Edgar Montelongo, an engineering student at Texas A&M, walked toward the same pickup basketball game he always plays in at the school’s rec center—“a bunch of nobodies,” as he describes it. He estimates the average player in a typical game is about 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds. Yet as Montelongo approached the court earlier this year, he noticed a “really tall, really muscular dude” running the floor and ferociously dunking. So he took out his phone and filmed it. And then, because Montelongo is about 6 feet and 260 pounds, the other guys in the gym suggested he guard the player. “That was probably a mistake,” Montelongo says now. “But everyone else was scared.” This is how Montelongo ended up trying to stop Myles Garrett for 45 minutes.
Montelongo got Garrett to agree to a no-dunking policy, and that was about the only thing that went right for him that day. “He could pull up from the 3-point line—deep 3-pointers—he could drive, he could do everything,” Montelongo says. “He could move me from the free throw line to the baseline without trying. I couldn’t do anything.” Montelongo had heard stories about what happens when the 272-pound former Aggies star returns to campus to join pickup games. But seeing his athleticism up close was different.
After the run ended, Garrett posed for photos and milled about like a normal guy, so Montelongo told him that the video he’d filmed was getting traction on social media. Garrett, who’s perhaps the most athletic player in the NFL, watched the clip and asked, Why did that guy have to jump? “I’m not asking to dunk, I’m not looking for it,” Garrett tells me. “If I was a man and I’m 5-11, and I saw a man, 6-5, coming down the paint, I think I might move. I’m not going to take a charge. I’m not going to get anything from that.”
I ask Garrett whether any of the videos that have made the rounds online are his best dunks. “No,” he says. “The best ones are undiscovered. I’ve put it behind my back for a dunk. I’ve had some putback dunks. Some windmills. Reverses. Whatever I’m feeling that day.”
Here is some consolation for anyone who has been dunked on by Garrett in a pickup game: Many NFL players have been, or are about to be, right there with you.
Garrett was the first overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft. The Texas A&M product racked up seven sacks in nine starts as a rookie, and is now a prime breakout candidate for a Browns team that’s generating a remarkable amount of buzz for a franchise fresh off an 0-16 season. He had two sacks and a safety while playing only 23 snaps in a preseason game against the Eagles last month. The player who started a minor riot at last year’s scouting combine, who posted a vertical jump that was 4 inches higher than Von Miller’s and a 10-yard split time that was 0.03 seconds faster than Devonta Freeman’s, somehow seems even more athletic than his combine numbers indicate when taking part in actual NFL competition.
Oh, and he’s also the league’s most intriguing player, having spent his offseason at museums and emailing with professors. He is a thinker. He is a poet. And he just might be Cleveland’s next superstar.
In July, LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Los Angeles Lakers. A few minutes later, Garrett tweeted at James that “if you don’t want to take your throne with you I’ll take it.” “I meant what I said,” Garrett tells me. “It all starts with winning games and being dominant on the field. I might have [tweeted] it jokingly but I want the people of Cleveland to know there are still stars and people who are going to make the fans proud, whether that’s football or baseball or basketball, and I want to do my best to lead the way.” Garrett says he respects LeBron and that it’s “hard to hate” the choice. “He came and did what he said he was going to do in Cleveland,” Garrett says. “I wish he would have lived the rest of his time in the NBA in Cleveland, but I have no ill will toward him.”
If Garrett is to become the new king of Cleveland, he’ll have to take the leap from can’t-miss talent into the NFL’s elite. He’ll have to perform like the league’s pass-rushing greats—Miller and Khalil Mack come to mind—to carve out a niche as the city’s newest icon. This offseason, Browns general manager John Dorsey sat Garrett down. “I said, ‘You want to be really good? Do what this guy did.’” Then Dorsey handed him film of Julius Peppers from 2003, in what was Peppers’s second season. “To show you how diligent he is, I think he’s watched it about 15 or 20 times.” Dorsey also told me last month that he sent Garrett video of Chandler Jones breaking a sled in practice. Dorsey smiled while detailing how he’d tell Garrett he couldn’t do that.
