PFF The Magazine: The catch and the curse of Odell Beckham Jr.
In the third digital edition of PFF: The Magazine, Simon Clancy discusses “The Catch” – and the looming curse that followed. To see more articles like this, be sure to check out the latest digital edition of PFF: The Magazine, available for download here.
The press release was simple and to the point. “Our 30-second spot, scheduled to air during Super Bowl 50, features Buick’s all-new Cascada luxury convertible and stars New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and actress/model Emily Ratajkowski.
“We wanted a talent that represented the attributes of the Buick brand and design philosophy. For us, Odell Beckham Jr. represents unique talent and commitment to excellence that mirrors Buick’s commitment to performance.”
The ad space alone cost Buick $4.5 million, but the company that o oaded almost 1.5 million vehicles in 2015 yet still found itself outside of the top 10 in terms of sales in the US sought its resurrection in one man: a well-spoken, fun-loving, acrobatic, photogenic, football savant brought up in a gable- ended house in Decatur, six miles north of Atlanta. Why? Because OBJ is a Madison Avenue dream.
If Don Draper was working today he’d doubtless say that the former LSU standout was changing the conversation around athlete marketability. Odell might not yet rival soccer star David for column inches and paparazzi photographs, but understand this: there’s a new Beckham in town and, while he doesn’t possess the reach of his namesake, there is a chance he can get there.
“He absolutely has the chance to grab a foothold in the worldwide sports market in terms of appeal,” Todd McFall, professor of Sports Economics at Wake Forest University, tells PFF: The Magazine. “It’s not going to be easy but if anyone can come from the NFL pack then it would come down to him or to Cam Newton and this is really an era of wide receivers. Beckham has a lot in his favor – he’s young, smart, good-looking, hugely charismatic and has a certain panache. Especially when you consider that most of the time, his appeal is actually hidden behind a facemask and his football ‘armor’.”
Beckham emerged from behind that facemask almost two years ago with arguably the greatest catch in NFL history. Before the moment that defined a man, there was just a man, albeit a man who’d worked his whole life for his moment, who’d refined his craft to the point where what happened came naturally. As he twisted and contorted his body, reaching his right arm far behind him to somehow pull the ball one-handed from the frigid New York sky, he knew only one thing; that this wasn’t special and it wasn’t new. To him it was mere routine, a skill long forged on the Bayou. A catch 10 years in the making.
To truly understand what happened that night, how it thrust him into global prominence and how his love a air with the game has in turn burned bright and flickered to the point of extinction, you’d have to go back to his childhood and the middle-class suburb with a small-town feel, north of Atlanta. It was there that the most famous hands in football were fashioned. Long hours of repetition after school, catch after catch, route after route, repeat, repeat, repeat. Hands, hands, hands. “That’s all I used to say to him after every catch,” his father tells us from his o ce in New Orleans. “Hands. Hands. Hands. Sometimes in those early days he’d let the ball into his chest or it would bounce o his arms. So I’d shout at him to catch it with his hands. And he’d be out there so long they were almost raw catching that ball.”
Odell Beckham Sr. knows a thing or two about good hands. A heavily recruited high-school running back from Marshall High in Texas, which also produced Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle, he chose LSU over Alabama, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State – who were looking to replace the 1988 Heisman winner Barry Sanders. And he knew that if his son was to follow in his footsteps then preparation was key.
So it came to pass that in the back garden of their house, overlooked by a small basketball hoop on a hill where the two Odells would practice free throws, the seven-year-old Beckham Jr. ran his routes and caught his passes. But always with two hands back then. “I always made him catch it with two,” says his father. “Master that first and then move on to one hand. But it didn’t take long for the one- handed stuff to start.”
You could say that Odell Jr. won the genetic lottery. Aside from his father’s talent, his mother was a high-school athletic legend, a six-time NCAA All- American who ran track for the Bayou Bengals. And even from a young age he showed o those inherited traits, the grace and explosion of a sprinter, the physicality of a football player. And the hands which measure a remarkable 10 inches from thumb to little finger.
