And Now For His Next Act...
Inside Odell Beckham Jr.'s quest to recapture the magic that made him the NFL's most eye-catching talent
A version of this story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 10 NFL Preview issue. Subscribe today!
Nelson Stewart didn't ask why Odell Beckham Jr. needed film. He knew. Stewart, Odell's former coach at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, was in his office this summer watching old plays. He's a former teammate of Peyton Manning's and a close friend of Eli's, both Newman alums as well, and he keeps a grass-stained Beckham No. 3 Newman jersey in his office drawer as a reminder of his fortune to witness so much transcendent talent at such a small school. On this day, he filmed a few touchdowns off his computer screen and texted them to Odell, who replied: "lol coach i really need my high school highlights."
It has been a difficult and uncertain offseason for Beckham, years in the making. Ever since The Catch -- the twisting, levitating, horizontal, three-fingertipped, pass-interfered-with, impossible touchdown against the Cowboys in 2014 -- and the celebrity and scrutiny that attended it, he has lost some of his old joy. And along with it, maybe his edge. After the fights and meltdowns, the boat trip, the dog pee celebration and the sparring match with a kicking cage, not to mention an uptick in dropped passes, he broke his ankle in October and missed most of last season. Then in March, he was sued by a man who claims he was beaten up at Beckham's LA residence in January-in a countersuit, Beckham would deny involvement. That same man later claimed he had evidence that Beckham tried to illegally pay a woman $1,000 for sex, which Beckham denied as well. Also in March, a video of Beckham in bed in Paris with an aspiring model and what appeared to be illegal drugs went viral. Later in the month, the Giants, wary of meeting his desire to be the NFL's highest-paid player, listened to trade offers, and owner John Mara publicly implied that it was time for the 25-year-old wideout to grow up.
Coach Stewart has known Odell since he was 9, and like most in Beckham's inner circle, he knows The Catch spawned a mania that neither the receiver nor his crew nor the Giants knew how to handle. To him, Odell is not OBJ but "3." Where others see the most viral player of the viral era, Stewart sees "an old soul" who at heart is "pretty nostalgic." So he knew what Odell needed when he asked to see old plays, and he delivered the clips: a fade for a touchdown against De La Salle; a stop-and-go for six in a scrimmage against East Jefferson; a screen that Odell took the distance against Bogalusa; and finally, a leaping one-handed snare against East Feliciana, his genius in its infancy.
"Thank u," Beckham texted after looking back through 25 minutes of his old self -- a reminder of what beauty looked like before it was broken.
Odell is dragging. He rolls out of a golf cart on a June day, the last to take the field at his own youth football camp on a high school field in New Jersey. Word is he was out late last night, but who knows. He yawns and removes the white hoodie surrounding his head -- his standard TMZ disguise -- and rubs his hair, curls spilling over, the hair of many kids at his camp, a factory line of OBJs. The kids are vibrating, and the camp's emcee is screaming into a microphone, but Odell, usually bouncing as if set to his own soundtrack, isn't quite ready for his own arrival.
"I don't have as much energy as him," Odell says, alluding to the host. "Let's just have fun."
"Everybody on your feet!" the host says. "Coach Beckham likes straight lines!"
At the moment, Coach Beckham might like more sleep. He leads everyone in jumping jacks, barely lifting his arms above his shoulders, and then slowly changes shirts, revealing a body with every muscle curved and pronounced, blanketed in tattoos to the jaw, an extravagant expression of self, not just the body of an athlete but the body of a star, designed to be unveiled and studied and celebrated. For the past year, NFL executives have privately admired the way the NBA promotes its players. If football wants a face to rally around, it could be Beckham -- with his singular aerial artistry, historic productivity and signature dance moves. But there's a gulf between his potential and the reality of his career, and even after the Giants signed him to a five-year, $95 million deal -- a record for wide receivers -- trust will remain an issue. Nobody knows whether he will become an immortal player or merely one remembered for an immortal moment in 2014.
The stakes are high. In the spring, when the Giants were listening to trade inquiries -- the Rams and 49ers were the two teams reported to be interested, but there were others -- one curious club hired a private investigator to track Beckham. The Paris video had introduced drug-use rumors that teams wanted to run down, even if recreational drug use falls below his surgically repaired ankle on most teams' list of concerns. The PI's report set off no alarms, but despite the Giants being "50-50" on their willingness to trade him, according to a league source with knowledge of the situation, no team would meet their asking price, which was believed to be a pair of first-rounders.
