a three-year, non-guaranteed rookie contract after his tryout.

“A dream come true,” he called it.

Sheehy-Guiseppi spent the spring and summer going through offseason workouts with the Browns, one of the more fascinating teams heading into this 2019 NFL season.

When it came time for the first exhibition game against the Washington Redskins this month, with his family in attendance, Sheehy-Guiseppi was so excited he forgot his cleats and had to borrow a pair from Odell Beckham Jr. He went on to play 21 snaps on offense, catching two passes for 12 yards in the second half. And then with barely 3 minutes remaining in the game, he got the call for his first punt return.

“Right before he went out, on the sideline, me and Odell were talking to him, telling him, ‘You about to take this one to the house — just catch it first,’” said Jarvis Landry, the Browns’ veteran receiver. “And honestly, that’s what he did.”

Indeed, the rookie bobbled the catch at his own 14-yard line, then took off, dancing between a pair of would-be tacklers and racing into the open field along the visitors’ sideline. By the time he’d reached the end zone, his teammates were acting like they’d won the Super Bowl, streaming onto the field and piling on top of him in celebration.

“Obviously, by the reaction of all the players, you know how excited and how proud we are of him and his story,” Landry said.

"I was gasping for air, but I felt all the love," Sheehy-Guiseppi said. “It was a surreal moment. That was a moment I’ve been waiting on for a long time.”

No one understood that better than his mother, who admittedly was an emotional wreck up in the stands.

"I was so excited and happy for him," she said. "I started crying, just tears of joy. I mean, he’s been trying to do this for so long and it was one of those things, as a parent, where you could finally say, ‘He’s gonna be OK.’ ”

He was, and he is, even if making the 53-man roster at the end of the preseason remains a long shot. The 24-year-old rookie has impressed teammates and coaches alike with his maniacal work ethic. The night his preseason debut turned him into an instant celebrity nationally, Sheehy-Guiseppi was back at the Browns facility working out at 2 a.m. And more than once his head coach, Freddie Kitchens, says he has found him there after midnight and had to "send his (butt) home to get some rest."

“But it’s good to see hard-working, good people succeed, and he definitely fits the bill,” Kitchens said. “I mean, if you stick around any day after practice you see him out on the practice field getting extra running in and before practice getting extra work in. He’s always at the office. He’s a good kid.”

But is he a good enough player to stick around? He has a little more than a week to prove it, as the Browns play at Tampa Bay on Friday, then finish the preseason against the Lions next Thursday in Cleveland, where Sheehy-Guiseppi will have a big cheering section, including his mother. (Another St. Francis alum, former Michigan fullback Joe Kerridge, recently signed with the Browns as well.)

Beckham Jr. and Landry are locked in as the Browns’ starters at receiver, with Rashard Higgins and Jaelon Strong likely holding down the next two spots. That leaves one or two more spots for a group that includes Damion Ratley, Derrick Willies, D.J. Montgomery and Sheehy-Guiseppi. (The Browns also have Antonio Callaway, a 2018 fourth-round pick who’ll be suspended for the first four games of the regular season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.) He’s also listed behind running backs Dontrell Hilliard and D’Ernest Johnson — both of whom are expected to make the final cut — on the depth chart as a returner.

Still, landing a spot on the Browns' practice squad as a developmental player — and the $8,000 weekly salary that goes with it — remains very much a possibility. If not, another team — or another league — might come calling, now that people know his name, .And his story, as remarkable as it is

"I don’t know if I look at myself as an inspiration," Sheehy-Guiseppi said. "I would just describe it as someone trying to chase their dreams. Just doing what they love and not listening to anybody else." @JohnNiyo