But while it’s one thing having hands that size, it’s another knowing how to use them, to be able to catch balls thrown at all angles, at high speed and to never drop a single one. “That was his goal growing up,” says his father. “Develop the hands in high school, nurture them in college. Catch everything.” Easier said than done with corners draped all over you – which is where Beckham learned that if you can’t get both hands on the ball, then make sure you can get one. “I never thought he was showing o . He just wanted to come down with the ball, by any means necessary, you know?”
It was at Isidore Newman High School in New Orleans where Beckham first started catching the ball with one hand. A private prep school, Isidore counts Peyton and, ironically, Eli Manning as part of its alumni. Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Lewis, author of The Blind Side, were also students, although it’s doubtful either incurred the wrath of head coach Nelson Stewart for defying his wishes to catch the ball with two hands.
“At first I wanted him to quit using one hand, but he was so good that it was easier just to relent. By his junior year he was making so many of them that I just let him get on with it.” Beckham’s impact forced Stewart to change the o ense from the West Coast style he played in alongside Peyton 15 years earlier to a deep passing attack to suit his burgeoning superstar. “We broke every rule in the book when we let him to catch it with one hand. But I think we made the right choice.” Although Stewart admits to having never seen Beckham make a catch quite as good as the one against the Dallas Cowboys, he wasn’t surprised. “That’s just Odell. He’s a freak.”
The ‘freak’ from Isidore High could never have imagined how a single moment in time would change his life and, while it seems churlish to talk of career-defining moments for a 24-year-old, it’s hard to imagine anything he does will eclipse that night. Perhaps that’s why the weight of expectation sits heavily upon his shoulders, why he told a reporter recently that he simply wasn’t “having fun anymore”.
There was a moment during this past summer when Beckham, as part of an NFL initiative to spread the reach of the game that has made him an icon, jumped atop an SUV in a busy street, a million miles away from questions about his desire for the game he grew up loving. Surrounding him were a thousand camera phones and thousands more people, all of whom had come to see him. Yet more hung out of windows overlooking the throng as a chant of ‘OBJ, OBJ’ rang out.
Beckham took out his own phone and filmed himself and the masses worshipping at his feet, stopping to shake his head at the insanity of it all as hundreds more came from side- streets, all singing his name. There was a religious symbolism to the scene, the devout in his thrall. But this didn’t happen in a regular place of worship, or in Times Square, or even Baton Rouge – where he’d begun to make his name under the burning lights of the SEC.
This was Munich, Germany, in Europe.
To the uninitiated his popularity could seem a fad, based as it is on that catch. And given that we see scenes of magnificence week in and week out in the NFL, what is it about Beckham that sets him apart and has taken him to the forefront of the minds of marketers? ESPN New York’s Jordan Raanan, who deals with the receiver on an almost daily basis, says: “Listen, in that one play, he caught worldwide attention that will never leave him. He’s become the Giants’ most popular player since Lawrence Taylor and he’s actually had a cultural impact – for better or for worse – as kids try to emulate his one- handed catches or his hair. That counts for a lot.”
“To me that’s awesome,” Beckham tells PFF: The Magazine. “You know I get tagged in those videos all the time and I watch a lot of them. I love seeing people trying to do the catch. You know a lot of parents tell me, ‘My son always tries to do the catch’ and stuff like that and to me it’s awesome.” But is it really ‘awesome’? Or are his struggles, arguably the first since he strapped on a helmet and pads, a sign of bigger issues at play? The modern world and all its nuance can be a cruel place no matter who you are and it’s the nature of the beast that you can’t make everyone happy all the time. Worse still when you can’t make yourself happy.
Beckham was rated as the sixth-best receiver in the nation as a senior and, like his father before him, highly recruited. The Beckham apple didn’t fall far from the tree either, Junior choosing LSU over Ole Miss, Oregon, Nebraska and Miami among others. But his decision had as much to do with a friendship forged at a seven-on-seven camp in Tuscaloosa during his sophomore year at Isidore Newman as any familial leanings – and it provided him with the emphasis to continue to hone his talent with a partner-in-crime every bit as driven as himself, with hands just as good – Jarvis Landry of the Miami Dolphins. “We were fast friends and right from the start we knew we were similar in terms of our talent and what we wanted to achieve,” Landry reveals.