So here's Odell at his camp, learning that holding on to his trademark joy can be a grind. He was supposed to meet with reporters today, but he canceled. He limited most of his public comments this offseason to benign Instagram posts. He declined a formal interview for this story but didn't mind my observing him up close for hours on both coasts. He's said in the past that his words don't mean much. Still, his mother, Heather Van Norman, is with him at his camp -- she's rarely far away from her son -- and she's chatting up reporters, even those who have been critical. A few reporters sense a warm front, an attempted reset.
Beckham signs a stack of photos and jerseys and helmets, his hands -- so long and soft that his catches sound gentler than those of other receivers -- dwarfing a Sharpie. A little later he stands alone and jogs out to make the rounds of the campers, pushing off his left ankle, which has a red scar running so high it looks like another tattoo.
"Do one-handed!" a kid says.
"I can't catch one-handed," Odell jokes.
The kids are running routes and dropping passes. Odell is throwing. He played some quarterback at Newman, the Tebow jump throw his signature move. They're dropping passes because they're trying to catch them like Odell. He wants to teach them how to properly catch a football, with two hands forming a diamond. They want him to teach them how to OBJ it. He can't; his gifts and drive are not transferable. But the kids are having fun as the ball bounces off their single outstretched hand, and he isn't going to ruin it. Finally, a kid snares the ball with his right palm. Odell wags his finger, timed to the beat of the music blasting, and curls his face, at once handsome and vulnerable and volatile, into an approving grin.
Beckham's catch -- The Catch -- was a long four years ago, and it marked both the beginning and the end of something. He told his mother at age 4 that he would become a professional athlete. And although he was blessed to be both born with and surrounded by elite athleticism -- she was a six-time All-American in track; his father, Odell Sr., was a running back at LSU; his stepfather, Derek Mills, was an Olympic gold medalist in the 4x400 relay -- he authored his dreams the old-fashioned way: by practicing. In high school, he used rubber bands to build finger strength, training a lone hand to be the only one necessary. He broke the rules for catching a football by catching it like a baseball, his palm up when it was supposed to be down and down when it was supposed to be up. He raised the ante on himself, both revolutionizing and evolving his craft, first at Newman, then at LSU and then in the NFL, catching one-handed while he did handstands, competing against conventionalism as much as any defense. He imagined his own brand of immortality, and in the split seconds in which he was the only person in the world reacting the way he reacted to an arriving spiral, he could feel it. Odell Sr. had told his son, "You gotta do something strange for a piece of change." Coming up, Odell wanted to be exotic. He wanted the extraordinary to seem routine. And on Nov. 23, 2014, when Eli Manning threw deep down the right sideline and Dallas defensive tackle Henry Melton turned to Giants offensive tackle Geoff Schwartz and said, "Oh s---," that's what it was: an impossible moment willed inevitable.
The Catch catapulted Odell into fast friendships with LeBron and Jordan and Drake. It also changed football, injecting an original beauty into a familiar violence, drawing in millennials to an aging fan base, showcasing a non-quarterback who could produce the spectacular. People started showing up to watch Beckham in warm-ups, as if he were Mark McGwire taking batting practice in '98. Crowds waited for him outside of the team bus and chased him across hotel lobbies. He had just turned 22 and found himself both on the sports page and the gossip page, and the intensity with which people followed him, the extent to which they craved some next bit of magic from him, was often overwhelming. It quickly became uncontrollable. He'd sometimes escape on off-days to LA, where he could be one celebrity among hundreds. The Giants worried that he might be susceptible to peer pressure and that he wasn't taking care of his body, and he later confessed that he didn't always do that, even as he led the league in receiving yards per game and scored 12 touchdowns and was named Offensive Rookie of the Year. "Odell became a one-name celebrity," Schwartz says. "That's the leap he made overnight."
In that 2015 offseason, Odell became the Madden cover boy and posed nude for the Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine. But he wasn't quite right. One March evening, he vented cryptically for three hours on Twitter: "At the end of the day I will never let another human being steal my joy in life" ... "Finding me, until then the rest is almost irrelevant." He looked exhausted and detached and disinterested at an autograph signing event that summer on Long Island, never removing his backpack. And by the time he arrived at training camp for his second season, he told the New York Post that the football field had become an "escape," a "getaway."
Even that feeling didn't last long. Ben McAdoo, the Giants' offensive coordinator at the time and later the team's head coach, told others in the organization, "The Catch was the worst thing that happened to him."
Beckham didn't slack off, despite his comfort in celebrity circles. He pushed so hard in practice during the 2015 season that coaches described him as a team leader. He gave teammates blue Beats headphones for Christmas and often held the phone himself to ensure that fans' selfies came out just right. Coaches sometimes caught him twirling his hair and staring off in the distance during meetings, but he recalled the material perfectly when quizzed and did killer impressions of members of the staff, particularly offensive assistant coach Ryan Roeder's blitz speeches.
