IOWA CITY, Ia. – No one could have anticipated where it would lead when the sophomore quarterback took the field in the third quarter of a football game hopelessly out of reach.
C.J. Beathard was about to make his debut at Battle Ground Academy, a private high school in Nashville, Tenn.
Here’s what his new teammates knew about the pipsqueak being called on to rally them:
- He wore the No. 45 while playing wide receiver and safety the year before at his public high school, where he was listed at 5-foot-7, 113 pounds.
- His voice was prone to cracking, a subject of teasing during practices that summer.
Beathard, now wearing a No. 16 that would become familiar to Iowa Hawkeyes fans, couldn’t pull out a victory that night in 2009 against Father Ryan High School. But he helped his team eat into the deficit before falling 27-13. And the skinny kid made a deep impression.
“Right after the game, I knew who our starting quarterback was going to be,” coach Marty Euverard said.
“He’s always been more athletic than you think he is,” said Jordan Smith, the wide receiver who would become Beathard’s favorite big-play target at BGA and who remains a close friend.
Hawkeye fans, and the football-watching nation, saw that last year when Beathard emerged as the offensive catalyst of a surprise 12-2 season.
Now, Beathard is set to embark on a senior season in which he is regarded as the Big Ten Conference’s best quarterback, a likely NFL Draft pick and a once-in-a-generation player at his position for Iowa. Beathard always believed his innate skills would bring him to this point, even as those around him harbored private doubts.
But who would have predicted a year ago that, in Beathard, the Hawkeyes figure to have the advantage at quarterback in all 12 games they play this fall? When was the last time that could be said? Chuck Long in 1985?
“That’s a lofty comparison,” said former Hawkeye and NFL safety Matt Bowen, who writes about football for ESPN. “C.J.’s a dropback passer that can tear apart defenses in the pocket, and that’s what translates to the NFL.”
How C.J. handles outside talk:
The Iowa quarterback was second-team all-Big Ten as a junior.
Ditching music for football
Beathard’s childhood was consumed by his family’s twin passions: sports and music. His grandfather, Bobby, spent 38 years working in NFL front offices and was the architect of four Super Bowl-winning teams. His father, Casey, is an accomplished country music songwriter who has penned hit songs for the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus and Kenny Chesney.
But before that, Casey was an undersized wide receiver/punt returner at Elon College, back when it was an NAIA school. He quickly recognized the family’s ultracompetitive spirit in his first-born son, noting with approval that the 4-year-old would frequently return home from walks with his grandfather in a heated argument about which of them had won a rock-throwing contest.
It was Casey Beathard who first inserted little C.J. at quarterback while coaching a Pop Warner football team.
“Sometimes, I think I was too hard on all of them,” Casey said of his sons (Tucker is 21 and Clay just graduated from high school). “I put the most pressure on them to succeed because they were my kids. I didn’t want to be the father that (just said) the coach’s kid got to play, so it was important for them to show they were worthy of any position that they played.”
C.J. said he appreciated his father’s pushing, and that it is still paying off.
“I think that helped me deal with the pressures of college football,” Beathard said.
The Beathard boys went through a musical interlude as well, forming a three-piece rock band with loud rehearsals in Tucker’s bedroom, to the occasional annoyance of their mother, Susan. Tucker played drums, with C.J. and Clay on guitar. C.J. was the singer, too.
They wrote their own songs — five in all — although two of them had no lyrics, C.J. Beathard recalled. They played local benefits and middle school fundraisers in gymnasiums.
Casey’s assessment: “They had some really cool stuff. It was really rock. When you’re a teenager, that’s all you want to do is turn it up as loud as you can.”
“We were actually good for our age, and I think — no doubt — if we had kept doing it, who knows where we’d be right now?” C.J. said. “But football was my passion, so once I got into high school I started focusing on football. Tucker would get mad. He would ask, ‘When are we rehearsing?’ I’d say, ‘I’ve got to get up early for workouts'.”
Tucker is a rising country music star with a current hit out called "Rock On." Clay plans to play quarterback in college, like his oldest brother.
C.J., once he put music aside, would tell anyone who would listen, “I’m going to get a football scholarship and I’m going to play pro football.”
Casey and Susan were encouraging, but Casey, who stands just 5-8, remembered thinking: “Buddy, I don’t know if you’re going to get big enough.”