“We decided that we’d go to college together because we believed we could drive each other to greatness, to catches like the one he made against Dallas.” And that’s what they did. Both played as freshmen and developed into the best receiving tandem in college football. For Landry and Beckham, the challenge was to push the boundaries of their talent. To make the catch no matter what. “Oh man, I can’t remember who made the first one-handed grab but there’s been a few,” reveals Landry. “We used to go out late at night at LSU to make ourselves better. We’d be bored and so out we’d go. Some nights we’d break into the facility and throw, other times we’d just be in the parking lot outside where we lived, testing the limits.”
And like those long afternoons in Decatur with his father, these sessions with Landry were all about repetition. “We’d fire a hundred balls at each other to catch two-handed, then another hundred right-hand only, then another hundred left-hand only. Then we’d do it all over again. It was the only way to get better. Right there in the parking lot, pushing and pushing.” After LSU practices, the duo would stay behind and do more sessions for amazed teammates and coaches. “Let me tell you,” former LSU head coach Les Miles told The MMQB, “it was nothing like you’ve ever seen in other players.”
Landry says there is a DVD of these sessions somewhere. “Oh it exists. I think Coach [Frank] Wilson has it. It’s like eight or nine minutes of total freakishness. Just the two of us, all one-hand catches.” Their talent wasn’t limited to practice; Beckham would make the ridiculous seem routine in games as well. He’d regularly field kicko s one-handed – against Georgia and UAB for example – and in the 2013 Outback Bowl against Iowa he caught a deep ball down the right sideline with one hand, a catch his father says was similar to the one against the Cowboys. “That Iowa grab was incredible, insane. It was one for the ages. But maybe the Dallas one was better.”
Even amid the bright lights of big-ticket college football, there was a freedom and innocence to Beckham’s corridor sessions with Landry that simply doesn’t exist in his current world. Beckham is now a cultural icon, marketer’s dream and member of the New York Giants. With that comes responsibility, which seems to have turned from a joy to a millstone. However, for the time being, he sells. Since that catch, he’s appeared in hundreds of television spots, in the CBS medical drama Code Black, was the cover star of the Madden video game, sat next to Vogue editor-in- chief Anna Wintour at New York and London fashion weeks, befriended Michael Jordan and LeBron James, hung out with namesake David, played ‘soccer’ with various European powerhouses and posed nude for ESPN The Magazine.
This past summer, he lived with Drake and, if the US tabloids are anything to go by, has variously been dating Amber Rose, Demi Lovato, Zendaya, Stephanie Acevedo and Khloe Kardashian. He has advertising deals with Nike, Steiner Sports, Lenovo, Dunkin’ Donuts, ROAR sports drinks, Foot Locker, Exos, Fathead and is the pitch man for Head & Shoulders shampoo. If that’s not enough, this autumn he launched his own brand of T-shirts called 13XTwenty, and his face adorns the Sprayground backpack range along with former LSU teammates Jeremy Hill and Landry.
In terms of his standing in the NFL, Beckham’s number 13 jersey is the third-biggest seller. And on the American sporting landscape as an attraction for advertisers, he may have elevated himself towards the levels of the NBA’s marketing maven, Steph Curry. So why is the Golden State star so popular and what similarities are there between the pair? “Being genuine is one quality marketers covet more than ever,” says Emilio Collins, the NBA’s vice president of global marketing deals. “The younger population sniffs out the fake and immediately dismisses them. It’s why Curry, and to an extent, Beckham, have so many deals.”
But Curry, at 28, seems old beyond his years. He and his family live in the Californian hill town of Orinda, about a half hour east of San Francisco and his college days, inside the 5,000 seater John Belk Arena in Davidson, North Carolina are a far cry from Saturday nights in Death Valley and a pro career in the public glaze of the city that never sleeps. And while Curry’s star continues to shine, dark clouds have started to gather above OBJ, some of his own doing. With saturation and overexposure comes the inevitable backlash. Beckham, to some football fans, is a hated man. “I think he’s a stud and he’s getting a lot of commercials, but I think he’s starting to get to the point where he’s becoming too famous instead of worrying how to become a great football player,” NBA legend Charles Barkley recently told NFL Total Access.
