On 23 November 2014, Odell Beckham Jr made the greatest catch ever on prime time television. Overnight, he bacame famous. Very, very, very famous.
Almost two years later, Odell Beckham Jr walks out onto the artificial grass, and you can see the heat hit him. It’s early afternoon on the hottest day of the year (in the UK, at least) – the temperature is over 30 degrees outside, and on the glass-roofed indoor astroturf, it’s pushing 40. Glasses steam up, the fan on the laptop connected to the camera works on overdrive to prevent it from powering down. Odell Beckham fans himself as we outline the planned shots. He wastes no energy, limiting responses to a series of slow nods, sipping from a paper cup filled with water and rapidly melting ice cubes. Finally, we ask if he’d be down to take his top off for some of the snaps.
“I’m a shirt off shawty,” he announces in a slack, southern tongue, as he removes his T-shirt and advances topless towards towards the camera.
Standing 5ft 11in, Beckham is actually below-average height for an NFL wide receiver. But his tattooed chest is broad, his arms and hands long. The three measurements aggregate to form a phenomenal 6ft 8in arm-span. As a wide receiver, his primary task is to catch passes from his quarterback. Long limbs help him secure the ball amid the physical cacophony created by opposition defense. As well as catching ability, it’s a job that requires speed, and that’s an attribute he possesses by birthright.
BEFORE THE CATCH
Odell Beckham Jr was always going to be an athlete. His father played football at Louisiana State University, his mother was a six-time All American in track. She ran pregnant – expecting Odell – at the 1992 Olympic Trials. He was born the following November, and his mother made the decision to suspend her athletic career to raise her son.
Beckham Jr played soccer first, but gradually it became clear that his future was in gridiron. A stand-out talent at high school in Louisiana, he received All American Third Team honours and a scholarship to Louisiana State University.
Arriving at college in 2011, Beckham immediately befriended fellow receiver Jarvis Landry, who came from Convent, LA, about 50 miles up the Mississippi River from Beckham’s home.
Typically, receivers are trained to catch the ball with their palms spread and ten digits fully extended, elbows angled slightly outwards, so that the forefingers and thumbs create a triangle. The orthodox catching method is risk-averse and encourages security over flamboyance. Odell and Jarvis hatched other plans.
Under night skies they’d head to the practice facility, turn on the floodlights and throw each other passes. Away from the confines of formal practice and the glare of their coaches, they began developing a series of more ambitious catches – first one-handed, and then moving on to catching the tip of the ball in the fingers of their gloves.
“My brother Jarvis really helped excel the catching to a new level, as far as challenging ourselves, and pushing ourselves,” Beckham explains. “He started that with the one-handed catch thing. During my junior year in college, he had two amazing one-handed catches, and that just inspired me.”
Pioneering a new form of catching is risky, though. If it went wrong, your coach would be pissed, and understandably – a receiver’s job is to secure the ball with minimum fuss. But pushing the limits of a game takes creativity and imagination.
“I feel like my visualization is sick,” proclaims Beckham Jr on the topic. It’s a technique deployed by many top athletes. When Wayne Rooney scored that bicycle kick in the Manchester derby, he credited hours spent devoted to visualisation; to do the outrageous thing at the spur of the moment, it must arrive in the athlete’s headspace instinctively.
“I have this very vivid imagination, and I tell people, ‘If you see me zoning out, I’m probably seeing something.’ I have these weird visuals that always go through my head – general life, football, moments, like I’ve seen things happen before they happen. It’s always been like tha’, but it’s been even stronger, the more people you get around, the more energy around you. There are things that happen and it’s just weird. I try and shake it off but I knew this was going to happen. It’s a brand new situation, but I’ve already lived it almost.”
