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A true return man: How Browns receiver JoJo Natson made his way back to Northeast Ohio

Posted at 6:23 PM, Sep 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-06 18:23:19-04

CLEVELAND — On Saturday, the Browns announced their initial 53-man roster, and among those who made the cut was wide receiver JoJo Natson, a player who ought to feel at home in the Cleveland area.

The journey

Signed in March, Natson is new to the Browns—but not to Northeast Ohio. A native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he transferred to the University of Akron for his senior year after playing three seasons at Utah State. After violating team rules, Natson was dismissed from Utah State’s football program, but got a second chance in Akron. He made an immediate impact for the Zips, recording 837 receiving yards with 10 touchdowns and two more touchdowns as a punt returner. His speed and elusiveness impressed at Akron and helped him find his way into the National Football League.

Natson bounced around his first year in the league. He was signed by the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent in May 2017 and waived that same September. The New York Jets signed him to their practice squad two days later and promoted him to the active roster in November, but he was waived in April 2018. That summer, Natson found a home on the Los Angeles Rams, where he made a name for himself as a return specialist, averaging 10.8 yards per punt return, with his longest going for 60 yards. He remained on the Rams until March of this year, when the team waived him.

“Sometimes that’s what comes with this journey of playing football, and sometimes life has those journeys for you and takes you different places and lets you meet different people,” Natson said. “I’d say most of all it’s been a blessing being able to play the game I love—it’s been a blessing.”

Two weeks after being waived by the Rams, he was signed by the Browns.

“Coming home”

Natson isn’t from Northeast Ohio and, in truth, he didn’t spend much time here, relatively speaking. His single season in Akron, however, was enough to make it feel like home. Having the opportunity to sign with the Browns came with a sense of comfort, Natson said, as he reflected on the fondness he has for his time in Akron.

“It’s kind of like a homecoming—but not a homecoming seeing that I’m not from Ohio—but the fact that I went to Akron, it’s kind of like a homecoming. That’s how I see it.”

Now that he’s “home,” Natson can get down to business and, according to his coaches, already has.

Settling in

Making himself at home with the Browns is something Natson has not struggled with. From aiming to be a leader to the rookies, including fellow wide receiver and return specialist Donovan Peoples-Jones, to being the ears his teammates need when discussing important matters such as social justice initiatives, Natson has aimed to be the best player and teammate he can be.

“It’s been good just trying to help the team out in any way possible and just taking my craft seriously,” Natson said.

Helping the team succeed is something Browns special teams coordinator Mike Priefer believes Natson will be able to do.

“I am very happy he is here. He has exceptional quickness. He catches punts and kickoffs very, very well. I studied him, and I knew a little bit about him from the last few years in the league, but you do not get as many reps at seeing him catch the ball and how he tracks the ball. He is very, very good at that, which obviously bodes well for him and for us. His vision is good,” Preifer said. “We are working on some different things with him to help him be successful more downfield, but he is going to make that first guy miss more than not, and that is the exciting thing about him.”

Natson continues to work on his on-field product, but also important is the work he’s put in to be beneficial in the locker room as well.

Throughout camp, the Browns have held meetings with players, coaches and staff discussing social injustices and initiatives to combat them in the community. Many leaders have emerged in the conversations, including quarterback Baker Mayfield and defensive end Myles Garrett, who have been actively speaking out and paving the way for change.

While it takes courage to speak up and lead the way, it’s also crucial to have players who listen, learn and support their teammates—and that’s the role Natson has found.

“It’s been nice to be around the guys and an organization that supports social justice,” Natson said. “I’m just learning—a lot of the guys are more educated than me, so I’m just learning. I’m all ears trying to learn from those guys and pick their brains about the situations going on. I feel like most of the guys on the team are on board with what’s going on, and we definitely want change.”

Now that the Browns have decided on their 53-man roster, the work continues as they prepare to take on last year’s division champs, hoping to beat the Ravens on the road. Whatever the outcome next week may be, Natson is just excited to get out on the field, give his all, and bring football back to the fans, all while calling Northeast Ohio home once again.

“I’m definitely excited, especially with everything in the world going on. I think with football being back it will help a lot of people calm down a little and give some relief in the world,” Natson said. “I’m always excited to go out there and play the game I love and go out there and work hard for my teammates, and it’s just a blessing to be in this position.”

RELATED: Cleveland Browns announce initial 53-man roster, subsequent cuts

Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.