Odell Beckham Jr., Unguarded

You’d think Sunset Boulevard would be hard to impress at this point. But judging by the people scrambling for their phones and mouthing expletives as we drove by, they’d apparently never seen a Rolls-Royce quite like Odell Beckham Jr.’s before. The color, for starters, is an orange that’s somewhere between electric tangerine and Snooki. The rims, blacked out, are massive. Like, manhole-cover massive. And the sound system was loud enough to fill the Comedy Store’s lobby with Lil Baby’s “Drip Too Hard” while we waited for a light to change. But no feature on the car turned heads like the hood ornament: a chrome figurine of The Catch.

Odell refers to The Catch as though it’s a universally consequential event. Like the big bang. But in case it didn’t sear into your brain the way it did for some, he’s referring to his second-quarter reception in the New York Giants’ November 2014 Sunday Night Football game against the Dallas Cowboys. The play where Odell, levitating faceup and fully stretched out, caught the ball with less surface area of his fingertips than it takes to unlock an iPhone. The announcer called it an absolutely impossible catch. Many others would agree. The Catch might not have actually changed the world, but it changed Odell’s life. And now his life is changing all over again.

After a 5-11 record last season, the Giants traded Odell to the Cleveland Browns, setting him up with a fresh start this fall. Who’s responsible for Odell needing a “fresh start” in the first place is up for debate, but what is agreed upon by all concerned is that things got a little out of hand in New York the last couple of seasons. Eli Manning publicly called him out, suggesting he was unfocused. Ray Lewis said Odell had removed God from his life. Odell often seemed miserable between plays and on the sideline. Now, though, he’ll be lining up alongside his best friend, fellow wide receiver Jarvis Landry, and a young quarterback, Baker Mayfield, with a strong arm and possibly even stronger dance moves than Odell’s. (More on that below.) But a few things have carried over to Cleveland from New York, too. His massive five-year $95 million Giants contract, for one. And less sexy: his turbulent relationship with the media, the league, and legions of football know-it-alls. Over his first five years in the NFL, each constituency has come after Odell for not being serious enough, for being too emotional, for being a poor teammate. And he has a lot to say about those standards: how he’s lived up to them or not and on whom the true responsibility for that reputation rests. It’s been quite a run thus far. For practically every day of the first part of his career, Odell has lived in that sacred overlap of constant criticism and superlative celebration—the kind reserved for only the greats.

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It was a cliché cloudless day in Southern California when we pulled into Odell’s driveway. He was living in L.A. for the off-season, as so many players do these days. In the house, I checked Twitter to find a handful of journalists criticizing him for being in California instead of Cleveland for OTAs with his new team. OTAs—early team practices—aren’t mandatory, though, which made the whole dustup feel to Odell like more of the same old unjustified scrutiny. Over the course of the afternoon, I could tell he was almost ready to leave it all—the sun, the car, his four Jurassic-size Presa Canarios—and get his new life with his new team underway. But not quite yet. The media would have to wait just a little longer before they could “shoot at” (his words) Odell in person. Before they could ask him how he felt about the trade, his tortured final season in New York, his life off the field. In the meantime, though, he was willing to go there with us, with an uncommon level of candor. We’ll get to all that. But first, we began with something important to any Louisiana native like Odell: bounce music. This was still the off-season, after all.

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