EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — Privately the Giants are uneasy about the instant fame and constant tugging on receiver Odell Beckham Jr. They are anxious to see if his maturation can match his rocket rise.
He is 22. They know his game is hard but his heart is supple. They recognize his stalwart desire to be liked and to be pleasing to most.
He oozes personal style from his blonde frohawk to his tight pants to his vibrant shirts. He is the NFL Rookie of the Year. He made the NFL’s catch of the year. He is the NFL Madden 16 video cover guy. He set multiple Giants and NFL statistical records in his first season. He is “a rock star,” the Giants say.
Yet, last week at the Giants three-day camp when his hamstring flared up again and sidelined him, he saw nothing wrong in wanting to bolt West to work with his own trainer and leave the team and session behind – until he had to be schooled otherwise. When Giants management joked about the hamstring keeping him out of practice, he took it hard, took it personal and his mood was foul and heated. When his teammates in the locker room teased him and pressed the issue further, he stewed. Beckham bolted before his lone group media session on the final day of camp.
“For me, you would have to go back to 1981 (Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor’s draft year) before we were that excited about a rookie coming in and what he could possibly mean to this franchise,” is how Giants owner John Mara described Odell Beckham after last season. “I hesitate to say that because I do not want to put that much pressure on him, but he certainly has brought a lot to this organization.”
Beckham’s competitive fire is extraordinary, but his aura evokes concern among some in the Giants organization.
“The favor of God is on him strong,” Giants running back Andre Williams said. “I just hope he realizes it. Odell definitely has a lot of growing up yet to come.”
Giants veteran linebacker Jon Beason added: “I almost feel bad for him. There is so much pressure on him to do great things. He’s already been so high. He has to put out of his mind that he has reached any kind of plateau. With that type of rare talent, he has to have a greedy mentality to keep going for more. You keep going. It’s how great things happen. With the right attitude, you continue to make things happen that have never happened before. And that is a huge part of his challenge. The right attitude.”
Learning to get in line
Hamstrings are a touchy subject with Beckham. He was the 12th player selected in the 2014 NFL draft but that injury and variations of it forced him to miss all five Giants preseason games and the first four regular season games.
He was deeply hurt, saddened, when those hamstring woes prevented him from playing in the Giants’ preseason opener last August in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. The way Odell Beckham saw it, a dream was crushed. A part of his career symmetry was forever lost.
“I had really wanted to start my career in the place where I know it will end,” he said.
Once his hamstring healed, he exploded with 12 touchdown receptions in 12 games. He compiled amazing one-handed catches and presented heart, intensity and the prolific speed that backs up a defense. Soon, he started to floss on the field after big plays.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin quickly told him to “keep it together.”
Coughlin said last week: “We addressed some things last year. He corrected them. He’s fine. He listens.”
The way Odell Beckham sees it, people are trying to make him into something he is not.
“I am humble, my feet are grounded,” Beckham said. “I do feel like sometimes that people are trying to shape me into an image they prefer rather than let me be the person who I am and be the best I can be. I come from a strong family. I’ve got help. I’ve got faith. But I see the challenges.”
Beckham played football at LSU where his mother, Helen Van Norman, ran track and where his father, Odell Sr., played football. His mother is his rock, his sounding board, his guide.
“He is a real Momma’s Boy, as am I,” Giants receiver Rueben Randle said. “People may look at Odell and sometimes see a flaky guy but he is not like that at all one-on-one. I was a junior at LSU when he came to the team there. We talk almost every day. He is someone you can count on. But there is always room to grow.”
Giants receiver Preston Parker believes Beckham’s youthful energy and wistful approach is a strength and not a weakness.
“You cannot in this league try to take every single thing with so much seriousness and put more pressure on yourself to totally conform into others’ images,” Parker said. “I know. I tried that and learned the hard way. I was miserable doing that. Everybody has different shoes. Different sizes. We’ve all got it – talent. Some greater. You keep using it all again and again. You relax and let natural ability come. Be yourself. Let go. I have no problem with him doing that. I applaud him for doing that.”
An NFL locker room is its own animal, its own culture. It historically has been a place of far greater intensity, of fist fights, of bullying, of a much harder edge. It has evolved into a gentler place but still dishes shots and barbs. If a player is returning from surgery, well, his teammates can see that and easily accept it as they practice while he is not. Most things short of surgery – including hamstring injuries – will induce riding. And they will never allow a player among them to act even a whiff above them in their domain. That is when the gloves come off and the verbal shots are fired swiftly.
