The stars were out at the 2015 NBA All-Star Game. Jay-Z, Beyonce, Bill Clinton, Ben Stiller and Bill Russell all roamed courtside at Madison Square Garden. And beside them -- looking like he belonged -- stood New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
If one moment solidified Beckham’s status as a household name, it was Clinton asking the wideout for a picture -- according to Beckham’s friend and current Giants punter Brad Wing. A former president of the United States asked for a photo with a 22-year-old NFL player. It’s not your everyday interaction, even for a wide receiver who stars for one of the league’s flagship teams in the nation’s biggest market.
Beckham had just finished his second NFL season and had already reached A-list celebrity status. That doesn’t happen too often in a sport where the athletes' faces are hidden by helmets. Most football players are recognized by the name on the back of their jersey rather than by their jaw structure or golden locks.
Beckham’s fame has reached unprecedented status in record time, in part because of a legendary catch and freshness that was off the charts.
Consider the 2015 All-Star Game. NBA players, including LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, flocked in Beckham’s direction. They exchanged hugs and handshakes, and Westbrook even came with a high-five.
Beckham isn’t Tom Brady, the highest-ranked NFL player on ESPN’s World Fame 100. Brady was No. 21 on the list. Other quarterbacks -- Cam Newton, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning -- are ranked higher than Beckham, as well. But Beckham, ranked No. 64, is the most famous non-quarterback NFL player on the list.
On the strength of his bright blond fauxhawk, Beckham is making $10-plus million in endorsements annually. He also enjoys a robust social media following on Instagram (8.6 million followers), Twitter (2.5 million) and Facebook (1.4 million). Beckham was the NFL’s top player on social media over the last calendar year, according to MVPindex, a social media intelligence platform that analyzes athletes’ social media portfolios and calculates their digital brand value. Beckham’s social media footprint came in at a whopping $82 million from July 2016 to July 2017. He blew away the competition. Brady was second with a social footprint worth $44.9 million.
"Odell Beckham Jr. had a record-setting year on social last season because he was able to create unique, branded content that gave fans an inside look into his colorful personality, life and style -- both on and off the field," said Kyle Nelson, co-founder and CMO of MVPindex. "He's been able to cash in on his personal brand and connect with fans, not to mention generating real value for his corporate partners."
Beckham has endorsement deals with Nike, Head & Shoulders, Dunkin' Donuts and Steiner Sports, among others.
And, Beckham is only 24 years old. Consider, when Brady celebrated his 24th birthday, he was still a scrawny backup to Drew Bledsoe. At 24, Rodgers had never started a game, Brees was struggling in San Diego, Manning was entering his first full season as a starter, and Newton was far from a household name with nary a dab to his name.
Beckham was also recently ranked No. 1 on the Charge 25 Under 25 Index. The index measures the strength of athletes’ brands while under the age of 25, based on social media following and engagement, search results and news stories. Beckham also ranked fifth on the NFLPA Top 50 Player Sales List for the 2016 season.
“He’s a rock star,” said new teammate Brandon Marshall, who has crossed paths and communicated with Beckham for several years. “There is no one else in the NFL like him. We’ve never seen this before.”
Beckham announced himself to the world with a one-handed touchdown catch in a Sunday night loss against the Dallas Cowboys. When the ball stuck to his fingertips that November night, it propelled the rookie from a promising player to a different stratosphere.
The day after that one-handed catch, Beckham was scheduled to do a signing at Roosevelt Field Mall in Long Island. Hundreds of fans packed the mall’s lower level, forcing New York’s newest star to be shuffled by security through the bowels of the building with cameras for outlets like TMZ (as well as reporters and fans) stalking his every move.
This was Beckham’s new reality. He wasn’t just a successful first-round pick. Suddenly, he was getting texts from Michael Jordan and eating dinner with LeBron James. Everybody wanted a piece of the hot new star.
At the Super Bowl after his rookie season, Beckham told a story about going to the mall in Arizona. A few children started following him, then a few more. Soon there were 20 or 30 kids trailing him.
“It’s Odell. He can’t go out in public. It’s that crazy,” Giants safety Landon Collins said. “You can’t walk around with him. It’s hectic.”
It’s like that in New York, New Jersey or California. And it’s no different in London or Germany. When Beckham was in Europe promoting the Giants-Rams game, hundreds lined the Munich streets and chanted “OBJ, OBJ, OBJ.” Beckham played to his fans, climbing on the roof of a car to help them get a better look.
It was a similar scene in London last season before the game against the Rams. Fans quickly converged on a downtown Nike store when they heard Beckham, Victor Cruz and a few other Giants were making an appearance. Pandemonium ensued as the throng strove to get a glimpse of one of the sporting world’s biggest stars.
Kids want to be like him and get near him. It’s no accident that Nike recently awarded Beckham the largest-ever shoe deal for an NFL player ($5.8 million a year) as younger players try to replicate his look.
“I don’t want to say I didn’t expect to be where I’m at today, but I didn’t expect kids to be dying their hair blond,” Beckham said at his football camp last month. “I have all kinds of parents telling me, ‘My kid dyed his hair blond because of you.’ I didn’t mean for all that stuff to happen.”