“He’s our best defensive player,” Dorsey says. “I expect him to be consistently in double-digit sacks. Athletically he’s got all the gifts, and I think [coordinator] Gregg Williams’s defense is perfect for him. One-gap, get up the field, and rush the passer. He should shine.”
Ask an NFL player how he spent his offseason, and you’ll usually get one of a few standard answers. The majority will say they were in Florida or California, fishing, golfing, and working out somewhere luxurious. Garrett trained as hard as anybody in the league, but not where you’d expect. He likes driving, so he spent a chunk of time in his native Texas before coming to Cleveland and hitting the road. “I went to Pittsburgh, then Niagara Falls, then Toronto,” Garrett says. “Before that I’d done Columbus and Cincinnati.”
In most of these places, Garrett was looking for museums. Not specific ones, just ones he’d come across that piqued his interest. He checked out the natural history gallery at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. It furthered an interest in dinosaurs that is well known. Garrett hosted screenings of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom this summer in both Texas and Ohio. (“I really enjoy Chris Pratt as an actor,” Garrett says, mentioning that Parks and Recreation is his favorite show. “He’s funny but he has these great sincere moments as well.”) Since joining the NFL, his interest in paleontology has only grown. “I wanted to look in Toronto because I knew they’d have all time periods—from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous to the ice age and all the way to now,” he says. “It’s about looking at the specimens, whether it’s the mold or the fossils actually out on display. It’s fascinating looking at those kind of creatures in front of you instead of just in a book.”
When asked how his interest in dinosaurs has changed now that he’s an NFL player with plenty of resources, Garrett explains that he has paleontology friends around the world, and that he harbors ambitions to “start digging” after his playing days end. “The main thing that’s stood out to me is that Myles has a genuine interest and fascination with paleontology. He’s not simply a dinosaur fanboy, but somebody who understands what the science is about and why it’s important,” says Dean Lomax, a paleontologist at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester in England. Lomax and Garrett have an email correspondence. Lomax doesn’t know much about American football, even though some friends have tried to teach him the rules. One of his specialties is an extinct reptile called the ichthyosaur. When Garrett sees one in his research, he’ll send Lomax a photograph to discuss the specimen. “It’s neat to see Myles taking an interest in them,” Lomax says.
There’s a mystery to this that Garrett loves. His favorite dinosaur is the spinosaurus, which is the largest carnivorous dinosaur to ever live. While this would be fascinating enough in its own right, Garrett has also become consumed with the story surrounding the species’s fossil discovery. It was unearthed during World War I and placed in Germany. In World War II, bombs destroyed the fossil. “So they had to be discovered again, going off of the notes and finding that they had,” Garrett says. “The fact that they found the largest dinosaur that’s been found, then had to refind it, it’s so unique.” Garrett goes on to break down how a spinosaurus has “this large spine, slender snout like a crocodile, has these teeth that are built for fish but it’s so large that it could have preyed on basically anything it wants. We want to discover what it fed on, what it did, what the spine is for, how it uses its hands.”
I asked Garrett whether he likes the spinosaurus because it’s the biggest dinosaur and he, well, is a massive person. He laughs. “Slightly, yeah.”
Garrett’s first career NFL sack didn’t go as planned. It came in the second minute of his regular-season debut against the Jets last October, but the date wasn’t the issue. The issue was that New York’s quarterback, Josh McCown, went down so quickly that Garrett barely got to hit him. “I was going to hit his ribs,” Garrett says. “But he ended up going down kinda quick, so I just ended up mowing him over.” The call was designed for Garrett to go inside. He saw Jets guard James Carpenter leaning left. “So I made sure to bounce as hard as I could off my right onto my left and gain ground; he had his arm out there and I chopped it down. I saw the center had his arms up as well and I swiped it to the left of me. Then there was no one left but the quarterback.”
