On Sunday night, a woman in a Los Angeles Rams jersey that said “MAMA BEAR” on the back of it stood on a football field littered with confetti, rubbing her crying grown son’s back and encouraging him to be proud. “All your dreams and aspirations, think about that,” Heather Van Norman said to Odell Beckham Jr. “How you manifested that.” She had a point: The evening represented the culmination of Beckham’s longtime goal of winning a Super Bowl, and he had played a significant part in the Rams 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
In the first half alone, quarterback Matthew Stafford threw three passes to Beckham, and something memorable had occurred on each throw. First, there was a lithe 17-yard touchdown reception midway through the first quarter that gave Los Angeles a 7-0 lead and inspired a giddy Beckham to moonwalk in the end zone. At the beginning of the second quarter, Beckham caught another pass for a 35-yard gain, setting up his Offensive Player of the Year teammate Cooper Kupp to cap off that drive with a touchdown reception of his own.
For the Bengals secondary, it seemed to spell real trouble. For the Rams, it felt like a vindication of so many of the all-in-now moves they’d made before and during the season, moves that had brought in, among other people, Stafford via trade in January 2021 and Beckham as a free-agent signing last November. Beckham’s one-year, incentive-laden contract with the Rams, signed after he parted ways acrimoniously with the Cleveland Browns and was recruited by some of his longtime buddies in Los Angeles, “felt right in my heart, in my soul,” Beckham said at the time. The Rams “have a great opportunity to do some great things,” he said, “and I just wanted to be a part of it.” Everything was going exactly as planned!
But then, with under four minutes to play in the first half, Stafford threw to Beckham once more, and—well, this time the ball ricocheted off Beckham’s hands and the wide receiver fell to the turf. What looked at first like a merely annoying missed catch resulted in Beckham heading to the locker room in agony with what is believed to be a torn ACL in his left knee. His Super Bowl had ended just as it was getting started.
Forced to watch the whole tightly contested second half from the sidelines, Beckham grimaced helplessly during the Rams’ sloppy, chaotic lows. He wept uncontrollably when Los Angeles, led by Stafford and Kupp, clawed back to win the title. He hugged his good friend and training partner, Von Miller, another midseason Rams acquisition, and pulled on his championship hat and shirt. He nodded at his mother’s encouragement, and then bent down to kiss the extremely, any-day-now pregnant stomach of his girlfriend, Lauren Wood. (When a reporter asked earlier in the week what Beckham would do if the baby arrived just before or during the Super Bowl, he replied, with sincerity: “I don’t need you to put that energy in the air.”) Beckham was a Super Bowl winner. There was much to celebrate, even amid the pain.
Two days earlier, leaving the Rams practice field, a peppy Beckham had promised the cameras: “Next time you see me, I’mma be world champion.” He was right, but that wasn’t the whole ending. His performance early in the game was glorious; his tortured knee-grab was grim. His legacy may be secure, but his future is, as ever, uncertain. For Beckham, Sunday night’s Super Bowl, with its quick highs, its ill-timed injury, and its emotional displays, was a lot like a compressed and high-stakes version of his entire NFL career. Some dreams you never want to wake up from, while others make you toss and turn at night.
Last Monday, less than a week before the Super Bowl, Beckham spent a good while on Zoom as part of the league’s virtual version of the Super Bowl’s typical Radio Row circus. His press conference felt a little bit like an episode of This Is Your Life, all misty(-ish) memories and special guests from the multiple stages of his football career.
One reporter from Louisiana asked him to reminisce about Nelson Stewart, Beckham’s high school coach at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans. (Beckham said he’d recently chatted with him to ask if he’d send over his old highlight footage, “just to kind of relive those Friday nights.”) Former New York Giant Osi Umenyiora joined the call, prompting an “uh-oh” from Beckham; when Umenyiora joked that he thought he’d counseled Beckham not to leave New York, Beckham protested: “First, I didn’t leave, I got booted.” (In August of 2018, Beckham signed a five-year, $90 million contract extension with the Giants, but the following March, weeks after the Giants GM told reporters that “we didn’t sign Odell Beckham to trade him,” the team traded him to the Cleveland Browns.)
