Vic Beasley Jr. led the NFL with 15.5 sacks. (Eric Gay/AP Photo)

Late last summer, Vic Beasley Jr. visited his old high school coaches and addressed the Adairsville High football team. The players faced a rebuilding season, and Beasley believed he could deliver a pertinent message. The previous fall, Beasley recorded four sacks after the Atlanta Falcons drafted him with the eighth overall pick. His rookie season had been labeled a disappointment.

“I got a lot of things I need to accomplish this year to prove people wrong,” Beasley told the players. “My first year didn’t meet some people’s standard. I’m not going to let that define me.”

Beasley did not reveal the turmoil behind his season, the pain he had played through. Beasley had spent his first year as a professional visiting his father in the hospital, where Vic Beasley Sr. fought the ravages of alcoholism. Beasley’s father, who played safety at Auburn and introduced him to the sport, would succumb in April, the latest death in a tragic stretch for Beasley.

On Sunday night, when the Falcons face the New England Patriots, Beasley will be one of the most significant players in the Super Bowl. A hybrid outside linebacker and defensive end, Beasley led the entire NFL with 15 1/2 sacks in his second season, erasing any notion he would become a bust. Given the importance of pressuring Patriots quarterback Tom Brady without blitzing, Beasley’s pass rush may help define the outcome.

Beasley has reached those heights despite unfathomable personal loss. Beasley’s older brother died in a car accident before his final season at Clemson, as the defensive end was trying to decide whether or not to enter the draft. During his senior season, his uncle, a pastor who had great influence on him, was diagnosed with cancer and died. And then his father fell ill and eventually died, at 53, in April. Through it all, Beasley relied on his deep faith and rarely betrayed his hurt.

“He was still Vic the whole way through,” said Kurt Scoggins, Beasley’s position coach in high school and now a close friend. “I didn’t see any changes. I would have probably crumpled under that pressure. You really don’t notice it when you see him. Any time we talked to him, he was same old Vic. He was happy go lucky, very relaxed.”

Victor Beasley Sr. was a teammate of Bo Jackson at Auburn in the mid-1980s. He settled in Adairsville, Ga., and taught his son how to play. He installed a set of weights on their back porch, and by high school Beasley worked out harder at home than in sessions with teammates. Beasley revered his father, even as his drinking grew problematic, and he kept any issues hidden.

“I can’t tell you I knew it was the case,” said Eric Bishop, an Adairsville assistant who has since become the head coach. “You found out bits and pieces here and there. It’s not something Vic talked about it. He never treated it as a crutch.”

Beasley became the best player anyone can remember going through Adairsville. He played wide receiver, running back, single-wing quarterback, safety, outside linebacker and, finally, defensive end. In one game, Adairsville lost its top two punt returners. On a fourth down, Beasley told Bishop, the special teams, “I got it” and buckled his chinstrap.

“He didn’t give us a chance to say no,” Bishop said.

Beasley had never returned a punt, not even in practice. He settled under the ball, caught it and returned it about 70 yards for a touchdown.

The athleticism would make him one of the best players in college football five years later, and it convinced the Falcons to make him the first draft pick of Coach Dan Quinn’s tenure. But as Beasley adjusted to the NFL, he was also dealing with worry and caring for his father.

“I don’t even want to say the word ‘bust,’” Scoggins said. “A lot of people were sending some negative things through the media, saying things on TV. Vic was going to practice, trying to learn how to be a pro, and also balancing that with his father being sick. The guy would go to meetings, go to practices, go to meeting after workouts, and then go to the hospital. He’d be there until it was time to go to bed or spend the night at the hospital.”

Beasley had always possessed a placid demeanor. Before one summer practice prior to Beasley’s sophomore year at Adairsville, a teammate forgot he needed to give Beasley a ride. An assistant coach drove to his house to pick him up, expecting to meet a pacing, nervous kid. Instead, the coach walked into Beasley’s house to find him sitting on his couch, not stressed a bit, reading his Bible.

“That’s Vic,” Scoggins said. “Just cool, calm, collected.”

To those who know him well, there were few signs of what Beasley faced last season. Beasley kept his father’s condition outside the Falcons locker room, using his faith to quietly grapple with it.

“I think the thing that has made it bearable is that Vic is so strong in his faith,” Bishop said. “He’ll tell you God don’t make mistakes.”

“My dad was sick all last year from the alcohol: cirrhosis,” Beasley told in June. “I thought he would eventually get over it. I just kept the faith. He struggled with it for a while and fought for a long time. It’s just sad to see your dad go. I’m at peace because my dad taught me so much, and I’ll always have memories of what he did for me.”

As a senior at Clemson, Beasley added the suffix “Jr.” to the name on the back of his nameplate. His jersey still reads “Beasley Jr.” with the Falcons, in order to honor his father. Victor Beasley Sr. never lived to see his son play in the Super Bowl. Beasley never let it prevent him from getting there.