Before he learned to dance down the sideline, shrugging off defenders looking to maul him, Odell Beckham Jr. danced inside the 18-yard box, shrugging off defenders looking to kick him and grab him and generally annoy the hell out of him.
"The only way they could stop him was to foul him," says Colin Rocke, who coached a 12-year-old OBJ at the Carrollton Soccer Association in New Orleans.
Jersey-tugging and double-teams are common in football and soccer; getting kicked by players specifically sent on to take you down is not. In part because of this, a young Beckham learned what it was like to be shown a red card for fighting.
"In soccer, you have to pretend that it's OK, and the ref deals with the situation," Rocke says. "He just couldn't take it anymore."
Of course, as those familiar with OBJ's gridiron exploits know, there's a lot of natural fire bubbling inside the star wide receiver. But many may not know that the fire has its roots in his adolescent stardom on the soccer field.
"You could put him on a chessboard—he's going to want to fight you," Rocke says.
Beckham has opened a lot of NFL fans' eyes with his love for the game of soccer. He's executed nifty backheel flips with footballs during pregame warm-ups, spent time in Germany with his friend David Alaba and the rest of Bayern Munich, and he appeared on Sky Sports in Britain to discuss his soccer past. He even met one of his childhood heroes, David Beckham.
Rocke says the Giants wide receiver could have "easily" made the U.S. men's national team if he had decided to stick to soccer, confirming hype OBJ generated a few years ago when he said his youth coaches pushed to get him a national team tryout.
"And he would have been a good soccer player for the U.S. for a long time. He wouldn't have just come in and had a good spell," Rocke says. "He could have been one of the best soccer players the U.S. ever produced. Ever."
Matt Millet, another one of OBJ's youth coaches, says he understands why Rocke says that about Beckham, but "it's hard to project out."
"Obviously, he's a world-class athlete. If he'd stayed in it, you never know," Millet says. "Did he have what it takes at 12, 13 years old? Absolutely."
Beckham played center forward and loved to run on the ball. Millet describes a youngster who was usually the best player on the field, an attacker buzzing around, making things happen. OBJ got ahead with his physical gifts but still worked hard at the rest of his game.
"That hunger and willingness to try anything was there," says Glen Benjamin, who coached OBJ with Rocke.
Benjamin remembers a competitive kid who worked on drills during water breaks and always wanted to check in with coaches so he could learn. Asked to project a grown-up OBJ, Benjamin likens his former pupil to Thierry Henry with more speed, a goal-scoring opportunist who gets behind defenses and likes trying wild stuff.
Glen's brother St. Nicholas Benjamin envisions simply Neymar. Both brothers see a player evolving from a center forward to one who cuts in from the right or left side of the pitch to wreak havoc. Glen sees it in his Henry comparison, while St. Nicholas actually saw the beginnings of it in a match, when he cleared space in the middle of the field by sticking a young OBJ on the wing as a decoy.
"We won that game because he played his role on the wing and allowed his teammates to shine," St. Nicholas says.
Says Rocke: "He was creative. He would actually make that pass to that kid who could score."
The potential parlor games are endless. How dangerous could OBJ have been up top, next to Christian Pulisic and Clint Dempsey? Which other NFL players would be great soccer players?
Beckham's potential to be a great soccer player also puts focus on the inability of U.S. Soccer to steer the country's best athletes to the sport. Imagine LeBron James in goal for the men's national team, joining OBJ on the roster.
Of course, it was probably always going to work out this way. Beckham's father played football at LSU, and his mother was an Olympic-caliber track star. He attended the football powerhouse Isidore Newman School—where the Manning brothers went—and quit soccer to focus on football even though Newman's soccer team won two state championships while he was there.
Despite the seeming inevitability of his decision, there's a wistful vibe apparent when his former coaches discuss OBJ's choosing football.
"I told his mom," Rocke says, "'This kid could be phenomenal at soccer.'"
Soccer wasn't the only sport the talented youngster gave up upon entering high school. The same carry-my-team-to-victory attitude Rocke talks about so energetically was on display in baseball as well.
"He liked being on the mound," says Donald McKay, Beckham's former youth baseball coach. "Some kids shy away from the limelight that is being a pitcher. He relished it."
During an elimination game at a tournament in Cooperstown, New York, the Carrollton Boosters were losing 11-7 going into the bottom of the last inning. They fought back to make it 11-10. With a wild pitcher on the mound and the bases loaded, a 12-year-old OBJ strode to the plate. With the count at 2-0 and then 3-1, McKay let him hit. Sure enough, Beckham launched a fly ball over the center fielder's head to win the game.
"Always laughed with him," McKay says. "He coulda been a good baseball player."
Indeed, when OBJ the NFL star returned to throw out the first pitch at an LSU game, he was said to have hit 90 mph on the radar gun.
Still, all his athleticism—the ability to run into space; coordination between hands, eyes and feet; how he adroitly eludes multiple defenders—was sharpened on the soccer field. The concentration he needed to make one of the greatest catches ever against the Dallas Cowboys has roots in a patience learned on the soccer field. The maneuvering of his feet in tight spaces to stay in bounds in the back of the end zone against the Green Bay Packers recalls the work needed to keep the ball close against multiple defenders wearing shin guards. The pirouette to get out of bounds against the Minnesota Vikings without getting crunched can be done over a soccer ball. Footwork is a universal term in sports for a reason.
"I would argue that he got his athletic beginning on the soccer field and it kind of grew from there," Millet says.
When his former coaches sit back on Sundays and watch Beckham thrive, they see a grown-up version of the same kid with the same fire, doing similar things. There are the attention-drawing antics on the field, the attention-drawing plays and the skills that overlap generations, all of them a tribute to a work ethic and desire to be the hero that have always been there.
"His mentality is exactly the same," Rocke says. "He's had that from birth. He wants them to win. And that's how he was as a [soccer] player."
And if he'd stuck to soccer?
"He'd be playing somewhere in the big leagues," St. Nicholas Benjamin says.
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