Speaking of the Cleveland Browns, wide receiver Jarvis Landry made a surprise drop-by on Zoom, giving a tender send-off to his good pal and former collegiate and pro teammate. “You put countless hours to where you are today, and I witnessed it all firsthand,” Landry said. “You have scars to show for where you are today. This is a dream that you are actually turning into reality, and I wanted to come on here and just let you know that I’m proud of you, bro.” Beckham responded that the hair on his arms stood on end from the love.
Later, reporting this exchange, one Browns writer archly pointed out that multiple Cleveland-area beat writers had raised their emoji hands in the Zoom call. They had hoped to bring up Beckham’s departure from Cleveland—where a hotly anticipated partnership with quarterback Baker Mayfield had fizzled to the point that Beckham’s dad shared an 11-minute compilation video on Instagram of the receiver being wide open yet overlooked—but were never called on by the moderator.
Instead, Beckham answered questions from the NFL Network’s Michael Irvin; Nickelodeon NFL Slimetime Teen Interviewer Dylan Schefter (Adam’s daughter); multiple representatives from The Ringer; and an uncharacteristically-but-strategically contrite Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke, who in November had skeptically demanded to know “OBWhy?” when the Rams signed the player but last week published a prOBJ (sorry) column headlined “I dropped the ball,” in which he admitted he’d changed his mind.
Near the end of the call, when a reporter began a question with “You’re only 29, but it seems like you’re a very influential figure to a lot of your fellow wide receivers … ” Beckham visibly exhaled, like someone finally got it. “First of all,” he responded, “I appreciate you saying I’m only 29, because a lot of people, a lot of conversations I’ve had, they really try to make me feel like I’m old—like I’m the old head!”
But he also understood the instinct, having certainly felt it himself. “It is crazy,” Beckham said, “because my 29 feels like I’ve been in the league for 12 years.” (It’s been eight, though injuries and surgeries—to his ankle, his torso, his knee—wiped out the better part of two of those.) “I feel like I’ve had so much happen, ups and downs, goods and bads,” he said. “It feels like a very long career in a short period of time.”
Over the years, some of those ups and downs and good and bad have included, but are not limited, to: the time Beckham and some Giants teammates caught a ride on the SS Bad Optics before losing in the playoffs to Green Bay; the time Beckham caught two touchdowns (one thrown by Landry) and ran in a third in a huge 2020 win over the Cowboys that seemed, for a short while, like a preview of a beautiful Cleveland Browns future; the time Beckham admitted he wasn’t particularly worried about COVID infecting “this body” because “I think it’s a mutual respect” between himself and the virus (he tested positive a few months later); and the time Beckham triggered Lena Dunham by not doing anything at all.
His touchdown celebrations have been inspired by peeing dogs and Call of Duty. His anger has been taken out on nets and water coolers. He has dirty-danced with Eli Manning and been done dirty by Dave Gettleman. He has received and thrown for 40 yards in the same game for the L.A. Rams, who he chose to sign with last fall after also considering teams like the Chiefs, the Patriots, and the Packers. (At the time, he said he’d be converting his salary to bitcoin.) He is currently scheduled to be a free agent again in March. He has now suffered a second serious knee injury.
Above all this, literally and figuratively, reaching and stretching backward into the stratosphere, there is one particular exhausting up that set the trajectory for all to follow: the One-Handed Catch, a play from Beckham’s rookie season that was, in some ways, too great for his own good. When Beckham nabbed a 43-yard throw with a few fingertips during Week 12 in 2014, he also ascended then and there into the strange realm of superstardom. “After the catch, I literally watched life change,” he told reporters on his Zoom call. “I watched how people handled the change. It was like, everything changed from the catch.”