Giants offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo appears to have the perfect temperament with Beckham.
When he was asked repeatedly last week about how special Beckham was, McAdoo kept bringing Beckham and the topic back to the entire offensive group. McAdoo stressed that last year was last year and that in this league you have to approach each season for exactly what it is – a new day, a new test.
McAdoo said in a private moment: “He does have a gift and it is a special situation. But the game still revolves around the team. You still have to get the team to play, not just one individual.”
When Beckham was injured and out last season, he often danced in the locker room. Some veterans looked at him cross-eyed then. Some asked why is he dancing and not playing? Who does this rookie think he is?
But then Beckham surfaced and lit up the league.
He showed them he can dance if he wants to, but he is learning when to dance and when to get in line. And to know the difference.
‘They all want the ball’
Once the Giants begin training camp late next month, Beckham’s hamstring soreness should be solved. He is expected to return strong and ready and put this latest sour camp experience behind him.
His spectacular ability and play solves many problems.
In the interim, he was reminded by Coughlin, as were all of the Giants, that everywhere they go and that in everything they do that the “NY never comes off.” Coughlin said that Beckham’s best preparation for his second NFL season, for his highly anticipated encore, must come in practice.
“When the ball is in the air,” said Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara, “Odell 90 percent of the time is going to go up and get it. He loves to attack the ball. He jumps like a basketball player. He is a wide receiver who tries to `Moss’ you (replicating the leaping feats of former NFL receiver Randy Moss). Odell is not even that tall, what a little under 6-feet? But he plays a lot taller.
“When Hakeem (Nicks) was here, there was tension between him and the other receivers. They are all competitive. They all want the ball. That is not a bad problem to have. With Victor (Cruz) coming back from injury this season, everyone has to be a realist about it. Whoever is giving you the better game gets the ball. That simple.”
Cruz was an undrafted receiver in 2010 who soared into the spotlight. Beckham is a drafted one – though Buffalo’s Sammie Watkins and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans were selected before him – who snatched the spotlight and much more. Some Giants think Cruz is now the team’s third-best receiver, talent-wise, behind Beckham and Randle.
“You have to let it play itself out,” Beckham said. “But I do know that all of us together can be absolutely phenomenal.”
Giants quarterback Eli Manning knows he has serious massaging to do.
“When you have a lot of weapons on the same team it can be tough to keep everybody happy,” Manning said. “I think you just try to keep them all focused on coming to work every day and trying to get better. One game you may have 10 catches; one game you may have 1. You have to understand that going in. Play football and do your job. What you are doing helps us out and then everybody will get the attention. When you struggle as a team, that’s when this type of thing comes up most. I’d rather have it this way than have a bunch of receivers who don’t want or run away from the ball.
“I’ve let him (Odell) know that I will be a helping hand off the field. I think he’s handling it well. Just stay humble and committed to what got you there in the first place. Keep the work ethic. Keep dedicated to football. Continue to allow yourself to be coached.”
Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is impressed with Beckham’s “quick hands and wide catch radius.” What separates Beckham though, said Spagnuolo, is the fact that great NFL receivers are “ultra, ultra, ultra competitive and he is certainly that.”
Beckham’s locker in the Giants locker room is flanked by linebacker Zack DeOssie on the left and backup quarterback Ryan Nassib on the right with Manning’s next to Nassib.
DeOssie, entering his ninth NFL season, said: “They put me here, I think, to keep an eye on him. He keeps a list of stats in his locker of all of the receivers drafted ahead of him. He compares himself. He works hard. He wants to be the best. He has been a big splash, thrust into stardom, and it’s enough to be head-spinning. You see Odell’s type of desire very infrequently. It is fun to watch.”
Amukamura remembers Beckham in the Giants early off-season workouts telling him in the locker room: “We’ve got to win Prince! Man, we’ve got to win this year Prince!” Amukumara said it fit a conversation and an intensity most players would only show in mid-season just before a real kickoff.
To win big in 2015, part of the Giants mantra is to average 28 points scored per game. They believe this offense is built for that. They know Beckham must be a fixture in that.
“I’ve never won a championship in my life, not one that mattered so much,” Beckham said. “I want that. Winning the games is what matters.”
He is telling the Giants they will win the Super Bowl this season.
He is telling himself, despite the constant buzz, that he is okay.