“I love football, but football’s not my life. Football’s who I am, but it’s not who I am. You know what I’m saying?” says Redskins starting quarterback John Beck. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

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.

“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.

This experience established something of a base — of intensity, of commitment, maybe even obsession. Before Beck got to Mountain View — “the high school, in terms of Arizona football, the one that everybody was gunning for,” according to Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who grew up in neighboring Gilbert — he longed to be a part of such a program, known for the tough tone set by Busken. He would hear stories of players yearning to have someone wet his hand and smack their bare stomachs as hard as possible, a rite of passage known as the “pink belly.”

“When you were a kid, you couldn’t wait,” Beck said. “You’re like: ‘Throw me down. Give me my pink belly.’ ”

So by the time Beck — just 5 feet 7 as a sophomore, but over 6 feet as a senior — led Mountain View to the 1999 state championship and became Arizona’s high school player of the year, he was completely immersed in football. But there was the matter, too, of his faith. His father, his uncles, his cousins had all served two-year missions. Young Mormons who offer their service — during which they spread the church’s word and are allowed phone calls only on Mother’s Day and Christmas — don’t get to choose their destination or their departure date. When Beck’s packet arrived, it contained these bits of information: Portugal, and November. That meant he would return in November as well, and would miss the 2002 college football season.

When he returned home, he was fluent in Portuguese. He had tried to stay in shape by rising an hour earlier than the mandated 6:30 a.m. and running. He had helped spread his faith. When he landed back in Arizona, home for the first time in two years, he flipped on a Thursday night college football game with a high level of anticipation. What washed over him: “Oh my gosh, this game looks odd to me.”

“This is what I’m doing?” Beck thought to himself. “It was expected of me because of the success I had before. But it was just foreign.”

Facing adversity

His next snap came in spring ball at BYU in 2003. When he took his first snap in a game, he was 22 and nearly four years removed from his most recent competition. The Cougars were not, at that point, the same program that had produced the line of quarterbacks for which they are known — Jim McMahon and Steve Youngand Robbie Bosco and Ty Detmer. By the time Coach Gary Crowton’s tenure ended after Beck’s sophomore season, Beck had appeared in seven wins and 12 losses. As a quarterback, his mind raced again.

“The confidence of a young man — who, coming out of high school, his confidence was as good as anybody — I didn’t see it,” said Doman, a former BYU quarterback himself who arrived to coach the position before Beck’s junior season.

Beck would find himself needing to escape. On Thursdays, after practice, he would head to the largest outdoors store in Provo, just to handle the guns or try out some fishing rods. After a loss, he’d grab an offensive lineman and head to the river to fly-fish.

“You take a kid who had all these dreams of wanting to do great things, has been away from the game, is trying to work as hard as he can to be back into it,” Beck said. “I was giving it everything I had, sacrificing so much time to try to prepare myself. It was major adversity.”

Even when he reestablished himself by throwing for 3,709 yards and 27 touchdowns as a junior, Beck would look back on old failures. In a conversation last week, the first play Beck mentioned from his college career wasn’t the game-winner on the final play against rival Utah his senior year, a signature moment. It was his first pass as a freshman, an interception against Georgia Tech. As a senior, he would bring up mistakes from his sophomore year.

“He reflects on all that,” Doman said. “It matters so much to him. He had to learn how to make a mistake — throw a pick, have something go wrong — and eliminate that and go forward. I think that’s a challenge for him, with his personality.”

‘I am a Redskin’

For all the extraneous material that can enter his mind, Beck is obsessed with establishing himself as an NFL starter. After a record-setting senior year — 32 touchdowns against eight interceptions, the second-best passer rating in the country, the Mountain West Conference player of the year award, 10 straight wins to close the year — he was selected in the second round of the 2007 draft by Miami. The Dolphins, though, were in a woeful state. Beck made his first five NFL appearances in an offense that, at times, featured five rookies. When they went 1-15 and Coach Cam Cameron was fired, the new regime drafted Chad Henne in 2008, then traded for veteran Chad Pennington during training camp, then drafted Pat White in 2009.

So after the 2009 draft, Beck asked the Dolphins for his release. He signed with Baltimore, where Cameron had become the offensive coordinator. But the Ravens already had Joe Flacco as their starter, then and for the future. Before the 2010 season, they signed veteran Marc Bulger as the backup, trumping Beck.

“I’ll tell you this about John,” Cameron said. “I can’t think of one day that I’ve known him, whether he was the third guy or the backup, where he didn’t prepare as if he was going to be the starter. It doesn’t always work out, but when you get your opportunity, it gives you the best opportunity to be successful.”

Beck’s solution, as teams traded for and signed quarterbacks around him, was to pack up his growing family in 2010 and buy a house in San Diego. There, he spent the entire offseason working out with accomplished trainer Todd Durkin, who counts among his clients New Orleans’s Drew Brees and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. Beck not only became part of a training group of elite quarterbacks, he spent more time there than anyone.

“He just said, ‘I’m moving out, I’m spending every day with you, and I’m going to do everything I can to optimize my potential and hopefully be a starter,’ ” Durkin said. “And he was there every day with me. Literally every day.”

Brees, who was cast aside by San Diego, is now an inspiration for Beck. So is Kurt Warner. So is Steve Young. All three sat or struggled or played in alternate leagues before becoming Super Bowl champions. Beck just felt like he needed a chance.

On Aug. 2, 2010, in a move noticed only by hard-core fans, he got it. The Redskins dealt cornerback Doug Dutch — who has never played in an NFL game — for Beck, who immediately sped down Interstate 95 to the Beltway, to Redskins Park. Shanahan brought him to his office and told him the following: “When I knew I was going to become the head coach here, one of my things was I wanted to go get you.”

That night on the phone, Beck’s wife asked how he felt.

“I feel like this is who drafted me,” Beck said. “To me, I just feel like I was always supposed to be a Redskin. I am a Redskin. This is the team that chose me, and the one that I was so excited to be chosen by.”

Last year, he sat again, behind Donovan McNabb and then Rex Grossman. His next chance came Oct. 15, after Grossman threw four interceptions in the first three quarters against Philadelphia. Beck threw his first 15 NFL passes since Dec. 30, 2007. When he got home, he sat with Barbara and her brother in the kitchen and glazed over. The plays started coming, addling his brain. Barbara walked to her husband.

“Just go over to the facility,” Beck recalled her saying. “Just watch the game. I know you want to.”

So on a Sunday night, Beck got in his truck, headed to Redskins Park and flicked on the film. He is a son. He is a husband. He is a father. Football may not be life, but right now — at 30, with what might be his last chance to establish himself as a starting NFL quarterback — it’s what creates that distracted look in his eyes, when the plays start rolling through and he just can’t stop them.