This Saturday when the LSU Tigers face the Auburn Tigers in Baton Rouge for an SEC matchup with potential, long-term consequences, the aerial antics between quarterback Zach Mettenberger and wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr will again attempt to take flight.
So far, the two have proven a formidable connection, with Mettenberger’s passer rating now ranking third nationally and Beckham generating Heisman hype for the school records he’s set so far this season, including being the first LSU player to record back-to-back 100-yard games on receptions since Dwayne Bowe had 111 against Kentucky and then 106 vs. Fresno State on Oct. 14 and 21, 2006.
Athletic ability seems to be a birth rite in Beckham Jr.’s family: his father, Odell Beckham Sr, was a standout running back for the LSU Tigers, and his mother, Heather Van Norman, is one of the Purple and Gold’s most highly decorated sprinters, which is no small feat given the illustrious names filling the voluminous scrolls of the LSU track and field annals. Now, following in their footsteps, Beckham Jr. is writing his own chapter in the LSU history book, a seemingly pre-determined destiny, given his early years.
At the beginning of 1992, Beckham Sr. and Van Norman discovered they were expecting. Van Norman was coming off a national championship for the Lady Tigers, training for the Olympic Trials when she got the news.
“I thought ‘What am I going to do?'” Van Norman recalled. “But it was life changing – a blessing from God. It turned my life around. I stopped just getting by. Suddenly my baby lit a fire of determination under me.”
A fire to be her best self in every way: academically, personally and athletically. Van Norman was so determined – she never stopped working physically, in some form or fashion.
“He was there in my stomach,” Van Norman laughed. “I was training all the way up until the day of delivery, with him right there.”
“She ran up until she was about 6-months pregnant,” Beckham Sr. recalled. “That probably gave him that strength, ability, speed that serves him so well now.”
After the 6-month mark, Van Norman turned to walking stadium steps up until she was 8-months pregnant, which is when she switched to pool workouts. In the middle of the 1992 football season, Odell Beckham Jr. arrived:
“He was born on November 5. He weighed 6.5 pounds and was 23 inches long,” Beckham Sr. said. “It was an amazing day when I cut the cord.”
Van Norman says as she held her son for the first time, the sense of determination she’d felt during pregnancy fully blossomed.
“I realized at the end of the day, I am responsible for my son. I am the mom, and I’m not going anywhere,” Van Norman recalled. “I have to educate myself and be the best that I can be for him.”
In order to properly raise their son while remaining competitive student athletes for LSU, Odell Sr. and Van Norman drafted a game plan:
“He went everywhere – even to class with us at 3 weeks old,” Beckham Sr said. “He was sitting in on kinesiology courses. Really, he’s been a college student since 3 weeks old.”
Van Norman was back to running 6 weeks after giving birth. Five months after that, she helped lead the Lady Tigers to another national championship. While continuing to play football, Beckham Sr. also played a large role in raising his son. The running back known as “Wreck ’em Beckham” was often seen carrying his infant son throughout campus.
“I was ‘Mr. Mom’ – that’s what I was named,” Beckham Sr. said. “I’m walking through the Quad with the carrying-harness-thing in front of me, strapped on my chest. When it was cold, I had my jacket zipped up over him, looking as if I was 9 months pregnant.”
Beckham Jr. spent the first few years of his life growing up and learning about life on LSU’s grounds.
“He use to run through the dorms, and all of the guys use to grab him and rough him up,” Beckham Sr. said. “Shaq was there: He used to lift him up and let him dunk.”
Growing up in locker rooms & on athletic fields, surrounded by LSU athletes and icons, Beckham Jr. couldn’t help but soak up the culture.
“After every track meet he would ask, beg basically, ‘Can we please go see Mike the Tiger?'” Van Norman said, referring to LSU’s live mascot. “He’d put his face against the cage and growl really, really loudly at Mike.”
Perhaps it’s memories like that which led Beckham Jr. to eventually turn down the slew of offers he received from suitors like the University of Miami and choose to become an LSU Tiger for himself.
Young Beckham Jr. tried many sports throughout childhood, but settled – perhaps poetically – on being a wide receiver, a position combining both of his parents’ athletic specialties. His father recognized Beckham Jr.’s potential at the position and started having him run routes at the age of 8, with Beckham Sr. acting as the quarterback.
“I love playing receiver,” Beckham Jr said. “I love getting the ball into your hands, and when you get the ball into your hands, you turn into a running back. I kind of fell in love with the receiver position.”
After joining Cooper Manning (Peyton and Eli Manning’s older brother) as the only players in Newman High School’s history to break the 1,000-yard receiving mark in a season, Beckham Jr. had his choice of collegiate football programs, especially considering his outstanding academic record.
“I feel like purple and gold is in my blood,” Beckham Jr. said when asked to explain how he chose his collegiate home.
Returning to LSU, to play in the stadium where he attended his first football game when he was just a few weeks old, was an easy decision.
“I love playing football,” Beckham Jr said. “This is what I love to do, and LSU is definitely the right choice for where to do it. It’s a feeling that can’t even be described, something that’s movie-like or dream-like.”
Beckham Jr. started as a true freshman and has now blossomed into a voice to be heeded inside the LSU rocker room, both because of his personality and his performance. On the field, he’s developing into a weapon to be reckoned with, now that Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron has Mettenberger firing away enough accurate passes to boast the highest efficiency rating in the SEC so far this season, completing nearly 65 percent of his passes for 797 yards.
Beckham Jr. credits his parents – whom he considers his best friends – for preparing him on how to handle the spotlight, the social media trap, the girls and the pressure. His parents stay in constant communication.
“Every day, I text him something, either a motivational message or a Biblical Scripture,” Van Norman said. “I’ve explained to him you’re a role model now. You’ve got eyes on you, so you have to lead by example. I think he’s doing a great job at it.”
“It’s amazing what he has turned out to be,” Beckham Sr. said. “Versus 6 lb., 5 oz and 23 inches long. Now he’s 6′ 1″ and 195 lb.. Wow! This is an amazing life. I’m so blessed and proud of where he is now, at this time.”