I feel like I’m agile enough, I’m fast enough, and I’m definitely tough enough to play rugby.
Twickenham holds no fear for Odell Beckham Jr. “I’m excited,” he says. “I’ve seen the NFL grow over the past couple of years and last time I came out here there were a lot of Giants fans, so I’m hoping that coming to this game there’s going to be a stadium full of blue jerseys, maybe some chants, just a different atmosphere, a different experience.”
All eyes will be on him, as his New York Giants face the Los Angeles Rams in the stadium’s first ever non-rugby match. As one of the most recognisable names in the NFL, he is used to the big stage, and the scrutiny it brings. He plays his home games at the gargantuan 82,500 capacity MetLife stadium.
More pertinently, he’s followed by more than 6.5m people on Twitter and Instagram. In other words, he’s famous. Gossip magazine fodder, influential haircut, identifiable by initials-famous. Irrespective of your interest in American football, there’s a high chance you’ve already seen him in action.
The Famous Catch
During a game against the Dallas Cowboys in November 2014 Beckham pulled off a catch so impressive that it infiltrated the large parts of the world where his sport is marginal. Early in the game’s second quarter Giants quarterback Eli Manning launched an optimistic heave of a pass towards the furthest corner of the field, some 50 yards away.
Beckham gave chase, shrugged off a shirt-tug from Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr and sized up the ball, which seemed destined to sail over his head and out of bounds. He did more than jump to reach it, he took flight.
At the moment he got his right hand to the ball his body was an implausible shape, falling backwards, his arm at full extension above and behind his head, his bent left leg somehow strong enough to support the exertion. “That is absolutely impossible what he just did,” said NBC commentator Cris Collinsworth, as the moment’s full majesty was revealed during the first of several million slow-motion replays. “That may be the greatest catch I’ve ever seen.”
Beckham has no doubt that it was the moment that transformed him from a promising rookie to a burgeoning phenomenon.
That moment was a one-off,” Beckham says. “It will be with me forever, it changed my life forever. It felt like I went to a whole ‘nother level. It was like the world just evolved, or I evolved in a new way.
“At the time I was like ‘I finally got the one that I’ve been practicing. So it was more a feeling of ‘it’s off the bucket list’, but I didn’t understand what I had done and what it was going to do for me.” It’s not been entirely plain sailing since. Last year, says Beckham, was a struggle at times: “It felt like there was an ‘X’ on my back.”
“My rookie year, people might feel as if it was lucky, and it’s like you have to prove yourself again. Last year, I didn’t make ‘The Catch’ so it’s like things aren’t as spectacular, but still my numbers were better, except the Giants’ record.”
In a league obsessed by stats, Beckham’s are impressive. He was fifth in the NFL for receiving yards last season, i.e. the total distance his catches moved his team up the field. Last year he broke the record set by all-time great wide receiver Randy Moss for the most receiving yards racked up in a players’ first two seasons, despite missing nearly a quarter of his second campaign with a hamstring injury.
Misdeeds and Fines
Despite his brilliance, Beckham has faced mounting criticism this year. Various misdemeanours have cost him $96,772 (£79,123) in fines already and a handful of expansive tantrums means he has been accused of being a distraction to his team.
Most notably, he lost his temper on the sidelines during a defeat to Washington, and struck the net that kickers use to practice with, his helmet. The net hit back in slapstick fashion, falling back towards him at speed and catching him plum on the chin.
Beckham has since made up with the net, marking a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers by running straight to it for a conciliatory hug.
Last week he celebrated a spectacular game-winning 66-yard touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens by getting down on one knee to propose to the net.
A polite man, Beckham removed his helmet for this tender moment. Doing that during a celebration is a contravention of NFL rules and meant another fine.
Such censure might explain why Beckham is evasive when discussing his future.
Choices and More Choices
As well as American football, he shone playing basketball, soccer and as a track and field athlete at high school.
“I obviously think about what it would be like if I was playing in the NBA,” he says. “What would it be like if I was playing soccer, or even baseball? But here I am and this is my situation.”
Could he see himself switching sports entirely within the next five years? Hmmm. We won’t reveal that.
“Whatever the future holds is what the future holds. I can’t sit here and tell you what I’ll do five years from now cause I don’t know where I’ll be.”
For now the immediate focus is Twickenham, and a meeting between two teams with matching W3 L3 records. Perhaps if the NFL loses its lustre, rugby could be an option for Beckham? “I feel like I’m agile enough, I’m fast enough, and I’m definitely tough enough to play rugby,” he says.
“I don’t think you would just jump on a field and be a great rugby player, you’ve got to learn techniques, you’ve got to learn the game. I learned about, what is it called, scrumming? I’ve never understood why everybody would just get in a big circle and hug each other and all of a sudden the ball would pop out and everybody wants to tackle. It’s a crazy game, I try and understand it.”