He worked hard to prove that being Odell -- being OBJ -- came easily, but something was off. That much people around him knew. He committed the cardinal sin of modern fame -- he replied to tweets -- and tried not to take personal insults, about his style and play, personally. But there's a huge difference between the joy of being respected for your craft and being pawed at for it, and Beckham struggled to live in the space between. During downtime at the Giants' facility, he'd brood just enough to let on that something was bothering him, but he also seemed tired of being asked how he was doing. He groused in 2015 about the constant media attention but would sometimes FaceTime reporters just to talk. Anyone with a phone could observe his life, but nobody knew what it was like to live it. "I'm the only one who goes through what I go through," he later said.
Beckham's talent and temperament had made him seem vulnerable, and in the NFL, vulnerability always catches up to talent. Going back to high school, he's had a ritual of transforming himself before games. "When he'd put on his helmet," Stewart says, "he was a completely different kid." The routine starts slow, with his headphones on, and as Giants receiver Sterling Shepard says, "He amps his way up." He bobs his head and wags his finger and by the time he takes the field for warm-ups, sometimes pretending to be the Joker, he's preening as much as he's dancing, psyching himself into a state of grace when most players psych themselves into a state of rage. It made him ripe for blowback in 2015, aimed at the heart of what he believed in and how he saw himself. Defensive coordinators and players had spent the previous offseason considering ways to defend him, and a clue arrived late in his rookie year, when the Rams hit him hard and out of bounds, igniting an all-out brawl. It was an answer as old as football. Get inside his head.
And beat the living hell out of him.
The most vile words in the English language are routinely thrown around on NFL football fields. Players will deface any pronoun and verb, conjure any image, to get you to come undone. If it works, it's a lot more efficient than a double-team. Defenses hit Beckham hard and often hit him late. He got trash-talked and talked trash back. He got his ass kicked and kicked some ass. But it took a toll. During an October 2015 matchup against Buffalo, Beckham punched Bills safety Duke Williams in the head after Williams hit him high and clean. He believed officials weren't protecting him, but he declined a chance to speak to the league about it. Giants coaches sensed the pressure was building in him even as he was nearly unstoppable on the field, gaining at least 100 yards in seven of nine games in one stretch during the 2015 season. It came to a head on Dec. 20 against the Panthers and cornerback Josh Norman. The two superstars had tested each other in warm-ups. The Panthers' secondary brought out a baseball bat, a ritual to honor an injured teammate and a warning that they were coming out swinging, and Odell later told people he saw it as a threat that crossed the line. Meanwhile, he danced balletically across the field, literally tiptoeing and spinning in defiance. Norman later said the refs were egging them on, saying, "I have a first-row seat to this!"
Beckham dropped an easy touchdown early. He was mad at himself, and that was all the opening Norman needed. Throughout the game, he hit Beckham hard but mostly legally, talking the entire time. Beckham swung at Norman's helmet, put his fingers inside his face mask and mouth, grabbed his leg, launched into Norman helmet-first and eventually drew three personal fouls. "Full-blown madness," remembers former Panthers safety Roman Harper. An NFL executive called the officials in the middle of the game and told them to eject the two stars if it kept going. Beckham, not Norman, was served with a one-game suspension and later vented to Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, who told the New York Daily News that Beckham was a target of anti-gay insults, which the Panthers denied. "For some reason, everybody goes after him with gay slurs," Irvin said. "He's a different kind of dude. ... I told him he can't let stuff that people say get to you."
Irvin's comments set off a round of columns, with Outsports.com writing extensively about the topic. All the while, Beckham had been rumored to be dating model and actress Amber Rose, one of the first of many celebrities to whom he'd be linked. Giants coaches told him to be himself, to dance and attempt catches that nobody else would dare -- but not to lose his head. Instead, he muted himself. In the final game of the season against the Eagles, he caught only five passes for 54 yards.
The next year, the Giants promoted McAdoo to head coach, and he tried to give Beckham a support system, hiring former LSU assistant and Beckham confidant Adam Henry to coach wide receivers. It didn't completely work. One day in the offseason, players and staffers saw Beckham sobbing hysterically in the facility. They asked what was wrong. Odell's dog had died. Nobody knew what to do with someone who felt things so deeply and brought it all to an NFL workplace, not exactly a temple of sensitivity.
