Odell Beckham Jr.: The natural in many sports pursues what can be in football

BEREA, Ohio — Odell Beckham Jr. grew up playing multiple sports before he decided to focus on football.

He was so naturally gifted at all of them that he recently said he’s pondering a Deion Sanders-style move and playing a second sport if the NFL and the NFL Players Association cannot come to an agreement to extend the collective bargaining agreement.

“I don’t know, but I know a lockout is probably coming soon, whenever it is, so we’ll see,” Beckham said during a recent interview.

The present CBA expires after the 2020 season, so there’s a lot of time and negotiations before then. At this point, Beckham is merely pondering the possibility.

“It’d be fun,” he said. “Don’t know which one yet. Just have to see how it’s going.”

Joining another professional sports league in the middle of an NFL career might be a pipe dream for many, but Beckham’s past indicates he could do it. Beckham, who is still relatively new to Cleveland, is a unique athlete with a personality that takes part in serious self-reflection.

Among Beckham’s tattoos is one on his neck that reads: “I am who I am.” What Beckham is is a talented athlete, a thoughtful man and a competitor with intense personal drive. The combination brings success but also challenge.

Because Beckham is such a gifted athlete — and always has been — his potential is higher than most, which makes reaching it that much more of a challenge. Elite athletes have a mindset that the average folks can never grasp. Pursuing greatness is reserved for a small group. Beckham said he will never accept “less” from himself. When an athlete is naturally gifted at everything he tries, does that make his potential elusive? If the best is limitless, can he or she ever be satisfied?

“I don’t know,” Beckham said. “I know falling short of it would be … I would have to learn to accept it, but not being able … to fall short of it is tough to accept.”

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Beckham does not shy away from the chase. It’s why he constantly practices one-handed, awkward catches, why he works out religiously in the offseason. The pursuit is part of his passion.

“I’m probably my toughest critic,” he said. “So that’s why I tell people there’s nothing anybody can ever say that would bother me, because I’m harder on myself than anybody else. And I expect a lot of myself, and when I don’t have it, I’m definitely upset about it.”

Beckham grew up adept at soccer. As a young teen, he was pitching and playing shortstop in baseball as well as playing point guard in basketball and receiver in football.

“There’s not much that I wasn’t just naturally good at,” Beckham said. “There’s stuff that people were better than me (at) that they played. But whether it’s pool, pingpong, table tennis …”

The list could go on. And this was not Beckham talking himself up because he felt like it. He merely answered the question: What sports other than football were you good at when you grew up?

Football was just one of them, and he chose it because he felt it was his best path to success.

“I knew that it was the easiest,” Beckham said. “I knew that I would get into the NFL without any hesitation or problems or anything like that.”

That turned out to be true. After playing collegiately at LSU, Beckham was the 12th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. He spent five seasons with the Giants, averaging 78 catches, nine touchdowns and 1,095 yards per season — glittering numbers considering he missed 16 games to injury in 2017 and ’18. Beckham said he looks back at the last two seasons with frustration.

“It’s tough when you know you could have played any other sport and you don’t have the success or whatever it is in the sport that you’re in,” Beckham said. “There’s times when I’ve thought, ‘Man, there’s so many other sports that I could have been playing, and here I am playing football.’ So … ”

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Beckham’s reflections were thoughtful, not regretful. He enjoys playing football and said he works as hard as he can to be successful. He just sees the injury-plagued seasons in New York as ones that were not up to his standards.

In a 2-4 Browns start this season, Beckham leads Cleveland with 29 receptions but ranks second to Jarvis Landry in yards (439 to 436) and second to Ricky Seals-Jones in touchdowns (two to one). He is 16th in the league in receptions and yards. If the Browns are going to win games, Beckham has to be more of a factor.

After Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks, Beckham said there were days in Cleveland this season when he did not bring the energy he should have, and he promised it would not happen again. This is a player and man who is very sensitive to his approach — and contributions.

Videos of Beckham’s natural abilities are all over the internet and his social media accounts. He asked the general public for critiques of his golf swing after posting a video. (Golf coaches would love it.) He threw a softball 90 mph. He’s posted a few videos of himself displaying his dunking ability, which included a reverse bring-the-ball-down-and-back-up-over-the-head slam.

At 13, he turned down a chance to join the U.S. U-15 national soccer team because he did not want to travel overseas.

“I was very legit at soccer,” he said. “My coach was from Trinidad and Tobago, and they were the ones who had been playing in that realm and growing up and doing it. And they wanted me to pursue it. You don’t see the same future as an American, you know. I would have had to go overseas to Europe or something.”

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In the spring, Beckham ran into Mohamed Salah of Liverpool and the Egyptian national team on a vacation in the Maldives. Beckham also has spent time with Neymar, and on a 2016 trip to Germany to promote American football, he visited FC Bayern Munich’s training facility to see Xabi Alonso and David Alaba.

In baseball, Beckham played shortstop, outfielder and pitcher until early in high school. He called himself more hitter than pitcher.

“But not like a home run hitter,” he said. “I’m getting a double, turning it into three.”

In basketball, he played point guard.

“Control the game,” he said.

The videos show that if there were a slam dunk competition among professional athletes, Beckham could and would take part.

“Reverse, between the legs,” he said. “Pretty much everything, except I can’t do all that behind-the-back stuff.”

If he played pop-a-shot, he said he’d “put up 100-some” today. He recently started playing pingpong at a table in the Browns facility.

“I haven’t played in about three or four years, but I can still play,” he said. “I mean, with practice I feel like I can do anything.”

Beckham used the word “blessed” to describe this ability to play many sports and play them all well right away. Football is the sport he chose, so he wants to make the most of it. And by the most, he truly means “the most.”

“It’s like I know what I’m capable of,” Beckham said. “And if there were ever any frustration or anything in my past that people had ever seen, it’s because I didn’t feel like I was living out my potential or doing things to my full potential. And that’s a problem with me because of how much I sacrifice and how hard I work.

“I want to see me be able to reach my full potential.”

(Photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

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