Casey Beathard is just like many proud football fathers who will descend on South Florida this week, and yet his journey will be profoundly unique. He is planning to attend the biggest game in American sports not as a representative of one quarterback, but two.
"In the last six weeks," he said by phone, "I had a son go to the Super Bowl and another son go to heaven."
C.J. Beathard is a third-string quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, and his family doesn't care that he likely won't dress for the Super Bowl LIV matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs. This game is a precious gift in the wake of an unfathomable tragedy, the murder last month of C.J.'s younger brother Clayton, the starting quarterback at Long Island University.
The father, Casey, is an award-winning country music songwriter and the son of Hall of Fame NFL executive Bobby Beathard, who scouted for the Chiefs team that played in Super Bowl I, before he built Super Bowl teams in Miami, Washington and San Diego. A former college receiver at Elon with two brothers who stayed in the family business (Jeff is a Carolina Panthers scout, and Kurt is an Illinois State coach), the 5-foot-8 Casey realized he wasn't big enough or fast enough to earn a living on the field. He found his calling in words and music. As a young man, Casey always felt he could express himself better as a writer than as an athlete.
"I run through that phone call every day in my head. It really is a nightmare." 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard, on learning that his brother, Clay, had died.
Casey wrote "The Boys of Fall," an ode to high school football that became one of Kenny Chesney's No. 1 country hits. He wrote songs for a roster of stars that made his old man proud -- Chesney, Tim McGraw, Tracy Byrd, Billy Ray Cyrus and Miley Cyrus, George Strait, Darius Rucker, Trace Adkins and Eric Church. Casey was twice named Broadcast Music Inc. Songwriter of the Year, and he was nominated for three Grammys. With his oldest son, C.J., an NFL quarterback, his middle son, Tucker, a country music singer, and his youngest son, Clay, a college QB, Casey and his wife, Susan, were living the Nashville dream -- until the phone rang in the dead of night and shattered it all.
C.J. was calling from the hotel where the 49ers were staying in the early hours of Dec. 21, the day San Francisco was set to face the Los Angeles Rams. A friend had informed C.J. that Clay and two friends had been stabbed outside The Dogwood bar in Nashville, and now C.J. was telling his parents they needed to get to Vanderbilt University Medical Center as quickly as they could.
Casey and Susan waited and waited inside the hospital as surgeons tried to save their 22-year-old son's life. A female hospital employee finally approached the parents and asked if they could meet with doctors in the chapel.
"I don't want to go in that room," Casey said.
"Why?" the woman asked.
"I know what that room means," Clay's father responded.
Even as he was overcome by a sense of dread, Casey said his heart broke for the woman; she was just doing her job. Clay's father and mother ultimately did meet with the doctors in the chapel, and the doctors did tell them that their beautiful boy had died. Casey had no choice but to call C.J. with the news.
"He went, 'Hey, hello,' when he answered," Casey said. "I went, 'Buddy, he passed.' That's it. There was just screaming on the other end."
As he fought back tears over the phone on Saturday, C.J. said, "I run through that phone call every day in my head. It really is a nightmare. I remember it clear as day, hearing my dad's voice."
Nashville police later arrested 23-year-old Michael Mosley and charged him with criminal homicide in the deaths of Beathard and his former Battle Ground Academy teammate Paul Trapeni III, and with attempted criminal homicide in the stabbing of their friend A.J. Bethurum, who survived injuries to his eye and arm. Mosley had reportedly faced an aggravated assault charge against a woman in an unrelated 2018 case, and he had reportedly been involved in a fight with another inmate inside a Tennessee jail last March. Police said Mosley made "unwanted advancements toward a woman" inside The Dogwood that led to the confrontation that turned fatal across the street from the bar.
Casey Beathard said his son lost his life while trying to help a friend who was being assaulted; Mosley's attorney argued in a preliminary hearing that his client acted in self-defense. The case is now in the hands of a grand jury.
Casey and Susan have tried to help their sons and their young daughters, Charly and Tatum, process their emotions and thoughts. Clay was home from LIU on holiday break, with his whole promising life ahead of him, and just like that he was gone.
"I told the kids," Casey recalled, "'Don't get angry and bitter; that would eat you up and be the death of you also. We don't need any more of that. Vengeance is the Lord's, and he'll make the final judgment on this.'