The next time Beckham faced Norman, who had by then joined the Redskins, he exploded after Manning threw a fourth-quarter interception, swung his helmet into the kicker's net, yelled at Henry and appeared to cry on the sideline during the game's final minutes, gifting social media a video nearly as viral as The Catch. Again, the Giants staff implored him to balance his famous joy and his infamous explosions. Again, Beckham responded with a flat performance the next week, catching three passes for 23 yards, brushing an official and drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Vikings. "It's not a coincidence," a Giants coach at the time says now, that Odell would have a bad game after being told to tone it down. "He needs the alter ego." Beckham told coaches in private that he was having trouble sleeping, and he told reporters in public that football was no longer fun. The Giants hired a psychologist named Jonathan Fader to be a resource for the players -- especially Beckham. Fader worked hard, but the players assumed he reported everything back to the coaches, even when he didn't. He could only get so far.
Beckham dropped nine passes in 2016, including the postseason, third most in the NFL. He took part in a quick boat getaway in Miami six days before the Giants' playoff matchup against the Packers, setting off a week of headlines and drama. You can get away with a lot in New York -- if you deliver when it counts. He didn't. He caught four passes, dropped two and reportedly punched a hole in the wall after the game. A few days before training camp in 2017, he sat for a three-minute YouTube video with Uninterrupted titled "Odell Fears Falling Out of Love With Football," in which he both declared his desire to be the NFL's highest-paid player and said the game was "starting to slowly become my job, not just what I love to do anymore."
Beckham's 2017 season lasted five weeks before Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward landed on his ankle, fracturing it. At the time, he was leading the NFL with five drops. After a 3-13 season, Pat Shurmur was hired as the Giants' new coach. Then came the Paris video in March. The Giants privately questioned Beckham's reliability and maturity, and an NFL Network report surfaced that he would refuse to step onto a football field without a new contract. It was about to get ugly. He wanted some of the Hollywood life, with Drake, a life he feels is harmless and earned, and he also wanted to be the greatest and best-paid player in football. But the NFL will always make you choose. So after years of proving to be the exception to almost every rule, Odell did what all players eventually do: He got in line.
He's waking up. Odell has broken a sweat at his camp and is crouched a few yards from a line of kids. They run to him and try to juke him as he tries to gently swat balls out of their hands. He smiles at each kid who reaches the front of the line.
"You look like Steph Curry," Odell says to one.
"Thank you," the kid says back.
The kid makes a cut that catches him by surprise.
"Good move," Odell says.
A little girl spins by him.
"Too fast," he says, shaking his head.
The day allows Odell to remember being a kid himself, when he attended Michael Vick's camp and saw a vision of what he might become -- an unprecedented force. You only get to be precocious once, only once feel the rush of others spotting something special in you. Eli Manning likes to tell a story from about a decade ago when he and Peyton were in New Orleans and asked Stewart if he had any high school receivers who could run routes for them. Odell did, and though his talent was raw, it was also unmistakable. Peyton whispered to Stewart, "That kid's a little different," and being Peyton, he rigged the reps so he always threw to Odell and stuck Eli with lesser receivers. He knew what he was looking at.
At LSU, Beckham once told coaches he feared the day when football would become a job. The NFL delivered that day, as it always does. The question now is whether Beckham has it in him to grind until his spark is rekindled and then do it again when the spark goes out again, as it will, realizing that holding on to it is a job in itself.
In April, his mom, Heather, called an old friend, Caryl Smith Gilbert, the head track coach at USC, and asked if she'd work with her son. Smith Gilbert and Trojans sprinting coach Quincy Watts ran Beckham through a series of tests, mostly different kinds of jumps. The early results were troubling. "His power in the first 10 yards wasn't as good as his power after 10 yards," Smith Gilbert says. They formulated a plan, filled with proprietary tests and data, and met three times a week for eight weeks. Beckham always showed up in a good mood -- "cheering us up," Smith Gilbert says -- except on Wednesdays. Wednesdays were hill days in Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. To be at the park and stretched and ready to go by 6 a.m., he had to wake up around 4:45. "We knew he'd be grouchy," Smith Gilbert says.
Beckham had to sprint up hills, which were 75 meters long and inclined at about 65 degrees. Over six weeks, he had to complete 18 of them, three each Wednesday, with a two-minute rest in between. On Beckham's first hill, he failed to run full speed. "Don't count," Watts said.
Beckham glared at him. And glared. Watts wondered what would happen. Would Odell quit? Would he quit without officially quitting, giving a good effort but not his best on the next try? Seconds passed. Odell relinquished his glare, walked down the hill and sprinted up. He eventually found a way to do what he used to do: make the mundane fun. Over the next few weeks, it became a standing joke that he would accuse Watts of miscounting the number of hills he'd run. "That's nine," Watts told him at one point.
