Behind Odell Beckham Jr.'s quest for greatness

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Ryan Brenner was out because of a knee injury late in the year when a fellow freshman took his junior varsity place at Isidore Newman in New Orleans, where they take their quarterbacking very seriously. His 130-pound replacement, Odell Beckham Jr., was throwing tight spirals and making enough of the breakaway runs Peyton and Eli Manning never made at Newman to compel the JV coach to give Brenner this warning:

"Odell is about to Wally Pipp you."

Brenner had never heard of Pipp, or the story of how he lost his New York Yankees job to Lou Gehrig, and it didn't much matter. He was no less amazed watching the 5-foot-7 wide receiver play his position than the varsity coach, Nelson Stewart, who saw Beckham score on two long runs in the same JV game while bigger kids were all but tripping over one another in vain attempts to tackle him.

"Odell zigged when they zagged," Stewart recalled. "It took your breath away."

But this is the part that explains why Beckham is Eli Manning's primary and secondary target, and not Eli Manning's replacement. As someone who would later heave footballs in practice 70 yards with his right hand and 40-50 yards with his left, Beckham knew he might've grown into a dominant dual-threat quarterback destined to play for the New York Giants, just as he knew he might've developed as a soccer prodigy destined to play for Arsenal or Manchester City.

He knew that football's most important position could've been his with a single snap of his absurdly long fingers, and yet he decided to return to receiver for the betterment of his high school team and his close friend, Ryan Brenner, who was never going to be a major college recruit. They began playing together on an eighth-grade team that didn't win many games, and just about every touchdown the team scored through the air came on a halfback pass from Beckham.

"But Odell knew I grew up wanting to be the Newman quarterback," Brenner said. "He was special as a wide receiver, and that was definitely a part of it, and we talked about the connection we had. But he also thought it was my time to be the quarterback. He's one of the most kindhearted people I've ever met. He'd almost rather someone else have success instead of him."

Beckham was only a 16-year-old kid, Stewart said, "and he was already an old soul who just cared about his team. Ryan was a great system guy for us, and Odell wanted him to be his quarterback. Odell was never a selfish kid who needed to have the ball on every down. All he cared about was what it said on the scoreboard."

The scoreboard? It now says that Odell Beckham Jr. -- good for 176 catches, 2,625 receiving yards, and 24 receiving touchdowns since missing the first four games of his rookie season in 2014 -- has pieced together a 25-game start to his NFL career that can't be touched.

That makes Beckham a serious threat to the 13-0 Carolina Panthers' shot at securing the league's first perfect regular season since New England's in 2007. If Beckham beats Josh Norman for a touchdown or three in MetLife Stadium, expect him to break into an elaborate end zone dance or three. If Beckham ends up on the wrong end of what could be the receiver-cornerback matchup of the year, don't be surprised if he rips off his helmet and slams it into the ground the way he did last year to punctuate a home loss to San Francisco.

Just don't mistake his actions either way as those of a prototypical me-centric star. Tom Coughlin, 69-year-old grandfather, agrees with general manager Jerry Reese's assessment that Beckham is a team player first and foremost, and that his most formidable asset -- despite all of his physical tools -- is his desire to be great.

Back in the day that desire was burning hot at Newman, where Archie Manning had sent his three boys (Cooper was an all-state receiver) and where Beckham also arrived as the son of athletic royalty. His father, Odell Sr., had been a running back at LSU, and his mother, Heather Van Norman, had been a sprinter who won multiple national titles and All-American honors at the same school before she became pregnant with Odell, ending her pursuit of Olympic gold.

And still Beckham was something of an underdog at Newman. "He was always doubted," said Brenner, a graduating University of Georgia student who remains in touch with the Giants' receiver. "He wasn't even rated the top receiver in the state; that was Jarvis Landry. People always told him he was too small, too skinny, or wasn't strong enough, and he really used that to fuel his fire."

Beckham became a legend in local and regional seven-on-seven tournaments, forever making would-be tacklers miss despite the fact a ball carrier was ruled down in those games by a one-hand touch. He made one leaping catch at the New Orleans Saints' practice facility -- above three defenders -- that was better than his toe-dragger in the end zone Monday night against Washington, and that rivaled his signature three-finger catch against Dallas last year.

He worked on his one-handed approach in those seven-on-sevens, and in Newman practices and games. "When Odell started doing it I tried to correct it," Stewart recalled. "How stupid am I?"

The coach was actually pretty smart. Though Newman had a history of running a traditional, drop-back offense designed to take advantage of the strengths of the Peytons and Elis, Stewart challenged himself to be far more creative in Beckham's three varsity years. Newman got faster, more dynamic, more flexible in its sets. The Wildcat, the spread offense, option routes, more pre-snap motion than ever before -- Beckham inspired it all.

The receiver would play some at quarterback and running back, at cornerback and safety. He would return kickoffs and punts, and as a former youth soccer star who idolized David Beckham, he surely would've kicked field goals if asked. Stewart did anything he could to put his budding football genius in position to score.