At training camp in 2016, describing what it was all like, he told Mike Francesa that “I tell people all the time, be careful what you ask for.” Last summer, appearing on the Role Model podcast, Beckham said that sometimes younger players ask him how to handle fame. “I say, no matter what, you can’t prepare someone for this,” he said. “I find that one to be probably some of the hardest advice to give somebody.”
Perhaps such early and intense exposure is why one of Beckham’s most identifying characteristics—beyond his oft-copycatted hair or his dense body art or the mastery with which he can finagle a contested football—is his familiarity with both the pageantry and the discourse that surrounds him and his game. He knows full well what people are saying, and he knows which way the wind’s blowing, and he thinks about what he could be doing if given the right room to maneuver. He makes remarks like “it’s just funny, all of the backlash I get” and says he’s aware people refer to him as a “me guy.” He talks like someone who is viewing himself from a remove, observing his place in the world.
Sometimes he has the aura of the character Max in the film Kicking and Screaming, who laments, “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday … I’m reminiscing this right now.” In Beckham’s house, he has a space that he calls “a legacy room,” featuring framed football jerseys and old meaningful cleats and gloves worn by him or other athletes of note, most acquired via the barter system—the good old-fashioned jersey swap. “I gave my entire life for this game of football,” he told reporters about his memorabilia, “and it’s just memories that will last a lifetime.” His vast jersey collection includes the likes of Tom Brady as well as football-football icons he’s met like Neymar.
And, in a bit of foreshadowing, Beckham sought and received the jerseys of three formidable then-opponents over the years—Jalen Ramsey, Aaron Donald, and Miller—all of whom ultimately became his teammates in Los Angeles. It was as if he had indeed been manifesting something all along with each Sharpied signature.
Beckham wasn’t the only relative newcomer to L.A. when he joined the Rams, a franchise that reached the Super Bowl in 2019 and has exhibited a desire to remain all in ever since. Last winter, the Rams traded for former Detroit Lions stalwart Stafford, to replace Jared Goff, and they picked up veteran pass rusher Miller from the Broncos in November. Miller and Beckham are good friends; they trained together at high altitude in Colorado last summer. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Miller said that when he suggested he and Beckham actually try to play together one day, Beckham advised him to avoid Cleveland.
Having landed in Los Angeles instead, Miller put on the hard sell, and he wasn’t the only one. Ramsey also reached out to Beckham, as if the jerseys on his walls were coming to life. “He wants to be the best every time he steps on the field,” Ramsey told reporters recently about Beckham. “And sometimes, you know, people take that the wrong way, and they think it’s you being arrogant, or that you think of yourself as better or higher than other people. But when you’re playing football, you’re playing a fierce game! You have to think of yourself as one of the best, and then you have to go out there and try to actually prove that you’re one of the best.”
Beckham was reminded that the last time he’d teamed up with Stafford—in the 2014 Pro Bowl—good things happened. He knew he’d be joining a receiving corps that was already rich with players like Robert Woods and the beastly Kupp—and yet he still felt wanted. In his conversations with Green Bay, Beckham later told NBC’s Chris Simms, “it felt like, ‘We would love to have you.’” That was great and all, but when he talked to guys on the Rams, it was even better. “This was like, ‘No, we want you here,’” he told Simms. (Shortly after Beckham signed with the team, Woods went down with an injury, making Beckham’s arrival all the more necessary.) Still, Beckham made it clear that he understood his role within a Rams ecosystem dependent on Kupp, who was in the middle of a Pro Bowl season in which he would lead the NFL in receptions (145), total yards (1,947), touchdown receptions (16), and yards per game (114.5).
“I’m a competitor, but like I say, I came late to the party,” Beckham said in January. “I knew that I wasn’t going to be ‘the one.’ I’m not getting 10 to 15 targets each and every game. And so for me, it’s about finding ways to be locked in knowing that you’re not specifically the guy, but I am going to be a threat and the option each and every play.” Joining the team midseason meant trying to play catch-up on a whole new playbook and offensive system, which wasn’t always easy. But Beckham had Kupp as a living playbook right in front of him. “Bro, he just does everything right,” Beckham told NBC about Kupp, shaking his head in disbelief. “He’s where he’s supposed to be, when he’s supposed to be there.” Kupp, speaking with reporters by Zoom in late January, felt similarly impressed by Beckham’s ability to get up to speed.