Cruz, now with the Chicago Bears, said his nephew, a big Beckham fan, dyed his hair blond. The do has a life of its own.
“The blond hair takes it to another level,” Cruz said.
Why the appeal?
Beckham has opened his NFL career with three seasons of 90-plus catches, 1,300-plus yards and 10 or more touchdowns. He’s a three-time Pro Bowler.
Beckham’s ascension is a somewhat odd phenomenon, even though he plays under the bright lights in New York. It takes the perfect storm, even for a player of his caliber, to transcend football.
The one-handed catch admittedly played its part. But other players have made great plays. David Tyree pinned the football to his helmet late in a Super Bowl yet is rarely recognized on the streets. Franco Harris was a Hall of Fame player responsible for the Immaculate Reception. He never reached Beckham status.
But, there’s more to Beckham’s popularity than one spectacular play. He oozes swag, and it’s not an accident. Beckham has a celebrity stylist who picks out everything he wears. He wears themed custom cleats designed by his friend Kickasso. And then there’s the blond hair, which seems to become lighter, more outrageous and distinctive every year.
“He has the look. He has the style,” former teammate Antrel Rolle said, before adding that the bad-boy image also contributes to the equation. Beckham did, after all, lead a group of teammates down to Miami to party with Justin Bieber the week before the Giants’ 2016 playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Most either love Beckham or hate him, in large part because he doesn’t hide his emotions. He’s volatile and dramatic. The elaborate dancing and celebrations can be a turnoff. So can the shenanigans on and off the field.
Beckham was involved in several incidents during his rookie year. He fought former Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman for three quarters during a December game late in his second season. Both players were fined, and the NFL suspended Beckham one game.
Beckham was fined at least six times last year for multiple offenses, including berating an official and taunting an opponent. Beckham has totaled $156,863 in fines -- third most since he entered the league in 2014, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Vontaze Burfict and Marshawn Lynch have accumulated more.
It’s all part of the contradiction that is Odell Beckham. He punched a hole in the Lambeau Field wall after a playoff loss days after partying shirtless on a boat in Miami. But he has never been arrested or in trouble with the law. He also sobbed uncontrollably in front of teammates after his dog died. It all makes him a fascinating figure.
“Obviously playing in New York helps a lot. The kid is an unbelievable talent, and his personality goes along with it,” Wing said. “He’s a likable guy. You’ve obviously spoken to him. [Fans are] drawn to his character. He’s a good kid. He has a big heart.
“Whenever someone interacts with him they walk away like, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect him to be so nice’ or ‘He’s such a levelheaded kid; we were kind of expecting someone else.’ I think he wows a lot of people when they finally meet him and realize he’s just a normal 24-year-old kid.”
The next challenge
It happens all the time with young stars. They can’t outrun the craziness. Beckham is fast, but his race against fame is unfamiliar.
The Giants have expressed concerns regarding Beckham’s stardom. Owner John Mara has had several conversations with Beckham about his issues on and off the field over the past three years. General manager Jerry Reese said after the season that Beckham needed to “grow up” and accept the “responsibility [of] being one of the faces of this franchise.”
Beckham has been late to events and stayed away from organized team activities this spring. His own coach warned him last season about becoming a distraction because of his sideline antics. It’s not an accident the Giants have yet to open contract conversations with their best player. At the same time, Mara has said he would take a roster full of Beckhams and wants him to be a Giant for life.
“Sometimes we look at these young athletes and we expect them to be where LeBron is today at 33,” Marshall said. “You’re asking him to do that at 24. It’s not going to happen. Every guy is different.”
Not many players possess Beckham’s uncommon fame and popularity. But he has a rather small close-knit inner circle consisting of mostly family (and Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry) to keep him in check. His mother, Heather Van Norman, is his business manager and almost always by his side. His agent, Zeke Sandhu, handles his football and his marketing deals. His father and stepfather are also there as sounding boards.
Few others really influence Beckham’s decisions.
“I don’t have to give him much advice,” Marshall said. “He has some great people around him, and it’s all part of the process. Everyone has their own maturation process. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be perfect.”
Part of Beckham’s maturation will involve harnessing his seemingly endless emotion and repurposing it. He’ll need to avoid the sideline antics and on-field scrapes that have led to fines and suspension.
“It kind of goes back to being a responsibility,” Beckham said. “It’s a good thing. I just never really expected to be where I’m at exactly today.”
Beckham knows he can rise as the next Michael Strahan or Derek Jeter -- or fizzle as the next Jeremy Shockey or Chad Johnson.
Strahan, a former Giant, is watching closely. He knows a little something about intense fame -- first as a star for the Giants and then as a television personality with ABC. He talked to Beckham earlier this offseason and sees a young man with his priorities in order.
“You’re not famous because you’re handsome. You’re famous because you’re a great football player,” Strahan said. “And I think with Odell, he realizes that, and every year he is consistently getting better because he realizes that football, right now for him in his life, is the main thing and everything else is secondary.
“At the core of that, he’s never forgotten to take care of himself when it’s time for him to be ready and play the game of football. I think that is the only thing that most of us are concerned about.”