OWINGS MILLS — Odell Beckham Jr. owns a piece of history: a 20-carat ring, studded with diamonds, from Super Bowl LVI. He’s forever a champion, and no one can take that away from him.
He simply can’t enjoy it.
When the 30-year-old receiver looks back on what should have been the apex of his career, he likens it to bitter champagne. Though he won on the NFL’s biggest stage and caught a touchdown to boot, it also marks his most difficult professional setback: a left ACL tear that cost him the rest of that game and all of the following season.
“It sucks, you know?” he said when asked Tuesday about how he remembers that Super Bowl. “There’s no way around it.”
Beckham’s greatest football achievement is poisoned by trauma, when he had to be propped up on one leg by his mother as confetti rained down in SoFi Stadium back in February 2022. As he started his campaign with the Ravens on Tuesday at mandatory minicamp, he is set not on righting the past, but on giving himself another shot at experiencing that same unbridled joy – without the accompanying sense of loss.
“It’s hard when you get to the pinnacle of success in this sport and you feel like it was taken away from you,” he said. “It wasn’t like something that was easy to live with. … But it kind of all gets put to rest now, because it’s like, you’re here.”
There is a lot to like about the Ravens’ receiving room this season, between first-round pick Zay Flowers, veteran Nelson Agholor and the prospect of a healthy Rashod Bateman to go with returner Devin Duvernay. Coach John Harbaugh keeps a photo of the 2014 receivers in his basement over his pool table, including Steve Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith.
“I thought, ‘That was a good group,’ right?” Harbaugh said. “This group rivals that. It might be the best. We’ll see.”
So much of that upside is tied to Beckham, who has been a 1,000-yard receiver five times. The last instance was in 2019 before knee problems eroded his A-list status. But if the two-time All-Pro can show flashes of what made him one of the most eye-catching playmakers in the NFL, the Ravens passing attack that has seemingly been forever in search of receiving talent may skyrocket to the next level with Lamar Jackson at the helm.
As eager as Beckham is to get back to a Super Bowl, he couches almost everything he says with patience. Even as he prepared to hit an NFL practice field for the first time in a year and a half, he acknowledged that he’s tried to make it not such a big deal.
He can run full speed again — “I’m fast,” he said with a grin — but he’ll start at a trot.
“I think I’ve been trying to not think about it so much because there has been so many disappointments,” he said of being back in a jersey. “I’ve been in a good mental head space to where I’ve tried to downplay this.”
Beckham cares deeply about football and winning something that he proved by playing the critical stretch of the 2021-22 season without an ACL in his left knee, by his own account. He told the Rams’ team physician he would “die on my sword,” and that’s exactly what happened. When he dropped a pass from Matthew Stafford in the second quarter of the Super Bowl, he probably knew right away what went wrong. The rest of the football world wasn’t far behind — a non-contact stumble followed by knee clutching is a telltale sign of something pretty bad.
In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Beckham said family members noticed his sharp focus. He woke up that Sunday morning assured that he would be the best player on the field — and he very nearly was, for one half.
“I didn’t get to live out that moment, and it’s not for the Instagram posts or nothing like that,” he said. “This is really something I’ve dedicated my entire life to, this game and this sport. Just wanted to have that moment.”
Harbaugh likened Beckham’s arrival in Baltimore to Terrell Owens when he coached in Philadelphia: Owens had an outsized reputation, but behind closed doors, his dedication to football left the deepest impression.
“Nobody worked harder in practice. Nobody worked harder in the weight room,” Harbaugh said. “The guy came to special teams meetings. He was into football. To me, those kind of guys reach that level for a reason.”
The early indications have been that Beckham is the same kind of person. He and Lamar Jackson are due for workouts sometime before training camp starts in July. The Ravens love guys who love football — and it couldn’t have been more clear how they feel about Beckham on Tuesday, when owner Steve Bisciotti slung an arm around his shoulder as they walked back into the facility.
Whether Beckham will reach anything close to his former heights is something to worry about as the team gets closer to September. While he’s trained hard in Arizona to make a triumphant comeback, Beckham said he’s tried to enjoy life more, including a cameo at Preakness last month. He’s enjoyed being a father to his son, Zydn, who was born four days after that fateful Super Bowl Sunday and attended Tuesday’s practice as a spectator: “It’s crazy to see your little human grow in front of your eyes, and I love every minute, every second of it.”
But that burn to be back at the top is always there, even in his leisure time. He recently got a courtside view of the Denver Nuggets, who would go on to beat the Miami Heat in five games for their first franchise championship. He didn’t watch the game as a spectator, he said; he watched it as an athlete, seeking that familiar feeling of intensity.
“When I get to an NBA Finals game and I’m sitting right there and I’m looking at Jamal Murray — the intensity he has in his eyes, knowing he has an opportunity to win a ring — you see these guys, it’s always motivating for me,” he said. “I really get motivated … watching these guys in their respective sports who have the same mentality as I have to be great.”
For now, it’s enough to wake up and not feel pain in his knee, he said. “It feels good to feel like if I need to take off running right now, I could take off running.”
But you have to jog before you can sprint. Given that he hopes the season ends in February, Beckham is trying to pace himself.
“Fully embracing exactly where I’m at and where my feet are at,” he said. “And I think that’s something that I’ve learned throughout this process, is just being present and staying in the moment.”