HOUSTON – Mild.
That’s a word used to describe one of the most ferocious pass rushers in football, Vic Beasley Jr.
“Vic is very mild,” says teammate Jonathan Babineaux.
The same guy who led the league in sacks, with 15.5? The guy who had six forced fumbles, which tied for first in the NFL? Maybe his demeanor changes in the heat of the game?
“He just seems to be relaxed,” Babineaux says.
He seemed relaxed on Monday night, facing the sports world’s media in only his second year in the league. A reporter asked if he shaved his legs. Beasley replied no as if he was asked if he wanted a piece of gum. The interlocutor followed up by offering to shave Beasley’s legs for him. The linebacker smiled and said, “That would be uncomfortable.”
He was asked to spell Babineaux’s name. He immediately tilted his head to look up at the huge scoreboard and quietly read out B-A-B-I-N-E-A-U-X. He smiled.
He spoke openly about his faith, about how he plays the piano to “ease my mind,” although he hasn’t practiced in a while because “my hands have been jammed.” The native of Adairsville, Ga., said he grew up a Falcons fan and cried when they lost the Super Bowl in 1999, but his expression didn’t show anything different than calmness.
The one question that drew a pause was about his dad.
“He helped mold me,” Beasley said, his eyes watering just a little. “A quiet guy. Laid back.”
Was he ever loud?
“If he was,” Beasley said, “I never saw that side.”
Vic Beasley Sr. died last April of complications from alcoholism, months before the breakout season that launched his son from an inconsistent rookie into a star who outperformed Von Miller in the sack department as a second-year player. Beasley Sr. was a wide receiver for Auburn and a former teammate of Bo Jackson, and his speed is something his son has turned into a strength on the other side of the ball. In fact, Beasley Jr. was slotted as a tight end at Clemson before moving to linebacker and then defensive end. He was so fast that it was hard to figure out how best to use him.
Beasley’s speed is one of the most important factors in this Super Bowl. If the Falcons cannot get to New England’s Tom Brady, they will almost certainly lose. It’s nearly impossible to find a Patriots postseason loss in which the quarterback wasn’t bothered by a premium pass rush. New England’s receivers rarely make errors, and the running backs rarely fumble. Brady is deft at stepping up into a collapsing pocket and Beasley’s speed is Atlanta’s best hope of making that pocket collapse quickly enough. And although blitzing worked against Aaron Rodgers, it’s unlikely to be as troubling to Brady – meaning the standard rush will need to do more. If you want a single key to the game, it’s Beasley.
“You gotta affect Brady somehow,” Beasley said, in his usual soft tone.
The ramp in Beasley’s play might be due to the memory of his dad, but it also has to do with another mentor: Dwight Freeney. It’s possible to imagine Beasley becoming as fast and difficult to stop as Freeney was in the prime of his career, which is in its 15th season. The elder rusher has spent plenty of time and words trying to help the younger player.
“Freeney has been in his ear from Day 1,” Babineaux laughs.
Asked about this, Freeney is unable to sift through all the advice even after a season of it.
“It’s so many things,” he says. “I can’t say, ‘That’s the one thing,’ because I said that thing eight times. It’s not one thing more than the other.”
One of the crucial “things” was how to accelerate from the snap even faster – a trait Freeney mastered. That’s part of why Beasley has played better as the season has gone on – he has sped up in the grueling months when many players slow down. He had 11 sacks in his final 10 games.
His Falcons are back in the Super Bowl, nearly 20 years later, and this time Vic Beasley Jr. can do something about the outcome. His dad surely would be overcome with joy at how the 6-year-old fan became the NFL player on the precipice of Georgia history.
“I’m already proud of you,” Beasley imagines his father telling him before the game.
That’s all a quiet father would need to convey.
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