The New York Giants are lined up, 50 players in a rowed formation, stretching in downward dog position. A head pops up.
Odell Beckham Jr. begins dancing. It’s because Drake’s verse from the new Travis Scott song “Sicko Mode” is coming through the twin loudspeakers. Drake is a good friend—Beckham stays at his house from time to time. And anyway, he doesn’t mind standing out.
There is no consequence for his frequent dance breaks at practice. His padless football pants are rolled up to the length of compression underwear, revealing legs-long tattoo sleeves done by Joaquin Ganga Lopez, the same man who works on Lionel Messi. His cleats are replicas of the Nike Air More Uptempo sneakers that were a cultural landmark of 1990s street wear.
On this day, just like each pre-practice routine and pre-game warmup, he is a football commedia dell'arte. Every movement, every emotion is carried out to its fullest extent. He puts his whole body into air-drumming the fill from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” He sidles up to a patch of grass near the stands like a Broadway dancer hitting the tape on stage and faces a group of kids who have teamed up to scream his name “OHHHHHHHHHHHHH-DELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!” He nods. They cheer. And like that, he’s on to the next number.
In three weeks, he’ll become the highest-paid wide receiver in football. But to observe Beckham at this practice and place him against the backdrop of the league he so often dominates is to understand why it took so long in the first place. There are wild nights in Paris and days spent gliding through worlds incompatible with football’s militaristic churn. To some, this makes Beckham an icon, avant-garde. To others, it makes him distracted, and liable.
That is the most fascinating part of Beckham. From the moment he blew away co-owner Steve Tisch in a final-stage vetting phone call before the draft in 2014, to the instant he signed a five-year, $95 million extension to promises by co-owner John Mara that he was “personally moving in the right direction,” Beckham has left a different impression on almost everyone he’s come across.
The meaning of Odell is far more complicated than balletic displays of athleticism or curls of frosted hair. When you give your life to the world, you become a prism for everyone else’s thoughts, fears and personal projections to pass through. Just ask those who reside in his orbit.
The smell of fresh cooked salmon, kale greens and grass-fed beef made by a private chef fill the air at Beckham’s Los Angeles crash pad. His summer training sessions are a crowded affair, with a rotating group of doctors, physical therapists and rehab specialists for his surgically repaired ankle on standby. They’ll rotate through on a two-to-three week basis. Same for the quarterbacks and wide receivers that cycle in for throwing sessions that can last up to three hours.
Before he came to California, Beckham stopped by the River Ridge, La. garage of personal trainer Colt Colletti, an Instagram bodybuilder famous for a video he posted of himself pushing a Peterbilt 18-wheel truck by hand. He drained Beckham with an hour-long workout of compound lifts and explosive-moment drills back in April. He made Beckham pull his own GMC truck down the street with a rope—40 yards, four sets. Then, Beckham made him an offer.
“He was like, Dude, you gotta come out to L.A. Put your other clients aside, and let’s get some work in,” Colletti says. Beckham rented the trainer for almost three full months, moving him into his house.
The training industry has grown homogenous, with many workouts focused on isolated movement and balance, which minimize the risk of injury but don’t push athletes physically. Colletti spent the summer trying to take Beckham to another place, forcing him to toss medicine balls from a weight bench on the ground floor of his house onto the roof. No heart-rate monitors (“That ain’t s---,” Colletti says), just rapid, intense exercises that made him endure the breath-gasping peaks and valleys of an NFL football game.
Colletti says he has dealt with professional athletes that scuffle through workouts asking for breaks or more time. Beckham was consistent, pushing the plate and screws in his left ankle on every rep. He barked back at his trainer and asked him for more.
“This is his season, he wants to make a statement,” Colletti says.
Shortly after the one-handed catch in a November 2015 Sunday Night Football game that changed his life and introduced him to the rest of the world, Beckham walked into the New York design studio of David Ben David, the CEO and designer of Sprayground Bags. David compares his creative space to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, with fabric swatches, threads and sketches strewn throughout. He was surprised at how comfortable and in control Beckham was in that environment.
