EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Odell Beckham Jr’s locker is surrounded, engulfed by writers holding recorders, TV personalities toting microphones, videographers lugging heavy cameras over their shoulders. The phalanx have coiled themselves around the blue Giants chair in front of Beckham’s locker. But the chair is empty; Beckham is not there. All that is visible are a few pairs of socks, a green backpack, and a pair of brown boots splayed about on the ground. Several sparkling gold chains and his game jersey sit on a shelf.
Beckham’s whereabouts are unknown, yet everyone stays glued in their position, waiting for his arrival.
About 20 minutes earlier the receiver had just finished announcing a different type of arrival, that being his triumphant and long-awaited arrival to the 2016 NFL season. In the Giants’ 27-23 comeback win over the Ravens, Beckham had arguably the best game of his young and record-breaking career—a career-high 222 yards on eight catches, plus two touchdowns, including the 66-yard game winner with 1:24 remaining. To boot: the performance came following several weeks of constant and unyielding criticism, surely the most trying stretch of his football career.
The deluge started first in Week 2, after a win over the Saints, when several New Orleans defenders accused Beckham of playing dirty. The following week Beckham had his much anticipated rematch with Josh Norman, which ended in a Giants loss and Beckham’s fight with a kicking net on the sidelines. Beckham hit first. The net hit back, harder. Then in Minnesota, Beckham got into repeated scuffles with cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who goaded the receiver into penalty flags and dropped passes, seemingly getting under his skin with borderline late hits out of bounds.
Beckham was called a “distraction” by current Giants coach Ben McAdoo and former Giants coach Tom Coughlin. His own quarterback, Eli Manning, said he “brought [the added scrutiny] upon himself” and needs to “calm down.” The receiver was perceived as pouting, both on the field and off. Some of his quotes— a sampling: “it’s all against me” and “it’s always just my fault” and “if I sneeze the wrong way it’ll be a flag”— did nothing to help the optics surrounding his situation.
But all that seems forgiven and forgotten now, as the group of assorted media members wait patiently for the receiver. Eventually Beckham arrives at his locker. He wears rippled black designer pants, and tucks them into the brown boots that he picks up off the ground. He places the gold chains over his neck, one at a time, and then puts his backpack over his shoulder. (He’s a two-strapper, by the way.)
The crowd has now grown too big to fit, even uncomfortably, around the locker. But since all of the other Giants players have since departed, the interview session is moved to the center of the room.
Once there, Beckham doesn’t boast about his breakout performance. Nor is he at all exuberant, like he was after he scored his 75-yard third quarter touchdown and proceeded to do a triple-jump celebration in the end zone. He seems wary to even smile, actually, lest it be misconstrued. He talks softly and praises others. He mentions, unsolicited, how Manning called an audible and changed his route on the play that yielded his game-winning catch.
“Eli is most prepared person I’ve ever been around in my entire life,” Beckham says. “He just put me in position, called the double move and put [the ball] right where it needs to be.”
Beckham extols undrafted rookie receiver Roger Lewis for scoring the team’s first touchdown in the second quarter, saying that was the play that got the offense going. The touchdown came when Beckham was in the locker room after injuring his hip. Beckham admits that the injury, which forced him to sit out a series, “was bad.”
“It was bothering me all game,” he says.
Although he walked with a slight limp in the locker room, the injury certainly didn’t have any deleterious effects on the field. After Beckham’s first score, the receiver actually displayed some self-deprecating humor as he went over to his old foe, the kicking net on the sideline, and had a long conversation. After his second score, he got down on one knee and—um— embraced the net. When asked about the encounter, Beckham had an announcement to make.
“Our relationship has grown, so might as well make it serious,” Beckham said. “I proposed and she said yes. Me and the net are going to get married sometime soon. Hopefully it all works out. I’m 23, I don’t know much about marriage but she seems like a pretty good gal.”
It sort of seems like a perfect (and, yes, ridiculous) metaphor for Beckham’s season. A touching story of redemption and forgiveness, a sign of growth for a young superstar still struggling to find his way. But Beckham quickly dismisses the notion that anything was different for him today, that he made any sort of concerted effort to tone down his behavior.
“I’m going to go out there and play the same way every time,” Beckham said. “I don’t think I played any different [today]. There was the same passion.”
After the interview session with the media is called to a close, Beckham sits in a chair in front of backup center Brett Jones’s locker and takes a Facetime chat call from Deion Sanders. Sanders tells Beckham he has some breaking news for him.
“The net has just reported that it’s pregnant,” Sanders says. “Named Odell. Hairstyle just like you. I’ve seen the ultrasound.”
“It’s a boy, huh?” Beckham says. “I’m excited. It’s about having fun. It’s about having fun. That’s really what it’s about.”
It was only two weeks ago, after the Vikings loss, that Beckham said he was not having fun playing football anymore. All that seems to have changed now, as Beckham jokes to Sanders about having to pay child support for a hypothetical baby he is having with a kicking net.
Maybe his public excoriation was warranted, maybe he needed to be chastened. Or maybe this is simply who Beckham is, the good and the bad. When he is scoring touchdowns and shattering records, his antics are labeled fun and refreshing. But when he is struggling on the field and his team is losing, that same passion manifests in ways that are called sophomoric or immature.
Maybe Beckham is simply a combustible, yet brilliant mix of both. Besides, after his game-winning catch, Beckham removed his helmet on the field and earned a potentially critical 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The receiver admits he knew that if the penalty led to the Ravens being able to march down the field and win the game in the waning seconds the criticism would have been coming his way. But that wasn’t what transpired. And so, instead, here he is, Facetiming with Deion Sanders.
“You know my motto: if you ball, you get the call,” Sanders says. “And you balled and so you got the call.”
“See this is what happens when you win,” Beckham says, pointing out the crowd of media still surrounding him. “Everything is good.”