Last Saturday, some 24 hours before John Beck made his first NFL start in nearly four years, his mind slid down that slippery slope that he sometimes finds inescapable. Offensive plays and defensive schemes and guesses about what an opponent might do to him all danced wildly, a runaway jumble of X’s and O’s. “Your wheels can just keep turning,” he said, “and you can’t slow them down.”
So Beck left behind his wife, Barbara, and their three boys — 4, 2 and 7 months — and hopped in his blue Ford F-150. He headed for the woods that extend beyond the four practice fields behind the Washington Redskins’ Ashburn training facility. Mud splashed at his fenders. His eyes scanned the trees. Football, eventually, tiptoed away from his mind. He was looking for deer, the hunter in him trying to calm down the quarterback, because the quarterback certainly couldn’t calm himself down.
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“I’ve just learned over the years,” Beck said, “there’s certain things that I can do, and my brain relaxes.”
His is not, naturally, a relaxed brain. “I think Beck is a very A-type personality,” said Kyle Shanahan, his offensive coordinator. So as he approaches his next start Sunday against Buffalo in Toronto — with the endorsement of Coach Mike Shanahan that last week’s loss at Carolina was merely “the first of many games for him” — Beck continues the internal battle that began as early as his Pop Warner days, when he would sit in church and wonder about the score in the 49ers game. It continued when he delayed his college career to serve a Mormon mission, when he kept up with his passion only through newspaper clippings sent by his father. And it continues now, as a husband and a father: How can he balance the all-consuming nature of his job, yet not be completely consumed by it?
“I love football, but football’s not my life,” Beck said. “Football’s who I am, but it’s not who I am. You know what I’m saying?”
The start of an obsession
At times, he has to convince himself. The latest in a string of Redskins quarterbacks that ranges from first-rounders to drifters, Beck is described — by teammates and coaches past and present — as uber-prepared, remarkably diligent, “a football junkie,” according to Brandon Doman, his quarterbacks coach at Brigham Young University. He is so earnest that when Bernie Busken, his coach during a record-setting career as quarterback at Mountain View High School in Mesa, Ariz., pointed out that Beck was over-rotating his upper body as he dropped back to throw, Beck drew a line in his driveway as part of a drill to fix it. That was on a Saturday.
“By Monday, he was perfect,” Busken said. “He never did it wrong again.”
When Beck was 8, he played his first season of tackle football on a team known as the “Sin Nombres” — Spanish for “No-Names,” made up almost exclusively of kids from the down-and-out sections of Mesa. They had position coaches. They ran a two-minute offense. Though official practices were Tuesdays and Thursdays, the skill guys would get together Wednesdays in the backyard of Beck’s grandmother.