But Beckham's work ethic matched his versatility. "He watched 20 times more film than any kid we had," Stewart said. "And we had to turn out the lights on him after practice because he was working the Jugs machine, just always perfecting his game."

The morning after Beckham's LSU Tigers lost the BCS title game to Alabama in the Superdome his freshman year, Stewart found his former player on the Newman practice field running routes -- by himself. Ronnie Vinson, Beckham's teammate at Newman and LSU before transferring to Tennessee State, said they would sometimes return from Friday nights out in the offseason and run sprints before bedtime. Sometimes when receiver and defensive back were bored, Vinson said, they could be found running up the nearby levees at 2 a.m.

Now working with a non-profit after-school program in Nashville, Tennessee, Vinson was the older student who first met Beckham in middle school, and the one who drew the recruiters to Newman who eventually fought over the younger receiver. "I remember him as a kid with a mouthful of candy, always hyper, just doing freaky athletic things on the playground, like a back-flip out of nowhere," Vinson said. "He had huge hands, but he was always a small kid, and I honestly don't think he hit puberty until he got to LSU.

"He was like my little brother, and we would sleep over at each others' houses, and pretty much everything we used to talk about is coming true for him. It's funny, but I work with fifth- and sixth-graders who don't even know who Jerry Rice or Randy Moss is. So when I ask them to name the best receiver ever, they all say Odell Beckham. I guess kids have the last word."

Who really knew Beckham would be this special? At 5-foot-11, he wasn't projected as a future NFL franchise player before the 2014 draft combine. Some scouts worried about his size, and whether he could beat bigger corners in the air, and whether he actually had elite speed. One largely favorable report described a perceived weakness this way: "Not a red-zone threat."

He was the third receiver drafted, not the first, after a strong combine performance, and yet he might already be the best receiver in the league. Beckham did not disabuse anyone of that notion Monday night after needing three IVs to fight off dehydration and the lingering effects of a stomach virus to save the Giants' season. The following morning, while watching highlights of Beckham doing his Ray Lewis dance, Stewart's wife turned to him and asked, "Did you ever think it would be like this?"

The Newman coach didn't even know what to say. "I thought he had a chance to be great," Stewart said later. "But this is another stratosphere."

Beckham plays the game with Jerry Rice's precision, with Michael Jordan's hang time, and with John McEnroe's artistry and rage. Panthers coach Ron Rivera likened him to Rice, and Beckham called that comparison "shocking" and overly flattering before saying he has tried to take the best of Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, DeSean Jackson and Victor Cruz, and "make it your own craft."

His stardom has exploded because of it, and on a summertime trip to New York to visit Beckham with a couple of old classmates, Ryan Brenner saw it first hand. He saw Beckham wear a hoodie in an attempt to disguise himself so he wouldn't be constantly stopped while trying to spend quality time with his friends, who were just in for the weekend. They headed to Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park in New Jersey, where in between roller-coaster rides Beckham politely asked his friends to stop turning around every time someone shouted his name.

"It was weird because he was just Odell to us, not this famous athlete," Brenner said. "But he had no choice; everyone was trying to stop him for a picture or autograph. When we were in the car he did see a 12- or 13-year-old wearing his jersey, and he had the driver pull over so he could sign it for the kid and make his day."

From a distance, Brenner still likes to summon the memories of his time with Beckham at Newman. They were co-captains at adjacent lockers, and when he felt his pocket collapsing during games Brenner did exactly what Eli Manning does now -- throw it in the neighborhood of Beckham and let him do the rest.

Beckham became the first Newman receiver to manage a 1,000-yard season since Cooper Manning in 1991, and he chose his father's school over dozens of other offers. Brenner attracted some interest from Division II and III schools, but decided to chase different career objectives and play intramurals at a bigger school, Georgia, instead. He majored in business management and real estate, and is scheduled to graduate Friday before going to work for Amazon.com.

"I thought the coolest feeling in the world was following in Peyton's and Eli's footsteps as a quarterback at Newman," Brenner said, "until I got to watch Odell play on Sundays. He has such an incredible drive. He won't be satisfied until in his mind he's the greatest receiver there ever was."

At his locker Thursday afternoon, the fans' leading Pro Bowl vote-gettter among receivers spoke for a minute about his brief time as a quarterback at Newman. Beckham was asked whether respect and friendship played a role in his decision to avoid challenging Brenner, who didn't necessarily have the tools to excel at another position.

"It did, it did," Beckham said. "I could've played quarterback and he would've ended up playing receiver, but Ryan was a good friend of mine. I knew what he could do and I knew any other position wouldn't feel right for him. I kind of felt it was his position, and we should just let him earn it and embrace his leadership role."

As it turned out, this was the first time Beckham made it clear he cared more about the team than the glory of the one-hand catch. This was the first time the new-school receiver showed everyone that he is driven by an old-school soul.