It’s easy to read the 40 times, the max bench presses, and the vertical leaps and forget that it’s real life. We’re relatively detached from the process, but we know what’s fast. 4.4 is fast. 4.6 is slow. After enough years of following pro sports, we’re conditioned to understand what’s considered normal for a pro athlete. For most people though, they never get to experience that level of athleticism, except through watching it on TV. Maybe you had a friend of a friend who went on to walk on at a major university, or your buddy was All-State in high school. But that’s different–that’s not the NFL.
What is it like to encounter one of these physical specimens in their early years of development? It’s not too hard to envision. Most of these guys are not exactly what you’d call “late bloomers.” Every player you see in any professional sport is used to being the best player at every level. Chances are, he dominated all throughout middle school, high school, and even college. And most likely, he dominated less and less as he moved up the ranks.
Late in the fall of seventh grade, a few weeks after school had started, one last student joined my class: Odell Beckham. He had come from Louisiana to escape Hurricane Katrina. He caught everyone’s eye immediately. Maybe it was the strut. Maybe it was the fierce, yet friendly look in his eyes. Maybe it was the cornrows. We were at a supposedly fancy prep school, after all, in the middle of Washington D.C. Whatever it was, everyone took notice.
Within a week, he was the starting quarterback on the football team. That was no surprise. He was lightning fast and could chuck the ball further down field than anyone. One day, being on the soccer team, I dribbled my ball down to the adjacent field, where we were going to have practice. Odell saw me ten or fifteen yards away, and shouted for a pass. I sent the ball over, expecting him to touch it right back to me. The ball rolled over to his feet, he flicked it up into the air, and started juggling the ball. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. He kept going and going, until he lost the ball somewhere in the teens. I was standing there trying to hide my amazement, and he nonchalantly reminisced that he wished he hadn’t given up soccer. It’s not too late, I thought. He could’ve been the best player on the team if he had decided to join the team. At first, I was put off by what seemed like brazen boating, but soon enough, pure amazement trumped any bitterness I felt.
A few weeks later, after class, a couple guys were playing an Internet game that was all-too-popular at the time called soccer slime. Odell started quizzing me on what sports I played. Sports being my life, I played basketball, soccer, golf, and ran track. “That’s cool,” he said. “So, you’re like an all-around athlete,” he remarked in what sounded like a half question, half statement. I thought for a second, “I guess so, yeah” I replied. I had now seen him tear apart the football field, effortlessly juggle a soccer ball, dominate the basketball court, and throw out runners from center field. And he was saying I was the all-around athlete. I couldn’t take his compliment seriously.
After winter break, Odell was gone. He and his family had gone back to Louisiana, somewhat unexpectedly. Through the years, several guys at school would follow Odell’s high school career. Oh my gosh, he’s being recruited to play football at SEC schools! That never happened with anyone we knew, or knew of at least. Wow, he’s starting as a freshman! He became something of a folk legend. He was that kid everyone got to know for a few months, who’d gone onto be a big-time college athlete.
Then, a few months back, he had just completed his junior season at LSU. Having watched all of his games, my friends and I were sure he would play in the NFL. Could you imagine if Odell played in the NFL? How cool would that be?! And then it happened. He was taken with the twelfth pick in the draft. Living in Washington D.C., there were only a few enemy teams: the Cowboys, Giants, and Eagles. He had been selected by the Giants.
“Can you believe Odell went to the Giants, man?” my friend said to me. “I really wanted to get an Odell jersey. But I can’t if he’s on the Giants,” my friend lamented. I didn’t much care. I would get his jersey regardless.
That doesn’t matter, I thought. He’s coming back to Washington D.C. twice a year to play. And I’m gonna be there. Watching every step of the way.