"No, that's 10!" he replied.
After the hills, Beckham ran routes at USC or at UCLA. Every day, crowds formed, peeking over the fence, wondering whether it was really OBJ. A few videos of him running not home run deep routes with one hand but lunch pail short ones with two hands went viral in football circles. When Stewart watched them, it reminded him of the work that produced the high school touchdowns Odell now wanted -- needed -- to revisit.
Pat Shurmur sits in his office on a June afternoon, having just presided over his first minicamp. The burden of a coach's job is usually evident in his face, but in Shurmur's office, the burden literally hangs over his head. The only pictures on the wall behind him are team photos of the eight Giants championship squads, four from the pre-Super Bowl era and four since. The expectations are clear. Shurmur is pleased that Beckham wasn't traded -- Odell was part of this job's appeal -- and that the Giants decided to build around Eli Manning, at least for the next year or two. Earlier in the day at practice, Odell looked like the old Odell. He seemed to explode off the line. He caught balls with two hands and with one hand. He danced between reps to the music piped into practice, especially to "What Is Love," and he would tell reporters two months later, "I'm back in love with what I've always loved."
Shurmur knows that working with Beckham is both complex and simple. Trust will always supersede instruction. He reached out to him shortly after he got the job in January and tried to meet with him as much as possible. Beckham was in and out of the building, thanks to rehab, his contract uncertainty and his desire to be in LA. A mega-contract usually amplifies a player's habits rather than changing them. Nobody knows which habits Beckham will ultimately amplify. Shurmur leans back in his chair, and his eyes dart out his window overlooking the practice fields. "Hold on a second," he says, and motions me to look.
"He's out there working with Eli," Shurmur says. "Running full-speed routes, for whatever it's worth."
Shurmur has the championship expectations above him and two of the most important players in realizing them below him, working long after the rest of the players have called it a day. Eli will always play bland for the media, but he's an astute observer of talent and situation. In a weird way, he knows more about the next phase of Beckham's life than Beckham does. He's seen how fame rises and falls, a two-time Super Bowl MVP from an iconic football family who briefly lost game snaps last year to Geno Smith and practice reps to a rookie third-rounder named Davis Webb. Eli knows Beckham's life is unique and isn't, because he was on the throwing end of the David Tyree catch -- the greatest catch in NFL history before Beckham's. So it goes. There will always be a next moment, and there will always be a new guy, but there's also a reward if you can survive the first few years of adulation and money and pain. You accumulate scars, and the joy isn't as much innocent as it is earned, and you arrive at answers to questions you didn't even know to ask. The moving between worlds, from football to Hollywood or Madison Avenue, becomes easier. "You get better with age in this league," Manning says.
In his office, Shurmur watches as Beckham runs a route I've never seen before, with more shifts and changes than seem logical before he explodes deep, a winding country road merging into a freeway. Beckham can evoke many emotions. He can make you love him, and he can make you love him a little less. But this much is clear: He can make you believe. I ask Shurmur what route Beckham just ran.
"I don't know," he says. He looks me in the eye, and the edges of his mouth curve just enough to betray his practiced caution as he says, "Doesn't matter, does it?"
Camp is almost over, but there's a party waiting to explode. As BlocBoy JB's "Shoot" plays, Odell gathers hundreds of kids in a circle. The children have been jumpy and bouncy because after Odell came to life today, he became jumpy and bouncy, and like most people around him, when Odell dances, they dance. Friends sometimes greet him by dancing, a shared language. In July, he coached a celebrity soccer game in Hollywood, and the toddler daughter of one of his players, musician Teyana Taylor, started crying and pointing to the field. She wanted her mommy. Beckham picked her up, her lip quivering, tears on her face, and held her close and started dancing. Soon she rested her head on his chest and put her arm around his shoulder. She was happy. As any parent knows, he had pulled off a feat no less impressive than a one-handed catch.
Now Odell leans in toward the kids at camp and on cue sings along with the song: "Shhh -- don't make a sound." The circle explodes. The kids are dancing, and he is the middle. No other current NFL player could deliver this moment. When he later tells the campers that "I'm a kid at heart, so I have the most fun when I'm out here with y'all," it's hard to believe he doesn't mean it. After a while, he slides out of the circle. The emcee says he has another commitment to tend to, the life of a pro athlete, the world these kids want. The music keeps playing as Odell climbs into a golf cart. He watches the kids with dyed blond hair dance and practice one-handed catches, his creation at work, as if hoping it all could last a little longer.