C.J. Beathard's Iowa legacy: A fighter, a winner
TAMPA, Fla. – It was after 11 p.m. on Nov. 5, and Casey Beathard hardly recognized his son of 23 years.
“Unlike I’ve ever seen him,” he said. “I went over and said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
C.J. Beathard wore a blank, hopeless stare in the bowels of Beaver Stadium after suffering one of the most humbling losses of his Iowa football career.
The Hawkeyes were pummeled by Penn State, 41-14. The October hope of Big Ten Conference title aspirations had transitioned to November confusion and despair.
“You don’t want to see anybody,” Iowa’s fifth-year senior quarterback said. “You don’t want to look at your phone. You just want to go into your room and go to sleep.”
But here’s the thing about Beathard. At every stage of his life, when he’s been knocked down, he’s gotten back up.
Behind his Southern charm and laid-back demeanor is an intense fighter.
And that’s made him a leader of men, a leader of a Hawkeye football turnaround.
“One of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever known, yet the coolest,” his proud-yet-humble father said. “He really holds it together. Inside, he never lets anybody tell him, ‘You’re done.’”
And in the days that followed the Penn State butt-kicking, he proved it.
With third-ranked, undefeated Michigan coming to Kinnick Stadium to face the beaten-down, 5-4 Hawkeyes, the outside conversation was about whether Iowa would lose by three touchdowns or seven.
Beathard, though, got “a weird feeling” early that week. He started telling his teammates: We're going to beat Michigan.
“Don’t think we can’t," he remembered saying. "Don’t get all scared because they’re big, bad Michigan.”
Iowa players listened to their trusted leader.
“We went onto that field,” Beathard said. “I didn’t see in anybody’s eyes that they were scared.”
By Saturday night of that week – seven days almost to the minute of the Penn State conclusion – Beathard’s premonition was spot on. A 24-point underdog, Iowa had slayed mighty Michigan, 14-13, and shocked the college football world.
Adversity ‘just means you’re living’
Stadium tunnels have been home to defining crossroads in Beathard’s Iowa career.
Those who watched Beathard get escorted by officers past media members after the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl drubbing at Jacksonsville’s EverBank Field wondered if they’d ever see him again.
The months leading up to that visual were frustrating for Beathard and led him to entertaining the idea of leaving Iowa – a place he had grown to love.
Iowa had been an unlikely but welcomed landing spot after a coaching change at Mississippi re-opened the recruitment of the son of a famous country-music songwriter from suburban Nashville, Tenn.
It’s old news now, but it’s important to remember how much Beathard’s mind was racing about his football future as he mostly wore a headset and long, blond hair with Jake Rudock starting in front of him for two years.
His parents encouraged C.J. to pray about it, to keep working hard ... and to tell Kirk Ferentz what he was feeling.
Though reluctant to air his thoughts to the head coach, C.J. followed through on all three things.
And when Ferentz named him Iowa’s starting quarterback over Rudock six days after the 45-28 TaxSlayer loss to Tennessee, it proved to be a validating moment for Beathard – and it charted a new course for Hawkeye football.
“In our world now, there are so many people that are entitled to so many things. (There’s a) lack of commitment, and stuff like that, in a lot of areas in life,” Casey Beathard said. “Kids need that. You’ve got to work for something. I couldn’t be more proud. There were certainly times when a lot of doubt creeped in.
“It’s been an awesome path, as far as I’m concerned.”
How long a road has C.J. Beathard’s journey been?
He came to Iowa a kid; now he has one.
Beathard and his girlfriend of 3½ years, Maddy Chupka, are new parents to daughter Lyla – born Dec. 19, a few days after her dad graduated from Iowa.
Beathard’s open about the fact that the pregnancy wasn’t planned, but he relied on his Christian faith to help him grasp that there can be blessings within the struggles.
As soon as he saw his daughter for the first time, he was filled with joy.
Experiencing adversity, he said, is “a part of life. It just means you’re living.”
(Sounds like the makings of a country chart-topper, doesn’t it?)
“It’ll make you a better person. It’s just a matter of how you approach those and attack those situations,” Beathard said. “This is one of those situations you don’t expect. You weren’t expecting to have a kid. But it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. I’m so excited.
“If someone had said I’d have a kid by graduation, I’d have been, 'Well, I doubt it.' But that’s the thing. You never know what lies ahead of you. God does have a plan for everything.”
It’s that same, mature perspective that Beathard has carried with him to the football field.
Fighting through the pain
When he finally got the quarterback job at Iowa, what happened three weeks in?
Adversity, of course.