The two wanted to design some gear together and talked about telling the story of a man who could fly, a subtle nod to Beckham’s leaping ability on the touchdown against Dallas that night. Both bags—now sold out—feature wings and a military bomber or camouflage motif. They were meant to blend together uncommon colors and fabrics.
“He is a great conceptual thinker, and I didn’t know that about him going in,” David says. “I thought he was just an athlete that dressed cool. After I got to know him and show him my world, he felt comfortable to express himself. He was in-tuned from a fashion perspective.”
David says he first noticed Beckham on a red carpet wearing a ripped punk rock t-shirt and tattered jeans, with chains around his wrists and neck. He admired, above all else, Beckham’s willingness to take chances with his clothing.
There is a difference between an athlete wearing cool clothes, and an athlete wearing clothes that become something else after he wears them.
“As a [life] stylist, I believe there’s more to a fashion icon than just pairing name brand garments together,” says Valerie Julian, a personal stylist from Fruition who has worked with Beckham in the past. “Style and fashion is about knowing who you are from the inside out. Naturally, Odell is confident in who he is, his purpose and his gifting which effortlessly overflows into every area of his life, including style.”
Adds David: “I mean, he’s got balls. He’s probably got the biggest balls. He wears some crazy s---, and I don’t know how better to explain it.”
It was 3 a.m. when rapper Flipp Dinero woke up in his cubicle-sized Brooklyn apartment to a rattling phone. When he checked the screen, the Instagram app was flickering into a blur as thousands of notifications poured in. Earlier that March night, a video was posted online of Beckham dancing to “Leave Me Alone,” a song Dinero had written that past winter about a girl he was trying to avoid.
From Beckham’s perspective, the message was obvious—an anthem that momentarily echoed his preference for isolation amid contract rumors and public outrage stemming from a trip to Paris during which he was filmed in bed, allegedly with a model, a pepperoni pizza and what appeared to be drugs. Before that night, the song had a modest 10,000 streams. Overnight, that number rose to 60,000. It would double again, and again, and again as a chain reaction of Beckham-friendly endorsers like Jordan Bell, Russell Westbrook, DJ Khaled and Drake hopped on to a song that might have never found its way out of the dark otherwise. Beckham’s friends say his taste in indie music, and encyclopedic knowledge of everything from Michael Jackson to country, lends him some equity when it comes to discovering new talent or recommending songs.
As of early August, Dinero’s song had reached 10 million streams—a year’s salary for a hard-working American, even with Spotify’s modest per-stream payout of roughly $0.006 per play.
“When I first saw the video I was like, Hold up, this is not Odell,” Dinero said by phone before a show with Tory Lanez in Houston. “So I zoomed into the face as close as I could to make sure. I was like ‘Ohhh s---...’ And from there it’s been nothing but blessings, man. He gave me that co-sign and it took off.”
Dinero says he gets recognized now, which is both a positive and a negative since people think his success was a fluke, fueled solely by the Giants wideout. He currently tours the country via Cadillac and is highlighting the rest of the songs on that record.
He talks about Beckham in the way some marketing experts consulted for this story do—a modern Michael Jordan, Cristiano Ronaldo or Ken Griffey Jr., whose modest alterations in clothing or tiny mannerisms inform the culture. Where Odell goes, people follow.
“He has a lot of pull in the industry, I can say that,” Dinero says. “He’s the most influential character in the game, period. People look up to him for fashion, for comments, for anything.”
Most NFL general managers care not about music, dancing or fashion. They view Beckham’s extraneous activities like an insurance underwriter combing through flood maps on a waterfront property. It is a risk that needs to be managed.
