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The Oddity of Odell’s Odyssey

Odell Beckham Jr. is a generational talent, but his third NFL season has largely been defined by his key vulnerability: It’s not that difficult to drive him bananas

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Odell Beckham Jr. appeared on Mike Francesa’s WFAN radio show in late August, a rite of summer for New York–area football players, the two showmen talked a little about the New York Giants and a lot about fame. Two training camps ago, Francesa recalled, he had visited the Giants and heard not much about Beckham, a rookie out of LSU who had been drafted 12th overall.

It wasn’t that Beckham was then an unknown: He was an anticipated prospect, celebrated for his explosiveness, tacky hands, and enormous ups. But he was also still an X factor sidelined with a hamstring injury, a let’s-wait-and-see kind of guy. Several months later, when he hauled in a football with one arm photogenically outstretched, everyone saw.

He became ubiquitous within months, like a startup with hockey-stick growth. Francesa wanted to know what that must have been like.

“I tell people all the time,” Beckham said, affably, “be careful what you ask for.” The most unnerving part about his sudden rise, he said, was the way outsiders had cast him as a character in his own life and thrown hasty narratives up around him like scaffolding. “They’ve created such a dramatic outside life,” he explained, “that it’s almost taken away from what I feel I do on the field. And then they try to flip it back around and make it seem as if I care more about the outside life — that they created! Not which I created.”

In May, Khloe Kardashian sidled up to Beckham at a party at Drake’s house and introduced herself. He soon had to explain to TMZ, which had photos, that no, they weren’t a couple. (“I’m sitting here trying to explain my situation to somebody, and it’s really not even a situation,” he later told GQ’s Devin Gordon.) In September, a week after Beckham’s chat with Francesa, his analysis proved surreally prescient when the writer, director, and actress Lena Dunham randomly name-checked him as having avoided her with his male gaze at the Met Gala in favor of looking at his cell phone. “It was like he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards,” she wrote in a breezy conversation with Amy Schumer. “He was like, ‘That’s a marshmallow. That’s a child. That’s a dog.’ It wasn’t mean, he just seemed confused.”

Dunham later apologized on Instagram for making “narcissistic assumptions” about Beckham, “who has every right to be on his cell phone,” and Beckham gracefully downplayed the strange situation when asked about it at a fashion event. “It’s life,” he said, as a worried publicist hovered nearby. “There are so many things that go on, you catch some of them, you don’t catch some of them. You just — I don’t know, man, I don’t have much to say about that. I have to learn more about the situation.”

It was definitely one of the more bizarre confluences of cultural personalities that Beckham had been involved with over the past year or two, but it was nevertheless the sort of thing he had been referring to when he told Francesa that not everyone is built to handle the oddities and responsibilities of his level of fame. “It’s a tough role to play, just trying to walk these fine lines,” he said.

“As long as you answer on the field, that’s where you have control,” said Francesa.

“That’s the only place I have control,” Beckham agreed.

But what happens if that’s not the case? For all his generational talent — those Gumby limbs, that feisty drive, that toe-dragging presence — Beckham has, over his brief career, also revealed a key vulnerability: It’s not that difficult to drive him bananas. With opponents making rattling Beckham a key part of their strategy, his third NFL season has already threatened several times to spiral right out of his hands. A Week 3 loss to the Redskins devolved into tears, slapstick, and antagonistic ballet moves, like a middling improv show. Beckham was “inconsolable” after the game and said he was surprised he hadn’t been ejected. This is presumably exactly what Washington had dared to dream of in April, when it acquired corner Josh Norman, who had famously and successfully messed with Beckham as a Panther last season.

In Week 4, against Minnesota, Beckham was held to three catches for 23 yards and whistled for a costly taunting penalty against Vikings corner Xavier Rhodes, who had worked out with Beckham in Florida over the summer and seemed to know how to effectively cover and needle him. “If I sneeze the wrong way, it will be a flag,” a frustrated Beckham said after the game, another New York loss. According to Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News, Giants GM Jerry Reese huddled with his star wide receiver at his locker for a long time after that.

Later that week, on October 6, Giants president and scion John Mara commented on Beckham — from the Vatican, no less — calling him “a young man who is very emotional, but [is] basically a very good young man who does a lot of good things off the field.” (No word on whether the Pope is a disgruntled fantasy owner.) Head coach Ben McAdoo dialed in for his weekly Thursday spot with Francesa and was berated by the host: “I think you guys are doing a lousy job with him,” Francesa said. “I don’t think you’re getting him better. He’s out of control in these games.”

A chastened Beckham told reporters that same Thursday that he was particularly disappointed by the thought that he had set a bad example for young fans. He recalled how starstruck he was, as a kid, when he came face-to-face with Michael Vick; he drew laughs when he joked that he always apologizes to moms who run up to him to say that their sons had requested his signature hairstyle.

“I have to control what I can control,” he said. “I can control myself. I can’t control anything else than what I do. I definitely know I can do a better job than that.” That weekend, in another loss, this one to Green Bay, Beckham was in better spirits, celebrating his first touchdown of the season with some on-brand theatrics.