“During training camp, you might get, between walk-throughs and practice, you might get a hundred something reps in a day,” Kupp said. “That’s just not the reality during the season. And so for him to be able to, you know, mentally get to this place where he’s detailing things the way that he has been, and producing for us in the way he has, is just an incredible nod to the player that he is, the football intelligence he has, and the mental capacity to be able to learn all this stuff as quickly as he has been.”
Rams offensive coordinator (and soon-to-be Vikings head coach) Kevin O’Connell concurred in a Zoom press conference last week. “Odell deserves a ton of credit,” he said, “for his ability to come into our organization midseason, to what’s been a very successful offense, and still really find his own way and his own purpose.”
In his Super Bowl press conference, Beckham brought up a meme he’d seen that he found meaningful. It depicts two guys digging long trenches toward a trove of “little diamonds and treasures and all that,” Beckham said, and one of them has finally given up and turned around. In the picture, you can see that he really shouldn’t have—he’s only, like, one shovel’s worth from his goal, though he has no way of knowing that. “Just imagine that you were right there all that time,” Beckham said. “You just keep pushing forward.”
Throughout the playoffs, and on Super Bowl Sunday, that’s what Beckham and the Rams did, shoveling their way past the Buccaneers and the Niners. Last week, Beckham, buoyed by his own recent performances, remarked that his buddies had noticed a shift in the way he was being perceived by the world. “People who are close to me,” he said, “are like, ‘Bro, it’s just crazy to see how the narratives have changed.”
But Beckham’s perspective has changed, too; he may only be 29, but he has now been around long enough to know that narratives never change just once. When Plaschke asked him a week ago if he felt any relish over sticking it to his critics, he didn’t bite on that line of inquiry. “A younger me definitely would have,” he said. “But I don’t really take satisfaction because it’s not that deep for me.” (Spoken like an old head, indeed!) Ultimately and unfortunately, his refusal to take the bait and crow about his success turned out to be prescient: Even if you tunnel yourself all the way to glory, it turns out, the walls can still cave in once you arrive.
The Super Bowl provided a glimpse of what was—is? Might still someday be?—possible for Beckham, as both his first-half presence and his second-half absence were deeply felt. It really was so, so fun before it became such a bummer! Before his injury, Beckham’s future with the Rams had not yet been ironed out. While the team could find itself up against some salary cap constraints, there had been indications that the Rams and Beckham were exploring a framework for a deal, and Beckham indicated that he’d even take a discount to re-sign. Now, with Monday’s report that Beckham is believed to have torn his ACL (again), all those next steps for him and the team remain undetermined.
Beckham was, according to a report in The Athletic, “despondent” in the locker room after getting injured. Thanks in large part to the emotional and physical support of his teammate Woods, who was injured just after Beckham arrived in Los Angeles, Beckham willed himself to return to the sidelines to watch the second half. (“[I] just held him,” Woods told the media after the game, adding that he told Beckham “I’m right with you. I’ll be here every step, every rehab, every day.”) With the Rams losing in the fourth quarter, Beckham looked bereft. When they came back to win, he looked like a living version of the crying-laughing emoji. When he went out on the field to celebrate, MAMA BEAR was waiting.
There’s a story Beckham has been telling since back when he was drafted in 2014, and he tells it because he grew up hearing it from his family all the time. When he was 4 years old, his mom encountered him playing in the yard and asked what he was up to. “I looked her in the eye,” Beckham said, “and told her I was practicing for Sundays. She said the way I said it, she had no choice but to believe it.” Getting back to those Sundays someday is no sure thing for Beckham, no matter how much determination is involved. But one thing that is sure, and always will be, is that he scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl and won himself the ultimate NFL collector’s item: a ring. Dreams can last a lifetime, but reality? That’s forever.