So is there truth to what Barkley says? Should Beckham, following back-to-back outstanding seasons, let his play do the talking rather than his commercials? It seems change may come from within. “You know I’ve made myself a target,” he adds. “I hate that that causes so much distraction for my team and for myself, especially when a lot of the stu is not true, and there’s just all kinds of things that they come up with. It comes with the territory, though, so … (laughs) I just have to get used to it.”
But will he? His stance to publicity has hardened recently and it’s more di cult to promote products if you’re unwilling to play the mad men’s game. The naivety of those early forays means his life is lived very much inside the looking glass. His social-media interactions have lessened despite the growth of his Instagram account.
If Beckham’s change in mentality and growing ennui toward the spotlight continues to affect him but not the companies who crave his name, what about his on-field antics? How much can one company take before they look to step away? His incredible display of behaviour against Carolina last year would have had most CEOs drowning their sorrows as their marketing goldmine did just about all he could to destroy his image in a meltdown as dramatic as anything PFF: The Magazine has seen in a generation.
“It was just a slobber-knocker, drag-down type of game,” arch- nemesis Josh Norman told us in Issue 1. “I don’t know what else to say – you saw what happened on the television. I pulled that mask o . I pulled back the face of what that dude really is. Everybody saw that on national TV. There’s nothing that I can show that he hasn’t already exposed.”
But Beckham vehemently disputes that. “Working like a dog each o season, it’s just all I’ve known all my life,” he says. “I feel like that’s what’s gotten me here so it’s hard to shy away from it. I think the work ethic is something that I’ll continue to have. I’ve come in and impacted and made plays early in my career and now I do have that target on my back and it’s ok, it is what it is.”
And for all of that ugliness against the Panthers, at least for now it’s had no effect on his marketability: “There’s been no change in our plans with Odell and Head & Shoulders,” said a Proctor and Gamble spokesman after the incident with Norman, and Beckham’s other major companies fell quickly in line. But as we’ve seen with Lance Armstrong, Maria Sharapova and most recently Ryan Lochte, it doesn’t take much to send sponsors running for cover.
This season, teams have worked to get under his skin and with more than a little success. Just ask Xavier Rhodes. And Josh Brown’s kicking net. So if the deals dried up tomorrow because companies were concerned with his attitude over and above his obviously marketable character and persona, would it really matter to Beckham? How much money can someone have before they say enough is enough? And does he really want to conquer the world?
McFell adds: “It’s a very diffcult balancing act to manage your life away from the game and the job that allows you all these endorsements. He has so many commercial opportunities and such appeal, but he still has to perform and that’s critical. Can you continue to be that good with all these things going on peripherally? That’s the challenge he faces. It’s tough to handle and I think he’s going through a little of that at the moment.”
McFell’s scenario is one for doomsday, but the bare facts ring true – prior to his Week 6 explosion versus Baltimore, Beckham was struggling against the lofty standard he’s set himself. One wonders whether he yearns to go back to the moments before that catch, when somehow life seemed a little clearer. But if you were to ask him you’d get the stock answer. “Just one of those things,” he told yet another enquiring mind in Germany.
Odell Sr. was at MetLife Stadium that night in November 2014 when the world woke up to Jr.’s talents – row 46, section 106 – and ‘the catch’ happened right in front of him. He’s witnessed hundreds of his son’s one-handed grabs from prep to pros, from back gardens in Georgia to Tiger Stadium and beyond. “I’ve seen so many that it’s become kind of routine for me. I mean, I felt 10-foot tall when he pulled it in but I expect that out of him now.” And that’s the point. The surprise is there’s no surprise. To those who didn’t know, it was the greatest catch in NFL history. To those who did, it was just a catch. A catch 10 years in the making. “We were walking through the airport when it flashed across the screen,” said Landry. “I wanted to scream. But I’ve seen him make that catch so many times. It was nothing new to me.”
The catch truly heard around the world has become something of a curse for the 24-year-old superstar. Bound with all the weight of that night, only he can change the narrative of his temperament and what that means for his career moving forward. Whether he can bring that down remains to be seen.