When Beckham was a young teen, he decided not to pursue national-team-level soccer; the thought of such life-consuming international travel at his young age just didn’t appeal to him. Like his mother, he was also a gifted track star. Like his father, who was roommates and buddies with Shaq in college, he wound up playing football at LSU. (In a hilarious exchange during the NFL combine, one Giants scout joked that Beckham had been sprinting “since he came out the womb.” Yeah, laughed another, pumping his arms comically and not getting it, “he came out of that room!”) Even at LSU, he loved soccer; interviews sometimes concluded with him juggling the ball for the cameras. More recently, he openly geeked out over a visit to the Bayern Munich club.

Imagining an alternative world that contains Odell Beckham Jr. the USMNT soccer player is both a fun mental exercise and mildly depressing. Beckham is a rare talent with a boundless personality, a marketer’s dream at the nexus of the country’s most important city and most powerful sport. He’s also a player whose expansive plumage has been clipped by a league that is as inexplicably and selectively fussy this season as it has ever been.

Soccer may have its issues, but at least its players are given the bandwidth to be their most unabashed selves. In contrast, the NFL industrial complex seems to have decided that rather than sufficiently react to its ongoing brain trauma concerns, domestic violence cases, or newly declining ratings, it makes sense to focus on enforcing dumb bylaws related to touchdown celebrations. (Currently, Beckham is caught up in a disagreement over a sketchy $24,309 fine levied upon him following the Ravens game.) The grumpy workaday mentality is illustrative of larger fault lines within football. And it trickles down through the ranks, from commentators to sports radio callers. It didn’t take long at all for Beckham’s impulsiveness to be rebranded as “prima donna” behavior and for someone to ask whether he was “worth the distraction.” Shannon Sharpe pointed out that, “If he’s not careful, he’s going to be remembered as more T.O. than Jerry Rice.”

Football, though, does at least have a stubborn tendency to resist count-’em-out declarations. Players who have barely moved the chains all game can come alive in their late desperation, flush with the freedom of having nothing to lose. Teams with single-digit postseason chances after a few bad weeks can, thanks to the uncertain, grueling muddle that is an NFL season, loiter long and shamelessly enough to eventually slip through a left-ajar playoffs back door. And so it was that Beckham caught two long scores in a crucial Week 6 win over the Baltimore Ravens, connecting with Eli Manning on 75- and 66-yard touchdown passes and finishing with a that’s-more-like-it 222 yards.

Now, after a Week 7 win in London over the Rams and a subsequent bye, the Giants go into this weekend facing a pivotal matchup with the despised Eagles. And despite all the negative headlines Beckham has been involved with this season, going into the game his stats don’t look all that different from last year’s.Through his first seven weeks, Beckham has averaged 15.8 yards per reception and has recorded more than 100 yards twice. He finished last season averaging 15.1 yards per reception, and in the first seven weeks recorded more than 100 yards twice. He then racked up triple-digit yardage in six straight games after that.

In August, Beckham had described his busy life as a “whole new world” to Francesa but was clearly struggling with its implications. “It’s real, in a sense, but in other ways it’s not real,” he said. “This is my reality. At the end of the day, the links that people like to create — that people are trying to click on and get views and likes — I live this life every day. This is not a joke to me. I don’t like when I feel as if my life has been made a mockery of.” (And that was before the Dunham fiasco!)

Watching a self-assured and so-talented guy like Beckham grow slowly stifled by his environment can be awful, but he has also played a part in setting up his own punch lines. Any athlete is well aware that the refs may not see the instigation, but they’ll always see the retaliation. And any athlete knows that the best way to shut someone up is to shut them down. (This is also why the NFL should just let people celebrate how they want to, short of mimicking snuff scenes. If they cross a line, it’s the other team’s job to light them up on the next drive. Doesn’t the league have more faith in its players to take care of their own business?)

It’s more than fine for Beckham to bluster if that’s who and what he is; in his summer GQ profile, it was both an unnecessary dig and an alluring call to arms when he shouted out Norman as someone trying to leverage Beckham to make a name for himself. The problem was that when it came time to back himself up, Beckham instead melted down. At the same time the Giants’ subpar running game has made it a bit easier for opponents to focus on Beckham physically, they’ve also learned that there’s a lot of upside in attacking him mentally. Call it temperament arbitrage.

To his credit, Giants coach McAdoo seems to understand the folly of judging a player on a handful of emotional situations, and has continued to stress the importance of not overreacting to Beckham’s overreactions. After Week 4 he acknowledged that things had turned into a distraction, but said that he still wants Beckham to play “salty.” Beckham doesn’t just need that edge for him to perform — the Giants need it if they want their quarterback to eke out a few more years. (During one low point this season, a Giants-fan friend texted me: “If Odell can’t make the one-handed catches anymore, they need to trade Eli.”)

Still, the level of scrutiny surrounding a few frustrating games for Beckham was comically outlandish in relation to the actual offenses he committed, even in comparison to his own teammates. It took weeks, and some smoking-gun journal entries, for the Giants to dismiss kicker Josh Brown in the aftermath of domestic violence allegations. When tackle Ereck Flowers shoved a reporter in frustration, it barely made headlines.

Beckham may rant and rave and disappear into fugue states, but the outbursts are never really malicious; they’re just weirdly childlike. His postgame comments may read as woe-is-me excuses, but they’re delivered in a manner of thoughtful reflection. Beckham can sometimes veer into the melodramatic, as he did a day after the Vikings game when he told ESPN’s Anita Marks that football is his sanctuary and escape, but that “I’m not having fun anymore.” Two days later, he gave a self-deprecating chuckle and checked himself. “I’m always having fun,” he clarified, “regardless of what happens.”