BEREA — As soon as Perrion Winfrey arrived in Cleveland, about 10 Browns fans greeted him at the airport with orange helmets they wanted autographed.
When Winfrey went to pick up a pizza earlier this week, a couple started barking, and he returned the gesture.
“The love has been crazy,” Winfrey said Friday before the first of three rookie minicamp practices at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus.
Winfrey calls the Chicago’s West Side his home, but the charismatic, high-energy rookie defensive tackle who hails from the University of Oklahoma has quickly become convinced he is destined to launch his NFL career in Northeast Ohio.
“The Sooners fans are crazy, but it’s crazy because the Browns fans are crazier than the Sooners fans,” Winfrey said. “I didn’t think it got much crazier.
“I didn’t know the fans were this wild or this passionate about the team. Just knowing that makes me want to be juiced up even more, knowing if I give that passion and effort to the team, it’s going to be given right back to me.”
After the Browns drafted Winfrey in the fourth round (No. 108 overall) on April 30, he conducted an instant-classic Zoom call with beat writers who cover the team. He paced throughout the call, delivered many memorable quotes and barked a few times. Winfrey explained he lost his voice for a little while after the draft, but it returned.
“It was a lot of people sending me [direct messages] of barking videos,” Winfrey said in an entertaining yet much more subdued interview than his introduction to Cleveland media. “They were sending voice videos of barking — not saying any words, just barking.”
To be clear, Winfrey has called himself “a dawg” years before he knew he would be playing in front of the Dawg Pound. He donned a button-down shirt emblazoned with images of Doberman Pinschers during the draft. His wardrobe selection of him and the Browns picking him was a coincidence his mother, Shantel Walker, pointed out.
“I’ve been barking my whole life,” Winfrey said.
Perrion Winfrey explains Oklahoma teammates make him feel at home during transition to Cleveland Browns
In subsequent stages of the draft, Winfrey became even more pumped about joining the Browns because they chose two of his Oklahoma teammates — wide receiver Mike Woods in the sixth round (No. 202 overall) and defensive end Isaiah Thomas in the seventh round (No. .223 overall). Sooners accounted for a third of Cleveland’s nine picks.
“The Cleveland Sooners,” Thomas quipped.
Thomas added the three friends had planned to go shopping together for essentials Friday after fulfilling their duties at minicamp.
“Having that brotherhood and going through the same process is pretty cool,” Thomas said.
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Winfrey, Woods and Thomas joined a group chat during the draft to celebrate being selected by the same team.
“There was a lot of barking, but we definitely chopped it up for a little bit, just telling each other how excited we were and proud we all are to be together,” said Woods, who was limited to a jog-through pace at Friday’s practice because he’s dealing with a lower leg injury coach Kevin Stefanski said isn’t serious.
Winfrey said he lost his mind when he learned Sooners linemate Thomas would be headed to Cleveland. He was one of the first people to call and text Thomas after the pick had been made.
“Our chemistry is almost unmatched,” Winfrey said. “We just have a knack for playing with each other. We always know what each other’s doing, and it’s just easy to us. Our communication and everything is just 100%.
“He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had before in the locker room. He’s one of the guys who’s not only going to hold you accountable, but he’s going to hold himself accountable on and off the field, and his work ethic is unmatched.
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Winfrey and Thomas thought they would be drafted earlier than they were, so they are determined to use the disappointment as fuel.
“We talked about the fact that all those teams passed on us and just remembering that,” Winfrey said, “and just keeping that in the back of our heads and just constantly going to work every day to make every team pay for passing on us. and just bringing a championship to this organization.”
“We’re here for a reason,” Thomas said. “God put us in this position. He didn’t bring us here to fail. We’re all here for the same goal — to win the Super Bowl and also carry that standard that the Browns have now.”
Perrion Winfrey envisions a good partnership with Browns All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett
Draft weekend continued to become more memorable for Winfrey. As video clips of his Zoom call went viral, Browns All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett shared them on social media.
“[Garrett] texted me right after, just told me congratulations, that he was ready to work,” Winfrey said. “And it was just really mind blowing knowing that a 99 overall on Madden just posted me on his Instagram from him. It was cool. It was dope.
“I’m hard-working. He’s hard-working. We’ve both got a common goal of winning a championship, so I feel like we’re going to work well together.”
Thomas insisted the intensity that grabbed the attention of Garrett is genuine.
“Whatever is the furthest thing from shy, that’s always been [Winfrey],” Thomas said. “He always had that chip on his shoulder from him also, like he had something to prove to himself essentially.
“Coming to Oklahoma, I had that. You saw his interview with him. Before he’s even done anything on the field, he’s juiced up, ready to go. Same at Oklahoma. The first day I meet him, he’s loud. I’m like, ‘Hey, relax. Hey, it’s walk through, bro.’ He’s always had that energy. I’m glad he has that ’cause I feed off him as well.”
Winfrey said he has played with energy his whole life, adding he doesn’t sleep much because he’s naturally wired.
“As soon as he opens his eyes, he is passionate and intense,” Woods said.
However, Winfrey will try to dial it back when he’s around Browns veterans this spring and getting to know them during the voluntary offseason workout program.
“I feel like at first, I’ll be more seen than heard, just letting my actions do the talking and obviously following anything that Myles Garrett does,” Winfrey said. “He goes to the bathroom, I go to the bathroom. He gets a drink of water, I’m getting a drink of water.
“No, I’m just playing, but obviously just taking in the stuff that he’s teaching me because he’s obviously doing something great at this level and that’s something that I want to do. So just following in his footsteps from him. I won’t more so likely to be trying to dominate people right away and tell people what to do. I’ll more so likely to be listening and soaking things in like a sponge.”
Former Sooners standout Perrion Winfrey wants to bring a championship to Cleveland like LeBron James
Winfrey has already absorbed advice from his favorite basketball player. After he signed with Klutch Sports Group in the buildup to the draft, he had a phone conversation with LeBron James, who is also represented by the agency.
“[James said] don’t listen to the outside noise, just try to be the best version of myself every single day,” Winfrey said. “[He talked about] enjoying the journey and falling in love with the grind and everything that I want will come into play if I just put my head down and work.”
When NFL Scouting Combine organizers assigned Winfrey No. 23 in early March, I considered it a sign he was meant to be there in Indianapolis because James wears the same jersey number.
“I’m trying to bring a championship to Cleveland just like [James] did,” Winfrey said.
Now Winfrey is No. 97, which he considers more proof he’s supposed to be with the Browns. He wore No. 97 in high school and at Iowa Western Community College, where he played before Oklahoma. He has 97 tattooed on the back of his hands, with nine on one hand and seven on the other. Each number is surrounded by flames.
“Every time I look at my hands, it’s basically just letting me know that this was adversity I got through and I can basically get through anything,” Winfrey said. “So when the equipment manager called me, he was like, ‘We only have one number available.’ I was like, ‘What number is it?’ He said, ’97.’ I feel like it was destined.”
Winfrey spent the past two seasons at Oklahoma, where he played nose tackle. But Winfrey, former Sooners defensive line coach Calvin Thibodeaux and the Browns agree his ideal position is three-technique defensive tackle. He received an opportunity to showcase his pass-rushing skills from the spot in February at the Senior Bowl and became the game’s Most Valuable Player.
Now Winfrey is in part of a young defensive tackle group with a chance to become an immediate contributor for the Browns.
“I definitely feel like it’s a blessing knowing that I have a chance to start this year,” he said.
It’s extremely early, but the fit in Cleveland feels natural to Winfrey.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.