During the time at LSU, Beckham Jr’s game really began to take shape. “I think it allows you to grow more as a person in general.” He says, reflecting on his years as a student athlete. “Football teaches you a lot of things, but being in college, you have to learn to deal with ‘college problems’, it’s a new phase of your life. You’re becoming your own adult, your own human being, and being in college for a few years… if I had left after my freshman year, I don’t know whether I’d be the person I am today. I don’t know if I would have made the same mistakes I made in college and been able to learn and grow.”
After three years of college football, Beckham Jr declared for the NFL Draft. He shone in the combine, the pre-draft day where players work out in front of NFL teams and have their strength, speed and power measured in a final attempt to improve their draft stock. He was described, via his official scouting report, as something of a rough diamond, an athletic player with “quick hands and feet to slip the jam.” “Talented” but “erratic”, and prone to “concentration drops.”
Two decades of grind had led him to that draft night in New York city. An NFL career promised fame, immediate financial security with a likely fortune. I ask him to reflect on his memories of that big occasion.
“I was excited about getting a new car, I knew I’d worked so hard and it was the one thing I wanted to buy for myself, right?”
I nod a response to his enquiring tone. It sounds fair enough. He continues.
“So it’s a nice little Mercedes, an SLS 63 AMG”. Little being a fairly relative term. “It was the only thing I bought for myself, the funny thing about it was, this was my second or third time going to New York and all I was thinking about in turn was, ‘Damn, I wouldn’t want to be driving a car round here, I’d hate to live here.’ I’d seen it snowy, muddy, just a dirty place.”
His name was called twelfth in the draft, and he was selected by the New York Giants. In that dirty, muddy place.
“Oh, but a beautiful place it turned out to be,” he adds. “It’s home for me, and it will be my home for a very long time.”
First impressions can count for a lot in football. Young players need to quickly demonstrate they can physically and mentally handle the step up to the professional game. The start of Beckham’s rookie season was blighted by injury. He pulled his hamstring during the pre-season summer camp. He’d been dreaming of the NFL since the moment he started playing the game, and he was forced to spend his days training in isolation, on-and-off the treatment table. This was not the plan.
“It seemed like I could never get back up, I felt like everyone was so down on me for the most part. It was a nagging injury, I could never get out on the field. All they wanted to do was to see what I was capable of, and they didn’t know in my heart how bad I wanted it, what I was willing to do to go and get it, and sure enough, after I healed up…”
By November 2014 Beckham Jr was declared fit. He was ready for action.
In America, football is king of all the sports. It combines brutal physicality with a tense strategy game based on a playbook designed to expose weakness and exploit the slimmest margins.
On a cold November night in New Jersey, in front of a nationwide audience on Sunday Night Football, Odell Beckham, in just his third NFL game, made ten catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Giants lost 28-31 against the Dallas Cowboys, but all statistics were lost in the noise because Beckham, with one action, became the most famous man in America.
Let’s jump back to that moment.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning launches a ball from around the halfway line; Beckham is embroiled in a tussle with Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr until the ball is about five yards away, approaching diagonally; he breaks free from Carr’s attention, and in one movement, he spins, jumps, and lands with the ball in the end zone. Clutching the ball, he rolls over backwards.
On first appearance, that was all it was.
An act so abnormal, so stupefying, that it suspended belief.
There was immediate confusion. “Did he just catch that?” asks the incredulous co-commentator. The touchdown is awarded, so he must have done. But… but… A cameraman, sat just yards from Beckham on the touchline, freezes. He’s metres from the money shot, camera pressed against his chest, gawping, forgetting to do his job. While Beckham’s teammates stampede over to congratulate him, the commentators begin to go nuts – they’re privy to a replay five seconds ahead of the rest of the US.
Then we get it. In slow motion.
As Beckham Jr tussles away from Carr (who tumbles over the touchline), he turns to face the ball as he crosses the five-yard line. Taking off from his left foot, he throws his right arm upwards and at the peak of his flight, the ball hits his fingers. But that’s not enough – the ball’s travelling too fast and even Beckham’s gloved 10-inch hand is too firm a surface to cushion the ball. To assist with the braking, arm still locked straight, his back bends, and bends and bends. Once he’s gripped it, he draws the ball into his chest, plants his left foot, kicks off it again, puts his left forearm on the blue turf of the end zone and pivots back into the end zone. The momentum causes him to roll over. Over his own helmet, he grinds to a halt with both legs in the air.