This was the first time Browns fans saw what Garrett can do. Much like Montelongo on that Texas A&M court, those around Garrett can always describe the first time they got a glimpse of the full extent of his capabilities. Statistical benchmarks don’t do it justice. “He was able to run fast, bench a lot, jump high [at the combine], and you think about the other freak athletes you’ve seen,” Browns running back Duke Johnson says. “When you see him in person, you think that he should not be able to move. He’s fit, he’s got abs, he’s shredded. It is sick to see a D-lineman look like that.”
That theme—Garrett should not be able to do this—is a common refrain throughout his endeavors. “It’s hard to imagine a guy that big who can bend the way he does,” says Clyde Simmons, Cleveland’s defensive line coach. “It’s amazing, some of the things he does, turning corners and doing things small men would have a difficult time doing.” Simmons says Garrett’s change from year one to year two lies in his approach to the little things. For instance, Simmons points to how Garrett’s ability to bend “changes the game” for offensive linemen. Essentially, if Garrett can bend below an opponent’s “strike points” while rushing the passer, the offensive lineman will have much less power when getting his hands on Garrett—if he can get hands on Garrett at all.
Still, his biggest evolution has nothing to do with pass-rushing moves. It has to do with Garrett refusing to let veterans take advantage of him. “There’s an unspoken code in football in what you will allow someone to do to you. If somebody’s out there cheapshotting and playing dirty, you are the only person that’s going to stop that,” Simmons says. “I think he’s learning the ways—not of retaliation—but in making them understand, I’m not that guy. At some point you have to stand up and say, ‘I’m not taking that crap. I’ll be here all day.’” Simmons says that most of the time, a few choice words will establish this. “If not there are other things you can do, but I won’t be getting into that.” Noted.
Garrett talks about the quick-passing game that’s coming to define the modern era of football, and what it means for a pass rusher like him. He thinks that pass rushers have to use quick moves, “but you can’t use them too quickly.” This, like everything else I spoke with Garrett about, differs from what from what most players will say. “Some guys get hung up on getting [to the lineman] as quickly as possible. But you have to make sure you’re within his range where he feels threatened, where he has to shoot his hands first and you can react to it. You don’t want to use your move, let him get into you and lock you down.” Garrett also conjures up different scenarios that could play out in the two seconds he engages with the line, and then acts accordingly. To this end, he has been “sharpening the basic moves—like a chop club. “I want to be able to use moves to where, when the lineman reengages or brings his hands back, you can go fluidly into another move.”
The fact that he’s one of football’s best athletes probably helps in this regard. Growing up, he not only starred on the gridiron and the court, but he also ran track and boxed. “I was able to get my coordination, a well-roundedness,” he says. “I could use everything in my toolbox.” He became obsessed with Muhammad Ali as a kid and still likes doing a boxer’s workout to this day: jumping rope, pumping out sit-ups, and using the heavy bag “to work on the torque on your legs. Then you go to the speed bag, where it’s all about rhythm and timing.” He loves pad work (hitting pads held up by another person) especially when coaches hold the pad in positions that simulate a lineman’s hands. “You’re just using different pass rush moves. Those are things I’m going to expect on the field. Having to work that power through my legs and having to react with the hands, knowing when to snap back and counter.”
I start to say that Garrett could have made for a good heavyweight, as the two best heavyweights in the world are Deontay Wilder, who is 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, and Anthony Joshua, 6-foot-6, 250. It turns out I didn’t need to mention it: Garrett has already pondered how his pro boxing career might have unfolded. “It would have been so fun to go one-on-one for 12 rounds to see who takes it,” he says. “I think it about it every now and then. Those guys have similar builds to me.”
For now, though, Garrett is using boxing to train, to help the Browns turn things around after going 1-31 over the last two seasons. He’s unlike anyone in the NFL. And nobody wants to guard him.