Jeff Diamond, a longtime NFL executive who had stints as general manager for the Vikings (drafting Randy Moss) and Titans, wrote several columns about Beckham in the Sporting News, calling him a “diva” that required extensive risk assessment. He was not alone in suggesting the Giants should have considered trading him during the NFL draft. This is the other side of Beckham’s freewheeling life. The suit-and-tie office he checks into on Monday after weekends at Le Queen along the Champs-Élysées.
“I really felt that he was so immature and caused so much drama and diva-like behavior that I would have been very apprehensive about keeping him around and doing a major extension on him,” Diamond told Sports Illustrated. “You worry about it blowing up. Then you factor in the major injury from last year, which is why I wrote that they should try and trade him if they could get some value back.”
He adds: “I’m sure [the Giants] shopped him.”
The headline of one of his pieces calls Beckham an “egomaniac.” In the New York Post, Beckham has been referred to as “tone deaf.” A Forbes piece calls him “selfish” and on ESPN, Hall of Famer Ray Lewis referred to him as godless and chaotic.
Criticisms like this are Beckham’s counterweight, the ammunition for fans, executives and coaches who bemoan the new NFL. There have been some uniquely negative moments on the field, the one-game suspension in 2015 after losing control against the Carolina Panthers most infamous among them. But this is also a case of the establishment bristling against increased player identity and marketability, which are slowly drifting the game away from its militaristic roots. The real life consequences come when the outside world blends into contract negotiations. Diamond compares it to the rookie deal he did for Moss back in 1998, after the future Hall of Famer was kicked out of two universities for drug and misdemeanor battery offenses.
“If I were [Giants GM] Dave Gettleman … I would make sure there are protections for the team and caveats, shall we say—I’m talking $500,000 per season in per-game roster bonuses—and also I’d want a really strong offseason workout bonus so you know he’s in the program and he’s there. I’d also want some protections for the team if there’s a suspension, involving a bonus give-back.”
A REGULAR DUDE
Sterling Shepherd has to wait for his training camp roommate to leave before calling his mom. If Beckham sees him pick up the phone, he’ll pounce. He’ll wrestle the phone away. He’ll scream over his teammate just for fun.
Shepherd’s mom loves it. “He has her cracking up every day, she’s just crying laughing,” Shepherd says. “He’s a pretty funny character. He overpowers me and he’ll just start talking to her.”
Shepherd, the Giants’ No. 2 wideout now entering his third season, says that Beckham’s receiver room makes him want to come to work every day, mostly because there is no vocal leader. It’s egalitarian. Everything is by example and the mood is light. Beckham will introduce himself to rookies, roster fillers and undrafted free agents all the same: “Yo, my name’s O.”
Jawill Davis, an undrafted rookie receiver out of Bethune-Cookman, says Beckham sits behind him in team meeting rooms and always lightens the atmosphere with a joke. The invitation to dance is open-ended.
“I have some moves in my arsenal but I can’t show too much,” Davis says. “I have to wait my turn. Odell’s moves are pretty nice. I got some moves, but his are pretty nice.”
Alonzo Russell, a second-year receiver who signed with the Giants in May, says Beckham welcomed him into the fold despite his lack of coordination on the dance floor. The two bond over Odell’s musical recall, which, in the locker room earlier this training camp, nabbed the opening lines of 50 Cent’s “Many Men” out of thin air.
“They make me feel like I’m a grandpa, man,” Russell says. “But at the same time, I’m always me. I’m not a dancer, and I’ll chime in a little bit so I’m not an outsider, but my job now is to hype them up. That’s my role, I’m the hype man, I’ll get on the mic and yell ‘Ohhh!’ ‘What!’ ‘What!’ ”
“Odell, though, he’s a top five dancer I’ve ever seen. And he’s got a move for every song.”
Irvington, N.J.’s Mighty Mites pee-wee football program still fields five teams, ages ranging from 5 to 13. The Knights practice at Orange Park, on a baseball field with planted grass over the infield dirt. A chain link fence separates the outer boundaries from the houses on Lenox Avenue.