He immediately knew he’d done something spectacular, but to Beckham, the catch had a context, a backstory: the visualisations, the years spent with Jarvis Landry, the floodlit midnight additional practice sessions; being attacked by mosquitoes on the Mississippi Delta. It was all for this moment.
It caught an unsuspecting American audience cold – to anyone outside the Giants’ organisation and a few college football nerds, Odell Beckham Jr was just another promising but injury-prone rookie, a player described in his SB National scouting report as one who’d “worked hard to improve his hands.”
He’d made a very similar catch for LSU in 2013, but it was nearer the halfway line and didn’t really circulate beyond the confines of college football. This was in the end zone, in the NFL, in front of a nationwide audience. If Odell Beckham had wanted to pick a moment to arrive, there couldn’t have been a better one.
Videos were uploaded to Vine, to Facebook, to the jumbotron across the Hudson in Times Square. By Monday morning, international news publications who typically paid scant attention to NFL prioritised the video among their top stories. Such was the outrageousness of Odell Beckham’s feat.
When the Giants trooped off the field at MetLife Stadium at the end of the game, Beckham headed to the locker room and checked his phone. About an hour after he made the catch, the magnitude of the act began to really dawn on him. Odell Beckham had arrived. He was about to get to that very, very famous point.
“No offence to anybody, but I had to click read-all on my iPhone, as far as the messages go. I’d never… I mean, I’d had big games in the past, the National Championships. I’d never had what I had happen that night happen ever before. It was instant, it was overnight. At the time, I didn’t realise the magnitude of it. I didn’t think it was going to be what it has become, the week after, and two weeks after and up until now. Life just gets crazier and crazier. I got to meet people I looked up to for a long, long time, become friends, and it’s kinda been that way ever since.”
AFTER THE CATCH
“They wanted to know my favourite colour and if I like sprinkles on my cake.”
He was the toast of New York City. But Odell Beckham Jr was still a footballer. He had a season to complete with the Giants. He finished 2014/15 with 91 receptions for 1305 yards and 12 touchdowns from 11 starts and was voted Offensive Rookie of The Year. But it all paled in comparison to that catch.
“I just wanted them to know I was a good football player, and it kinda just developed into more of a craze, and my private life surely, slowly but surely, is not private anymore. That’s about the only thing I wish I could take back. Not everybody should be allowed to just be in your life, everybody else gets privacy, you wish you could have that back but I wouldn’t change anything, and if I could go back and do it all again I’d do the exact same thing.”
Hyperbole was tossed everywhere, and people got very excited. Respected former New York Giant Michael Strahan described him as “the best athlete in the world, in any sport.” Besides the catch, tools used to defend such a claim include a video of Beckham dunking a basketball at Duke Universtiy and throwing a lightning fast ball at a charity softball game. While in England over the summer, a Vine circulated of him cracking a football with the F2 Freestylers.
Supporters of the “best athlete” doctrine liken him to Bo Jackson: the MLB and NFL All Star who during the 1980s slid effortlessly between two sports. Jackson is widely considered among the finest athletic specimens America has ever produced.
Odell Beckham Jr is not a Vine loop, and despite an incredible breakout season, his achievements were also greeted with a degree of scepticism. Was he a one-catch wonder? Sure, he’d scored one wild touchdown, but could he replicate that success? Would it translate into form season after season? It’s a desire to respond to these questions that motivates him.