"I got to see [Mosley] in court the other day, and man, he's had a rough, rough, rough road his whole life. ... I wish he would do something productive in prison. I hope something could happen in his heart where his life gets turned around, even if it's just ministering in prison. I don't wish any harm on him at all. And that is the truth."
C.J. said he is not as strong as his old man when it comes to forgiveness in this case and that he "definitely feels a lot of anger built up at the kid for doing what he did." But then C.J. started talking about flawed figures in the Bible who later redeemed themselves, including Paul the Apostle, who persecuted Christians before he transformed his life.
"I think everyone can change," C.J. said. "But the more things go through my head, it's less to do with him and more ... about the memories of the times Clay and I spent together."
On the night Clay died, C.J. didn't know who to call. It was around 1 a.m. on the West Coast.
"So I called Kyle," C.J. said in reference to 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan.
"He was in my room within minutes," the backup quarterback recalled. "He gave me a hug. He was awesome."
Shanahan spent an hour with C.J. in an attempt to comfort his devastated player. They didn't talk about the team, of course, but as Shanahan left the room, C.J. reminded him that he is very much the product of one of the country's most distinguished football families. "You make sure the guys go win this game," C.J. told his coach.
Shanahan didn't tell his players what the quarterback had said before they played the Rams because he didn't want to trivialize Clay's death. But San Francisco did win the game, and to a man and woman, the Beathards can't say enough about how Shanahan, general manager John Lynch and the entire 49ers organization have supported them through this hell-on-earth ordeal ever since.
The Niners recognized that C.J. needed some time away from his job to grieve.
"Clay has the biggest heart of anyone that I have ever known," C.J. would write in an Instagram post. "Anyone that knows him knows this, he would do absolutely anything for the people he loves. He is the most loyal guy that I have ever known in my life and has always been so dang proud of my family and I."
The three Beathard boys grew up playing in a band they called Fayd 49, a nod, their father said, to their street address (1749) and to the fade patterns he had them run as their quarterback. Casey would spray-paint yard lines across a small field, and on Sunday afternoons, between NFL games, the father would throw up jump balls for his sons to fight over. Sometimes C.J. and Tucker stayed back in the corner of the end zone and let their younger, smaller brother catch short passes and carry the ball over the goal line. "But Clay would get mad when we let him score," C.J. said.
C.J. Beathard and his brothers, who formed the band Fayd 49, perform at a talent show. C.J., then in eighth grade, plays lead guitar. Clay Beathard, then in fourth grade, also plays guitar. And Tucker Beathard, then in sixth grade, is on the drums.
The boys competed fiercely at everything when they weren't teammates in their band. Fayd 49 would perform in middle school festivals and at fundraisers, at least until C.J. started devoting more and more time to football. They all played quarterback at Battle Ground Academy, but Tucker was the one who turned down a Division I baseball scholarship to follow his dad into the music industry. The singer wrote a song titled "Brother" after Clay graduated from high school. "This song has taken on a lot deeper meaning for me now that Clay is in Heaven," Tucker wrote in an Instagram post.
The chorus goes like this:
Brother let me hold your trouble
When it gets too heavy
Let me fly when you're high
Let me sink like a stone
When you're low
Brother let me say
A little prayer for you
Take a sucker punch for you
I'd do anything for you
Yeah you ain't alone
Yeah I'll take on the world with you
Clay Beathard wasn't recruited like C.J., who became a star at Iowa and a third-round NFL draft pick. But as his college voyage took him from the University of Tennessee-Martin to Iowa Western Community College to LIU, which was making the jump from Division II to the FCS level of Division I, Clay was driven to be the best of the Beathards.
"Not a day went by that he didn't let C.J. know that he was better than him," their father said, "though it was always in fun."
"He's just a giver. He loves people. He loves the underprivileged. He wants to give everybody a chance. He had an uncanny ability to look at the heart and understand people and feel where they came from." Casey Beathard on his son, Clay, who was killed in December.
Out of small-town Thompson's Station, Tennessee, a half-hour drive south of Nashville, Clay came to adore the New York area. He embraced the challenge of helping a team take a forbidding leap of faith from Division II prominence to the FCS, the upgrade a result of LIU's merger of its C.W. Post and Brooklyn programs. Clay lost his first seven starts behind an overmatched offensive line, before he went down with an injury, but his dad was right there when he threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns in a close loss at Duquesne.