Ole Miss loss is Iowa's gain
C.J. did grow taller, although he struggled to add pounds. Still, he was a commanding presence in the huddle, Jordan Smith said.
“He always told us receivers how he wanted us to run (patterns). He always put the ball there on time,” said Smith, who caught 15 touchdown passes from Beathard as a high school senior.
Beathard led the state in passing yards and touchdowns as a junior and senior, totaling 4,546 yards and 42 scores. In the spring of his junior year, he took time out from baseball (he was a four-year letter winner in that sport as a pitcher and outfielder) to put on a private workout for a football coach from the University of Mississippi.
Euverard, Beathard’s high school coach then, said it was the best passing display he’s seen in 26 years of coaching, and came despite a stiff wind.
“There was not one incompletion. The ball never hit the ground,” Euverard recalled. “(The coach) stopped about 15 minutes into it and said he’d seen enough. He called Houston Nutt right there and told him what he’d just seen. The next day, Houston Nutt called C.J. and offered him a scholarship.”
Beathard jumped at the chance to play for Ole Miss, but Nutt was not destined to be the head coach there for long. The Rebels foundered through a 2-10 season in 2011 while Beathard completed his senior campaign, all the while listening to whispers that Nutt was on the verge of being fired. Eventually, he was, and Hugh Freeze came on board, promising to bring along a spread-style offense.
“I wasn’t that big into that offense, and I wasn’t a big fan of their coaching style,” Beathard said.
Freeze promised to honor Nutt’s scholarship offer to Beathard, but Casey got the feeling it was merely the fulfillment of an obligation.
“You want them to want you. We didn’t feel like they wanted (C.J.) as much as the old staff did,” Casey Beathard said.
Fate was about to lead his son north.
C.J.’s new coach at BGA, Roc Batten, was a teammate at Vanderbilt of Eric Johnson, a longtime assistant at Iowa who was in charge of recruiting. Batten sent along Beathard’s highlight DVD and Johnson was intrigued. Freeze told the Beathards to go to Iowa City and take a look.
“It just felt right in my heart. I think it did in (C.J.’s) heart, too,” Casey Beathard said of that trip.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz offered Beathard a scholarship on the spot, with signing day still looming. Back home, Casey could tell his son was conflicted.
“He was tired of dealing with it. He didn’t like the pressure,” Casey Beathard said. “I was scared to ask him. One day, I said, ‘Buddy, someone’s going to need to know what your decision is here.’ He cut me off. He said, ‘I know what I want to do and I know what I need to do.’ I said, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘I’m going to go to Iowa. That’s what I need to do.’ ”
Beathard arrived at a scant 170 pounds, in need of a redshirt season to put on muscle and learn the intricacies of Iowa’s pro-style offense. His next two seasons were spent battling Jake Rudock for the starting job, playing sparingly as a freshman, seeing more action as a sophomore, when he rallied the Hawkeyes from a 17-7 halftime deficit for a 2014 victory at Pitt. But he was not given the reins to the offense.
Beathard admitted to being frustrated but said he never considered transferring, instead preparing each week as if he would get the starting call. Finally, after Beathard and Rudock alternated series in a disastrous 45-28 loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl, Ferentz announced that the starting job would be Beathard’s heading into spring practices, with Rudock having to try to wrest it back.
Instead, Rudock chose to spend his final college season at Michigan, which surprised Beathard.
“It was kind of a relief,” Beathard said. “It’s nice to finally be your position, your job, just kind of focus on your receivers, getting all the ‘1’ reps, being able to be that leader that you want to be and can be.”
He was about to repay Ferentz for the faith he showed in him.
Making believers out of NFL scouts
“We went into a season with an attitude about us,” Beathard said of the feeling a year ago. “It was kind of like, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose. We’re going to go out here and play our butts off, and play together.’ And we came together as a team.”
Beathard was integral to that. Casey Beathard said he has long marveled at his son’s ability to bring a team together, to compel teammates to want to follow him.
“It probably comes from being a first-born is that he’s a pleaser. He’s never wanted to let me or his mom or any of the coaches he’s played for down,” Casey said. “He’s just a really down-to-earth, likeable kid. There’s nothing pretentious about it so I think people just gravitate toward him.”
The Hawkeyes were a wounded group coming off a 7-6 season and a bowl game shellacking. Beathard quickly provided some salve. In the season’s second game, a 31-17 victory at rival Iowa State, he passed for three touchdowns but really inspired with two second-quarter running plays.
