Former Toledo receiver Tim Cortazzo, right, helped train Cleveland’s Terrelle Pryor during his transition from QB to receiver. PHOTO COURTESY TIM CORTAZZO
If it was a case of insider trading, so be it. But former University of Toledo receiver Tim Cortazzo had a tip for his fantasy football-playing buddies back home in Pittsburgh in August.
Draft Terrelle Pryor.
Never mind the 27-year-old quarterback-turned-receiver had been cut four times in the past two years. Or boasted a total of two career catches. Or played for one of the worst — if we’re being generous — teams in NFL history.
Rumor had it the Browns planned to spare the charade and start an inflatable pop-up dummy at quarterback.
“Yes, you have to pick him up ASAP,” Cortazzo said. ”He’s going to be a monster.”
His friends would have told him to keep dreaming but for one little caveat.
Cortazzo helped build the monster.
A chance meeting two summers ago between a young strength coach and a one-time Ohio State quarterback phenom interested in a midcareer position switch has given way to one of the surprise stories in the National Football League.
Cortazzo coached the gifted but comically raw Pryor during the transition — no receiving drill was too elementary — and has remained his offseason trainer.
This season, despite playing with a carousel of passers who are, well — how should we put this? — no better than he was as a pro quarterback, Pryor has emerged among the league’s top wideouts and a precious silver lining in Cleveland’s cheerless march to 0-16. He is eighth in the NFL with 855 receiving yards in his first full year at the position.
Pryor credits the near-overnight success in good part to Cortazzo, and supposes we have seen little yet.
“I could be so much better,” said Pryor, who figures to command an eight-figure contract after the season. ”It’s not even funny.”
To think now it was only 17 months ago when Pryor bumped into an old prep rival and a second act was born.
Cortazzo and Pryor had known each other in passing from their time as high school stars in suburban Pittsburgh.
Cortazzo graduated from Penn-Trafford in 2007, then played four years at Toledo, where he earned a degree in exercise science. He landed a couple low-level coaching jobs — including a stint as a football strength and conditioning intern at Ohio State in 2014 — before returning home to take over and expand a small personal training business called First Step Quickness that his father ran on the side.
Pryor graduated from nearby Jeannette in 2008 with a shade more fanfare. You might know the rest. Top-rated recruit in the nation. Hero-turned-pariah at Ohio State. Three forgettable years in Oakland. Three pink slips in nine months.
After the last of those cuts in June 2015, Pryor also came home to consider his future. It was time to reinvent himself.
Soon thereafter, one of Cortazzo’s athletes — a Division III defensive back named Brendan Reddy — came upon Pryor training at the Penn-Trafford field. He was by himself, tossing a ball in the air to himself like a kid in the backyard, absent the first clue about playing receiver. Pryor asked Reddy if he could throw him some passes.
Afterward, Reddy called Cortazzo.
“Maybe you can help him out,” he said.
The next day, Cortazzo was at the field training the high school team when Pryor approached.
“I asked him, ‘Hey, so I heard you’re making the switch to receiver,’ ” Cortazzo said. “He said, ‘Yeah, can you show me some stuff?’ So I took him through 30 minutes of drills — stance and start, how to come out of breaks, real simple high school-level drills. Then he asks, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ ”
So the crash course began.
Six hours a day, six days per week, Pryor and Cortazzo spent their mornings at the high school field, their afternoons at the gym. The idea was to make Pryor — a lithe 6-foot-4, 223-pound burner — look just competent enough as a receiver to entice an NFL team mesmerized by his potential. Problem was, training camp loomed less than two months away.
“It was almost like, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ ” Cortazzo said, laughing.
But Pryor steadily came along. After bouncing around with the Browns last year — released in September, signed again in December — he dove back into training under Cortazzo. With the benefit of a full offseason this time, the subject matter cranked up from novice to expert.
Cortazzo thought back to his own development at Toledo under Jason Candle, then the Rockets’ receivers coach.
“Coach Candle’s knowledge of the receivers position is just incredible,” he said. ”I learned how to play from him. The same mentality, the same coaching cues, the same verbiage, I use all of that with Terrelle.”
“With Terrelle this offseason, our focus became, ‘OK, let’s really get into this thing,’ ” Cortazzo continued. “We did a ton more wide receiver stuff, watching a lot of film, going over coverages, how do you run a route against a zone vs. man coverage ... ”
As camp neared, life was good. Cortazzo’s business was rolling — he regularly trains 100 or so athletes and several teams — and his unexpected top client was proving quite the testimonial.
“He was ready to roll,” Cortazzo said. ”From there, you’re thinking he’s going to blow up.’”
Months later, we’re not sure who’s more pleased by the results.
The Browns or all those fantasy team owners in Steelers country.