Tony Gonzalez has caught a lot of footballs. Like, a lot a lot. A total of 1,414 in three years at California and 17 seasons in the NFL. He’s a future member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, arguably the greatest tight end in the history of the league and a guy who has made almost every catch there is to make in the sport. So when he started seeing kids on his local Pop Warner team trying something new in practice, Gonzalez was blown away.
There they were, kid after kid, trying to make one-handed grabs. Just like Odell Beckham Jr. does in warm-ups before every game.
“What do you think every one of these kids is doing before practice?” Gonzalez laughs. “Trying to do the one-handed, back-shoulder catches like Odell. And can any of them do it? No! They hardly ever catch it!”
Doesn’t matter if Gonzalez’s group of preteens couldn’t catch with one hand what they already couldn’t catch with two – they were trying it. Doing it exactly like Beckham does it. Trying to act like the NFL’s latest and greatest receiving sensation. Last season, everyone scoffed when network pregame shows would run footage of Odell Beckham Jr., the rookie receiver from LSU, snagging passes with one hand.
No way he could do that when it counts.
Oh, he did it all right. His one-handed, falling-down, back-shoulder catch on Sunday Night Football against the rival Dallas Cowboys was a mic-drop on the opening act. Now, he has everyone’s attention – and they’re waiting to see what he does for an encore. Because there have been plenty of players who have burst into the spotlight, but for every Randy Moss there’s a Charles Rogers or Troy Williamson.
What exactly does Odell Beckham, Jr. have planned for his second act?
“Just go out and do the same things that you did last year,” he says. “You pray and hope for the same results and that’s where you leave it at, you know.”
That’s all it took for Beckham to become one of the NFL’s most recognizable stars. And to think, he didn’t play a snap during his first training camp and missed the Giants’ first four games of the 2014 season. A right hamstring injury was the culprit, throwing doubt onto what was already a head-scratching selection by the team’s general manager, Jerry Reese.
Beckham was undoubtedly a home-run type of receiver, but the Giants already had Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle. They needed help on the offensive line and many thought, at the No. 12 pick, would take Notre Dame’s Zack Martin – the versatile guard and a consensus sure thing. Instead, the Giants took Beckham.
“He’s a dynamic receiver, dynamic punt returner and a dynamic kickoff returner,” Reese said the night of the 2014 Draft. “You are getting a guy that can score touchdowns in three different ways for you. There’s no way we would pass him up.”
But when you’re a receiver taken that high in the draft – the Giants hadn’t selected one that early since Ike Hilliard in 1997 – and you don’t see the field by the end of September, questions start being asked. Was Beckham too fragile? Should they have taken the safe pick in Martin?
When he finally made it on the field in Week 5, the results were solid: four catches, 44 yards, one touchdown. His next two games – six catches for 62 yards and two touchdowns –were respectable, but hardly showcased the game-breaking ability that everyone had expected of the No. 12 pick. Heading into the team’s bye during Week 8, the Giants were 3-4 and stuck in the mud.
It was only going to get worse, with five straight losses after the bye. But while nothing was going right on offense or defense, quarterback Eli Manning had unlocked Beckham’s potential. The team’s final nine games of the 2014 season were a forgettable 3-6 slog. Hardly anyone remembers that, because of Beckham’s play during that stretch: 81 catches, 1,199 yards and nine touchdowns.
His nine-game run to finish the regular season gave him numbers that eclipsed the entire seasons of DeSean Jackson (1,169 yards, six touchdowns), Calvin Johnson (1,077 yards, eight touchdowns), Steve Smith (1,065 yards, six touchdowns) and Anquan Boldin (1,062 yards and five touchdowns).
“He’s a different type of receiver than we have had,” Manning said last season about Beckham. “He has that explosiveness coming out of breaks, that speed. Getting down the field, the catch ability – he catches the ball very naturally.”
But, the most unnatural catch Beckham made was the one that set his star rocketing into the stratosphere.
Brandon Marshall remembers exactly what he did when he saw “The Catch.”
“Jumped out of my seat,” the former Bears receiver recalls. “I was watching the game with my wife and I just jumped out of my seat. I was like, ‘Oh. My. Gosh.’ I’ve never seen a catch like that. Ever.”
