They chugged beers and munched on spicy Buffalo wings in a dimly lit Cleveland sports bar in mid-August, and only once did Kellen Winslow Jr. give any hint that he might do something controversial. Toward the end of the evening, after enjoying dinner with fellow Browns tight ends Aaron Shea and Steve Heiden, he decided to leave with two friends while his compatriots stayed behind with their wives. As soon as Winslow eased out of his chair, Shea nudged Heiden and nodded toward the rookie. "Hey, Kellen," Shea said. "You've got a tab to pay." Winslow smiled. "Don't worry," he said. "It's already done."
By picking up a $300 meal that night, Winslow revealed that he understands at least one thing about being an NFL newcomer. From his swagger to his eagerness to shoulder a leadership role, the 6'5", 233-pound Winslow has been most unrookielike since reporting to training camp after a 12-day holdout. At the same time he's poised to make a bigger impact this season than any other first-year player. With supple hands, superb body control and sizzling speed, he'll not only be an ideal target for quarterback Jeff Garcia but will also create opportunities for Cleveland's wide receivers with his presence over the middle.
"Kellen can have the same impact as [New York Giants tight end] Jeremy Shockey," says Larry Coker, who coached both players at Miami. "Whenever NFL people asked me about them last year, I always had the same response: 'If you like Jeremy Shockey, you'll like Kellen Winslow.'"
Like Shockey, the 21year-old Winslow provides instant attitude. He didn't apologize after barreling over cornerback Roosevelt Williams during a noncontact drill in training camp, not even after Williams called the incident "unprofessional." That's simply how Winslow practiced at Miami, where he nicknamed himself the Chosen One and grew accustomed to teammates' drilling each other. Winslow made headlines when he pointed out that the Browns need to bring more urgency to practice, saying, "I wasn't here last year, but they won only five games. I'm not trying to talk them down, but something has to happen." As Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, a former Hurricane, says, "Kellen isn't holding his tongue for anybody."
"I want to win," says Winslow, who was the sixth pick in the draft. "Everybody wants to win but not everybody is going to put in the work. You have to push each other. Guys have to tell you that you can be better. I do that, and that's what I want guys to do for me. That's how you become close."
Winslow's comments didn't bother the Browns. Strong safety Robert Griffith says, "We all laughed about [the controversy] the next day," while coach Butch Davis adds, "There is some maturing that will come with Kellen. He has to learn how to channel that passion, and he'll need to avoid getting baited on the field. But there also wasn't a player in our locker room who didn't agree with what he said."
Football brings out the fiery side of Winslow, who is relaxed and surprisingly shy away from the field. He's also so candid that his parents--Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Sr. and Katrina Ramsey--have discouraged him from doing interviews. They have jointly managed Kellen Jr.'s career for years, despite divorcing when he was five, and their most important decision was keeping him out of organized football until he was 14. As his body matured, they wanted his athleticism to develop in sports such as soccer and basketball, but the wait was difficult for their son. Football was his game. He loved watching his father's highlight tapes from his years with the San Diego Chargers. When he played touch football in junior high, he kept track of every reception he made just to see how his numbers compared with those of his idol, Jerry Rice. The football prohibition bothered Winslow so much that he says, "I thought my dad was jealous of me. I thought he didn't want me to be better than him. That's how much I didn't understand back then."
Winslow still had a few lessons to learn after he became a star wide receiver at San Diego's Scripps Ranch High and signed with Miami in 2001. He skipped class regularly during his freshman year, showed up late for meetings and spent a good amount of his free time running extra sprints and pushing blocking sleds after practice. Miami receivers coach Curtis Johnson once made him roll the length of the football field as punishment for being late. Winslow rolled an extra 20 yards to show he couldn't be easily broken. He was so defiant that Kellen Sr., an events planner for Disney's Wide World of Sports complex, flew from San Diego to meet with the Hurricanes' coaches a few weeks into that first season. As soon as the younger Winslow started explaining himself, his father glared at him and said, "Kellen, shut up and take a deep breath." After that meeting Winslow promised to change his attitude.
He moved from wide receiver to tight end a few weeks later and developed a strong bond with Shockey, who taught Winslow the intricacies of route-running. He became a team leader and set a school record for career receptions by a tight end (119). But he is still best remembered for his emotional postgame rant following a loss to Tennessee last year, when he compared football to war and called himself a "f------ soldier." Winslow admits he was frustrated by a defeat that ended Miami's national title hopes but says, "Everything I've done since then has been turned into a negative. I've been portrayed as a negative guy, a selfish person who won't help my team. It's all false. My teammates know what I'm about."
Winslow's supporters point to his sensitivity, his love of the game and his strong desire to win. "Kellen is passionate about everything he does," Coker says. "Sometimes he goes over the edge, but you don't want to reel him in too much."
The Browns want to make full use of Winslow's fire. Fifth-year fullback Terrelle Smith even pulled him aside during the preseason and encouraged him to become the leader of the receivers. Rookies ordinarily don't assume such a role, but Winslow clearly won't be ordinary. "Kellen may have his [lapses], but every team needs a guy like him," Johnson says. "Once he's headed in the right direction, he will win you at least three games a year with his will alone."