"They weren't ready for that level yet," Casey Beathard said, "but Clay was a tough kid."
The father knew exactly why the whole LIU experience so perfectly fit his son.
"He's just a fan of the underdog," Casey said. "He's just a giver. He loves people. He loves the underprivileged. He wants to give everybody a chance. He had an uncanny ability to look at the heart and understand people and feel where they came from."
The Beathards still talk about Clay in the present tense. The tragedy forced his father to lean hard on his faith, on the counsel he received from the local pastor in his nondenominational Christian church, and from a Long Island-based pastor, Todd Bishop, who informed Casey that his son had inspired a Bible study group for LIU teammates that had grown in size from four to 28. The pastor spoke at Clay Beathard's memorial service and told of how he gave Clay the nickname "Tennessee."
On a video posted by Nashville's WSMV-TV, Bishop described the young athlete as an old soul with bushy, blond hair who engaged him in spiritual conversations, and whose friendship ranked among his greatest honors in 24 years of pastoring. Bishop also recalled once receiving a long text message from Clay that included the following question:
"Why do bad things happen in this world today?"
Bobby Beathard, 83, suffers from Alzheimer's disease, but from his Franklin, Tennessee, home, he is quick to recall his time in the 1960s working for Hank Stram, the coach, and Lamar Hunt, the owner, in Kansas City, where Beathard's brother Pete played quarterback behind Len Dawson.
"Kansas City is where I learned what I was going to do in the NFL," Beathard said. Later, as Don Shula's director of player personnel in Miami, he shaped two championship teams, including the 17-0 Dolphins of 1972, before winning two more Super Bowls as Washington's general manager in the 1980s. He took over the Chargers in 1990 and needed five seasons to mold them into a Super Bowl team. Beathard made a rare mistake -- though a significant one -- when he drafted Ryan Leaf with the No. 2 pick in 1998, and two years later, he retired. His extended family was there for him in Canton, Ohio, in 2018 when Beathard was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Asked the other day about his grandson C.J., in his third year in the league, Beathard sounded very much like a scout. C.J. went 1-9 as a starter over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, throwing 12 touchdown passes against 13 interceptions and running for four scores with 49ers teams not nearly as strong as this one.
"I think C.J. can be a real good NFL quarterback," Bobby said. "He's got the size, he's got the arm, he's a smart kid, he can run. I don't think there are any weak points with C.J. In all the time I've spent in the NFL, a lot of quarterbacks who sat on the bench and were backups for a couple of years ended up as great quarterbacks."
Asked about his late grandson Clay, Beathard sounded very much like a grandfather: "Just one of the happiest kids you ever knew. He was a great kid. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time."
For a while there, Bobby's lapses in short-term memory were making him relive his grandson's death nearly every day, as well-meaning friends calling to offer condolences were effectively breaking the news to him all over again. Casey had to tell his father that it would be a good idea to stop answering the phone.
Bobby's ties to the Chiefs won't stop him from pulling hard for his grandson's team, but the old GM won't be making the trip to the Super Bowl. That's OK; the patriarch's family will be well accounted for. Casey asked C.J. if he wanted his parents and siblings to attend the game, and C.J. answered decisively and affirmatively. He knew what Clay would have wanted. He knew that Clay was already planning months ago to be there for the big game.
Casey and Susan were relieved.
"We're such a tight family," Casey said, "and C.J. hasn't been around us in a while. We need to hug him."
Meanwhile, C.J. will keep helping the 49ers by simulating Patrick Mahomes in practice, like he simulated Aaron Rodgers as part of San Francisco's scout team prior to the NFC Championship Game. C.J. just wishes he could dial Clay's number and tell him all about it.
Casey recently sent C.J. a text, as part of a family thread, that Casey recalled reading this way: "Just like Clay would want to do, he definitely one-upped you here. Heaven is the Super Bowl of life, and that's where Clay is."
The country music songwriter who would much rather see his son win a championship ring than win a Grammy for himself said the text cheered up C.J. It cheered up Casey Beathard too.
Casey said he might someday write a song about his lost boy, Clayton King Beathard, who would have been so proud of his big brother this week. For now, Casey will honor his son a different way. He will sit in the Super Bowl stands as the proud and heartbroken representative of his two favorite quarterbacks of all time.