Sunday night, November 23 at MetLife Stadium against the Dallas Cowboys. The Giants’ season was circling the drain, but they were up 7-3 after the first 15 minutes. On the first play of the second quarter, just near the 50-yard line, Manning dropped back to pass and flung it down the right side of the field, where Beckham was being covered 1-on-1 by Dallas corner Brandon Carr.
As Carr and Beckham tumbled to the ground, NBC color commentator Cris Collinsworth blurted out what everyone watching the game thought:
Did he catch that?
“That was the best catch I’ve ever seen,” Gonzalez says. “I don’t think there’s ever been a higher degree of difficult on a catch, from an athletic and pretty standpoint – he made it look pretty, too.”
No one could believe that Beckham, almost horizontal at the point of the catch, was able to contort his body that way, while simultaneously extending his right arm to perform the one-handed grab. And yet he had.
“I mean…he is…insane,” NBC’s normally stoic play-by-play man Al Michaels said in a moment of blatant candor. “How do you make that catch?!”
On the live broadcast, Collinsworth – upon seeing the replay in the booth before the audience or those in the stadium – howled with delight and proclaimed it one of the greatest catches he’d ever seen. Cameras then panned to the Giants sideline where they caught head coach Tom Coughlin (Tom Coughlin!) smiling ever so briefly. Once the video clip hit social media, Beckham became an instant celebrity. Everyone tweeted about the catch or retweeted the clip, from LeBron James and Mike Trout to Elizabeth Banks and Matt Lauer and yes, even John Cusack.
At one point, Twitter estimated that the catch was getting nearly 50,000 tweets per minute. Pretty soon, Beckham was everywhere. He still is.
“I don’t know, I just go out and really try and enjoy myself,” Beckham tells me after a Giants training camp session. “This is what I love to do. I’m fortunate to be able to call this my job. I just go out there and try and have fun. Whatever comes with it, that’s what comes with it.”
He’s on the cover of the latest Madden video game. He’s succeeded the retired Troy Polamalu as the new pitchman for Head & Shoulders shampoo. He also joined his quarterback in Dunkin’ Donuts ads. Locally, he does radio spots for a Maserati dealership in New Jersey. (It’s only appropriate that a player who ran a 4.43 40-time promotes a car than tops out at 180 mph.) He might be dating Amber Rose.
“It’s something that I kind of just take in day-by-day,” Beckham says. “I always thought, ‘You’re in the NFL.’ Like, you’re a football player – you play in the NFL. But I never thought there was so much more to it than what there is. It’s definitely not a bad thing, you just live and you learn. You’ve just got to find the right way to do things.”
Wherever he goes now, all eyes on are Beckham.
As the Giants’ season begins this weekend – coincidentally enough, on Sunday night against the Cowboys – the second-year wide receiver suddenly has a whole new round of questions to answer. Now, it’s no longer about living up to expectations, it’s about exceeding them. Everyone knows what Beckham can do when opposing teams didn’t have oodles of game tapes on him. But now?
“I want to see the following act,” says Marshall, who is now crosstown as a member of the Jets. “Because it’s hard. It’s one thing to be able to do something like that. I remember my first year on the scene and it was all 1-on-1 coverage. Then teams started rolling coverage, triple-coverages against me, scheming against me week in and week out. That’s where you separate yourself – when you constantly and consistently beat defensive coordinators.”
Already, the target has been placed on Beckham’s back.
During the Giants’ second preseason game, he felt he was being targeted by Jacksonville Jaguars defenders whenever he was on the field. His preseason matchup with the Jets drew even more hype because he was battling one of the best cornerbacks in the game, Darrelle Revis.
Gonzalez admitted that, after Beckham’s catch last season, every time the Giants were on offense on Sunday afternoon, he and the rest of CBS’ The NFL Today cast would gather around the TVs to see what the receiver would do next. And he doesn’t expect that to change this season. He has become must-see TV, whenever the Giants have the ball on offense.
Now, everyone is waiting to see if the sequel can top the original. There are plenty of folks who think it won’t. Beckham already has a plan to handle the naysayers.
“Turn the other cheek, turn the other cheek,” he says. “[Take the] Martin Luther King or Malcom X approach, whichever one you want to go for. Like I said, it’s going to happen all year and how you handle it, is up to you. I’ve got guys out there counting on me to do my role, just the same as I count on everyone else to do theirs. If we make sure we all do our jobs, it’ll benefit us all.”