Ralph Steele, who has spent decades in youth football here, says the day before Beckham nabbed the catch against Dallas was the last day any of his kids tried to catch a football with two hands. Not much has changed since.
“I was down on it, I felt like he was negatively influencing these kids,” Steele says. “I try and teach hand placement, it’s the most important thing. One hand wipes it all off the books.”
He started telling his receivers that this was youth football. Maybe you get three passes a game, and if you try to one-hand it, we’re never tossing you the ball again. Still, he and his son Kyle, in his late-30s, keep a picture of one of their players actually pulling it off in a game on their phone (they say their player actually did it before the Beckham catch). Kyle has it on Instagram, side-by-side with the actual catch Beckham made. He sees Beckham a little differently, as do many of a certain age.
At a Knights practice over the summer, a 6:30 water break sends a herd of kids scampering to the sidelines, their plastic shoulder pads clattering like loose car parts under large mesh jerseys. They remove their helmets to reveal at least six versions of Beckham’s signature shock of brightly colored hair atop shaved sides. Some kids had it dyed blue, others red.
“This is nothing,” Kyle says. “Just wait until school starts and the parents actually care about how their hair looks. There’s gonna be more.”
Ralph jokes that he told the kids their hair would fall out if they kept throwing all that bleaching crap in there, but they all want to do it anyway. To look like Odell.
Kyle sees the feeble one-handed efforts and bleached hairstyles, but sees the full scope of Beckham’s influence. Football is losing kids—maybe a generation—to soccer, lacrosse or, worse, the couch and an Xbox. No matter what anyone says, Beckham is bringing at least a few of them back.
“Honestly,” Kyle says, “anything that gets them here. To have someone identifiable, someone they get excited about, that helps.”
The queue for Giants training camp folds at least four times around temporary medians as hundreds slog through the sun-fried MetLife Stadium parking lot for a chance to see practice.
Beckham jerseys are almost exclusively reserved for the young. Most older fans sport tucked-in Eli Manning replicas, or Mark Bavaro throwbacks.
It’s early in camp, before the contract is signed but after the frenzy of trade rumors and offseason viral videos. Any animosity from fans had cooled once Beckham decided not to hold out. But ask 10 fans if he deserves to be the highest-paid receiver in football, and almost every one will hesitate, mentioning that time he mimicked a dog urinating after a touchdown in Philadelphia, or punched the kicking net at MetLife.
Ed Hannon says he has a hard time reconciling Beckham’s “combo platter” of injuries and off-field issues. Ray Rabuska says Beckham’s talent is there, but “personally, he needs to tone it down for the public and fans. He’s a little over the top.” John Biazzo says Beckham deserves “some of the money” but first needs to “eliminate all the antics, keep it on the straight and narrow.”
Bill Mcauliffe, who has his young son slung over his shoulder, says he would pay Beckham, but only to ensure that Dallas, Philly or Washington doesn’t sign him and torture the Giants twice a year for the next five years. “He’s not perfect,” Mcauliffe says. “But we have to do it.” When asked who he would steer his son toward once he’s old enough to learn about the Giants, he does a quarter-turn forward, pointing his thumb toward the “MANNING 10” on his back.
The 37-year-old Manning is properly respected for the two Super Bowls he helped bring to the franchise. He has a few years left, but the baton is about to be passed and Beckham is now positioned to grasp it. The NFL in 2018 is a quarterback-driven league—you only need one hand to count the number of true franchise players who man a different position. Beckham is one of them. At 25, and with only 48 NFL games of wear and tear, he will continue to be one of them for the foreseeable future.
Once the fans get to the complex, the crowd goes delirious when Beckham sprints over to the chain link fence separating the stands and practice field, then mounts it like a professional wrestler in a steel cage match. The irony is not lost there. Beckham, like many in World Wrestling Entertainment, seems to have a keen understanding of his combination of face and heel. Regardless of what he does, he knows a captive audience is resting in the palm of his hand.
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