On a second-and-16 from his 1-yard line, Beathard rambled 44 yards. He sprinted for another 57 on a second-and-10 play from his 13. He was never able to run so freely again after suffering a groin injury that nagged at him for the rest of the season, but something magical had been uncovered. Beathard completed 62 percent of his passes, for 2,809 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Hawkeyes completed their first 12-0 regular season ever. Beathard, despite an injury that necessitated offseason hernia surgery, never left the lineup.
“We changed some game plans up just because I wasn’t able to get out of the pocket and do as many bootlegs as we usually do. It was painful,” he admitted. “It limited me, but we were winning still, so …”
NFL scouts took notice, both of what Beathard endured and what he accomplished.
“A lot of people like (Chad) Kelly at Mississippi. I myself think Beathard’s a better prospect,” said Gil Brandt, who served as the talent scout of the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-89 and remains a draft expert at NFL.com. “I’m not saying he’s going to be a first-round pick. I also say he’s the best senior quarterback in the country. I’m a great fan of people staying in school for their entire career.
“We’ll be seeing another Beathard in the NFL in 2017.”
Bowen said NFL teams have Beathard prominently on their lists of players to monitor heading into this season. He, too, expects Beathard to be drafted in April.
“I think he does have a strong enough arm. He’s very accurate with the football. I don’t know what C.J. runs in the 40. I could care less. When he has to run, he makes plays with his legs,” Bowen said. “I think the guy is a warrior, and that’s so reflective of your locker room. I know how those players love him.”
Beathard, who expects to be fully healthy heading into August’s training camp, is eager to play a bigger part of the Hawkeye offense, gaining the freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage.
“It will be nice this season to hopefully be healthy and do a little more running than last year,” he said.
Mingling with the famous while tuning out praise
Beathard’s summer was filled with celebrity encounters, the kind he has long been accustomed to but that reveal how different his life is from the typical college student's. His brother, Tucker, has been touring with country music star Dierks Bentley.
C.J. has tagged along on a couple of those stops. He played golf with country singer Eric Church. He soaked up some quarterbacking tips from Peyton and Eli Manning at a recent camp.
None of this fazes Beathard, although he does have one regret.
“I’ve never asked for an autograph. When I golfed with Eric Church, I didn’t even ask for a picture with him. It was like there was no need. You realize when you’re around these guys, they’re just people. They’re very talented people, but they’re like you. You don’t want to act star-struck when you’re around them, because they’ll be annoyed by that,” Beathard said, then paused.
“Sometimes you look back, like that weekend with Peyton Manning, I wish I would have gotten a picture with him. But I was with him all weekend, I just forgot to get a picture. That would be cool to have a picture with Peyton Manning.”
C.J. Beathard on hanging out with country music stars:
The Iowa quarterback has famous admirers from outside the sports world.
Those close to Beathard are not surprised by his aw-shucks demeanor. It is not an act, they insist. In interviews, he is very soft-spoken, rolling out a slight southern drawl and often looking at the floor while talking, as if surprised to find himself getting so much attention. He is most animated when talk turns to his famous grandfather, who, at age 79, still jumps into the ocean to body surf during the family’s annual vacations to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
“C.J.’s a very laid-back, chill guy,” said Smith, who is also entering his senior season, as a wide receiver at Tennessee Tech. “He definitely likes to keep his friends close and have a good time.”
Beathard downplays discussion of his ranking among college quarterbacks or of his placement in the NFL draft. His offensive coordinator, Greg Davis, recently declared that Beathard could be the best quarterback he’s coached in his 38 seasons, a list that includes Vince Young and Gary Kubiak.
That’s nice and all, Beathard said, glancing downward. But …
“We’ve got an entire season left ahead of us and if you start looking that far down the road it will completely mess your game up,” he said. “I’ve got to focus on getting ready for this season and having the best season I’ve ever had.”
Casey Beathard is amazed at the physical transformation of his son, who now weighs 215 pounds and towers over his father at 6-2. He still remembers the runty child who boldly proclaimed: “I don’t know how long I should be a rock star, or should I play football first?”
Casey made his children a promise that if they ever excelled enough in any field to earn a college scholarship, he’d buy them a car to get them to and from classes. When Beathard left the football complex after a recent interview, he was behind the wheel of a big red pickup with Tennessee plates.
“He saved me about $160,000,” Casey laughed. “It was a good tradeoff.”
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