At first, Nelson Stewart wanted Odell Beckham Jr. to quit catching footballs with one hand. Stewart had played on the same Isidore Newman High football team as Peyton Manning, and he remained associated with the program until he became head coach at the New Orleans football power. He trusted fundamentals. Three-step drops. Precise routes. Catch it with two hands and tuck it away.
And then Beckham Jr. joined Stewart’s team and changed his mind. By his junior year at Isidore Newman, Beckham Jr. had made so many leaping, one-handed snares that Stewart relented. He found a player whose athleticism trumped fundamentals.
“We broke every rule in the book when we said just catch with one hand,” Stewart said. “I’m continuing to break that habit with every wannabe Odell in my receiving corps.”
Sunday night may have helped Stewart’s cause. Who could mimic the touchdown catch Beckham made in the first quarter? What high school kid would dream of bending his body and sprouting Velcro on his fingertips, like this bewildering Giants rookie wide receiver? You want to be Odell Beckham Jr.? It will land you in the chiropractor’s office.
Beckham’s catch, hailed instantly as perhaps the best in NFL history, rendered the Giants’ loss to the Cowboys an afterthought. It also showed the football world what Stewart had known for years. He said 100 text messages poured into his phone in 30 seconds, from former players and Beckham’s old teammates. Beckham’s stepfather wrote to him, “Can you believe he just did that?”
Monday afternoon, Stewart admitted he had never seen Beckham pull off a play like that. But, yes, he could believe it.
“You hear coaches say stuff,” Stewart said. “But those are the type of things he used to do in high school.”
Feats that once astonished Stewart now just make him laugh. On a recruiting trip, current Auburn head coach Gus Mahlzan watched Beckham – a running quarterback prior to high school – beam a 50-yard spiral before practice. Mahlzan remarked to Stewart that he liked the possibility of using Beckham on a gadget play.
“Yeah,” Stewart replied. “And that was with his left hand.”
Beckham is right-handed. He can throw those 50-yard lasers, Stewart said, with both hands.
Beckham, if you couldn’t tell from Sunday night, is different. Stewart would watch Beckham, a 5-foot-10 bundle of fast-twitch muscle, walk into basketball practice and pull off dunks straight from the NBA dunk contest. He changed the offense Newman had run since the Mannings played there, ditching quick passes for deep balls.
“Get some air under the ball,” Stewart said. “If you get him one on one, it’s almost like he floats.”
At the NFL combine, Beckham’s hands measured 10 inches, which is perfect for cupping an entire football. (The average male’s hand size is about 7 1/2 inches, which is perfect for wrapping around a pint glass.) Only two receivers in this year’s draft – Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin and Miami’s Jarvis Landry, his teammate at LSU – had larger hands than Beckham’s oven mitts, both at 10 1/4 inches.
“I guess I’ve got to thank my mom for the long fingers,” Beckham Jr. said at a press conference Sunday night. “Her hands are maybe a half inch shorter than mine.”
In the aftermath of the snag, the story of Beckham’s genetic-lottery background pinged around the Internet. He is the son of LSU running back Odell Beckham Sr. and LSU sprinter Heather Van Norman, an all-American track star who later coupled with Derek Mills, an Olympic gold medalist on Team USA’s 1996 400-meter relay team. His father roomed at LSU with a man who now refers to him as an unofficial nephew – Shaquille O’Neal.
Beckham met Eli Manning, the quarterback who hurled the ball he plucked from the air Sunday night like a set of car keys, as a sophomore at Newman. He stayed close to home to play at LSU, the same college as his parents. He turned mundane plays into YouTube highlights. Have you seen the one where he palms a kickoff?
Actually, there are a couple of those.
Beckham augmented his enormous hands with drills designed to make them stronger. As he explained postgame Sunday, Beckham would stay on the field after practices and stand 10 yards or so away from fellow LSU receiver Jarvis Landry, now a Miami Dolphins rookie. They would peg a ball at one another as hard as they could, trying to force the other to drop it.
“We’d have little competitions and try to make those kinds of catches because you never know what’s going to happen in a game,” Beckham said. “When it does happen, you want to be prepared for it.”
Even before Sunday night, Beckham’s acrobatic pregame routine – running patterns with headphones strapped on and ripping balls out of the air one-handed – had become catnip for television producers.
“He does work on every little detail,” Stewart said. “He’s a total perfectionist. He’s the real deal.”
Stewart said he expected Beckham would dwell on the 31-28 loss to the Cowboys far more than the catch that launched, at one point, 50,000 tweets per minute.
The catch required every kind of athleticism – body control, strength, speed, balance, hand-eye coordination, leaping ability – jacked to the extreme. It required good genes, a feel for the moment and years of preparation. It was an introduction to Odell Beckham Jr., but only an introduction.
“He is a freak,” Stewart said. “A freak that works hard, too. I think he’s got a lot of highlights left in him.”