Injuries to his groin and hip area started to curtail his play-making ability. He first got hurt during Iowa’s 27-24 win against Pittsburgh in September 2015, and he soon realized it wasn’t getting better. It turned out to be a significant “core” injury that was much worse than he ever told those around him.
But, as is his character, Beathard quietly yet noticeably fought through it.
Knowing now he had sports-hernia surgery in the off-season, it’s hard to believe he was able to jump over a pile of defenders for a touchdown at Indiana – one of the iconic moments of that clutch win that improved Iowa’s record to 9-0.
Even though he was hobbled, Beathard led Iowa to the Big Ten Championship Game and the program’s first Rose Bowl in 25 years.
Flash forward to 2016, which brought all kinds of hype as Beathard was discussed as one of the top NFL-ready quarterbacks, while Hawkeye offensive coordinator Greg Davis said he could be the greatest quarterback he’s coached in 43 years.
Instead, what arrived was a new form of adversity – or, as Ferentz put it recently, “a cruel irony."
Iowa lost its top two passing targets, Matt VandeBerg and George Kittle, to injuries, and the young players behind them couldn’t develop quickly enough.
It had to be maddening to Beathard, who also this season juggled the emotions of impending fatherhood.
“We had a quarterback who was injured all last season and a bunch of guys around him that could catch balls,” Ferentz said. “This year, we had a healthy quarterback but nobody to throw to.
“So if we could’ve had a healthy C.J. last year, it makes you wonder what kind of numbers those would’ve been.”
But what makes Ferentz proud is that his quarterback never complained.
That's why teammates revere Beathard as a teammate and leader. He's relentlessly positive, and he's talented.
“A guy who has such a team-first attitude," running back LeShun Daniels Jr. said, "who is going to do whatever he can to help us get a victory."
Beathard, as usual, just picked himself up, week after week. With every snap, he kept fighting.
“It was a tough situation for him,” Ferentz said. “As much respect as I had for C.J. coming into the year, I have even more now, just because of the way he handled a really challenging situation.”
A winning legacy
Beathard enters the final start of his college career, Monday’s Outback Bowl vs. Florida (noon, ABC-TV), without a 300-yard passing performance to his name.
And he'll likely finish without one, with Florida boasting the nation’s third-best pass defense.
But Beathard realized at some point that yards weren't his focus. It’s been all about winning.
And he’s done that to the tune of a 21-6 record – a .778 winning percentage – as a Hawkeye starter. That’s the best mark of any Iowa quarterback with at least 20 starts, even better than legendary Chuck Long (34-11-1, .739).
When thinking about quarterback evaluation, Ferentz – as is his tendency – pitched a baseball analogy.
“The most important stat is what your record is. ERA’s important, too, and I get that. But winning games is what it’s all about,” Ferentz said. “Good quarterbacks find a way to lead their team to winning, whether it’s throwing the football 50 times or throwing it five times. It's whatever it takes to help the team to be successful.”
So perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that the most important pass of Beathard’s 2016 season went for a 3-yard completion – and underscored how far he’s come from his long-haired, gun-slinging freshman days when his dad joked, “He was lost as last year’s Easter eggs.”
The pass came, fittingly, against Michigan – the week of Iowa’s turnaround that began a three-game, season-ending winning streak.
Michigan led, 10-2, late in the first half. And Iowa faced third-and-goal from the 3-yard line.
Beathard and Davis had gone over on film a certain red-zone blitz look that Michigan uses. So, Davis sent in a play to combat that – a screen to running back Akrum Wadley.
But Michigan didn’t show the blitz. Beathard recognized that and checked out of the play and threw incomplete. Instead of kicking a field goal, Iowa went for the touchdown.
“And then fourth down, we called it again,” Beathard said. “I was like, ‘Please, just give me the look.’ And they bring it. I’m like, 'Thank God. OK, good. We got this.' I knew it was a touchdown before I got the ball."
And it was. Beathard flipped an easy TD pass to Wadley, and going into halftime, Iowa wasn't getting blown out after all. Down 10-8, Beathard saw teammates following his earlier-in-the-week lead.
They believed. And in pulling the upset, they proved they could get back up from adversity and keep fighting.
Just like the legacy their quarterback is about to leave behind.
“I don’t want people to remember me for … putting up this many numbers, this many passing touchdowns,” Beathard said. “Just, ‘That’s the guy that was a great leader, guys wanted to be behind him. They wanted him in the huddle. The tough guy that got back up from big hits. The guy that people would go to war with.”
Win or lose Monday, consider it done.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.