“There’s that Instagram quote ‘Haters will say it’s fake’. I felt like everybody saw my Rookie year, not as if it was lucky – I don’t believe in luck at all – but they weren’t really believers in my ability and that made me hungrier. It felt like I was back at the table, with something to prove it all again. I feel like they still doubt it, like they’re waiting for my luck to run out, but I just don’t see that happening. I’ve worked for it that hard, there’s nothing that’s really going to stop me from achieving my goals.”
What are those goals?
“Super Bowl.” he automates, blurring the capital S into the final s of my short question. “I hate losing. We’ve finished 6 & 10 two years in a row, and I come from LSU, where losing is like the end of your season: it was that important to us to never lose. I did suffer losses in college, but we lost like seven games in total, so losing 20 in two years sucks. You can’t win them all, but you can damn sure try. I don’t care if it’s Pokemon Go we’re playing, I don’t like losing! It’s just a matter of us this year as a team doing better, making sure I do better with
my job, and the man next to me does better with his, and the bigger picture is Houston, Texas [Superbowl LI].”
If he were a talented member of the defensive line, his work would go undetected. He would simply deliver by not making errors. But it’s Odell Beckham’s job to stand out, in a struggling Giants team it’s his job to sniff out spaces, make runs, shut out the noise and extend an arm through the commotion created to distract him; to evade the attention of the specialists in intercepting the ball or pulling him to the ground. He’s had an unprecedented first two NFL seasons. In 2015/16, he started 15 games and scored 13 touchdowns. His total of 25 in his first two seasons is an NFL record. So just imagine what he’ll be like with a winning team.
Odell Beckham likes being famous. He’s wearing an October’s Very Own owl necklace, a nod to his best friend Drake, in whose California house he has spent the summer. On the football field, the nature of being a showtime wide receiver means he hogs the spotlight. A phenomenal, attention-demanding athlete. His real position is on the borderline between sportsman and entertainer.
“It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way society has made it. It’s not so much me playing football, you wanting to be good at it, you wanting to excel, it’s become an entertainment – people don’t really care much for your feelings, nor for anything: just what you’re doing on the field. I think that’s the biggest learning lesson for me, realising that people, not everybody, but most people, they don’t care, and if you’re not catching the ball, they’re not caring for you.
“It’s unfortunate but it’s pretty superficial. I remember, even in my rookie year, as I made the catch, I threw my arms up like in Gladiator, ‘Are you not entertained?’ and that’s what it seems like, it’s become more of an entertainment business: a lot of acting, a lot of different variables and roles are being played. I can’t get mad at it, it’s part of the game, I’ve just gotta learn how to deal with it, and I guess do it better than they do!”
Increasingly, becoming an athlete within the intense media glare has become like navigating a maze. It requires image maintenance and maintaining public persona while setting career goals and getting the right numbers on the sports field. When asked who he admires for their achievements in sport, he mentions LeBron James’ promise to the city of Cleveland and the way he led the Cavaliers from 3-1 down to win the 2016 NBA Championships.
“I knew that they would win the Championship, even being down 3-1. It was something about a man whose legacy is on the line, his back is against the wall, and he’s been against the ropes before, he’s been knocked down, and he’s been knocked out but always seemed to get back up, and come back swinging even harder than before. It was just great to be finally able to see him put that much on his back. I feel like there isn’t much you can say to him anymore, not in a disrespectful way to anybody else, but he’s the man, you know what I mean?”
James – who Beckham Jr also now includes among his friends – is reaching the latter part of his glittering career. He serves as proof that an athlete’s career may have ups and downs but with enough commitment and focus, men can move the mountains they aim for.
“There are things that slow you down, and things that will set you back, that’s all part of it. It’s just a matter of pushing forward, keep getting better, and keep trying to do the unheard and the unseen.”
And the world now knows what the unseen, unheard practice under midnight floodlights did for Odell Beckham Jr. It helped him get this far – and you get the impression he’s just getting started.
Watch Odell Beckham Jr and the New York Giants take on the Los Angeles Rams at Twickenham Stadium on 23 October
Want to boost your speed like Odell? Try these NFL speed drill workouts.