Raised on football and country music, quarterback C.J. Beathard striking a chord at Iowa
About two minutes into the music video for Kenny Chesney's 2010 hit, "Boys of Fall," five sweaty teenagers in uniforms embrace. Three of the boys stay composed as they yell. Another points, helmet in hand. And the fifth, the smallest of the bunch, jumps like a maniac, his mouth contorted between a smile and a scream.
Casey Beathard, a prominent country songwriter, cowrote "Boys of Fall," and when Chesney's crew was looking for game action to use in the video, he reluctantly pointed them toward Battle Ground Academy outside Nashville. Casey's oldest son, C.J., was a sophomore at the school in 2009, and though he was just 5' 7" and 113 pounds—so skinny, says Tim Johnson, his coach that season, that "he'd have to run around in the shower to get wet"—he'd just been named the Wildcats' quarterback. His first start would be on the road against Montgomery Bell Academy, one of Tennessee's best teams.
Casey knew his son would be nervous, so to avoid adding pressure, he said nothing of the shoot. When a Montgomery Bell defensive end creamed C.J. in his first series on an attempted play-action pass, an evening of lowlights seemed likely. But then, a plot twist: The tiny quarterback shook off the hit and reentered the game. He threw two touchdown passes as BGA won 26–14, and there, at the 1:50 mark of the video, is C.J., the fifth player, forever celebrating his first victory in one of country music's most-watched clips.
When the video premiered on SportsCenter a year later, C.J. was in awe. The grandson of a prominent NFL general manager, he'd been a rugrat in pro locker rooms; his ESPN debut only furthered the dream he'd had as long as he could remember. On-screen he didn't see a knobby-kneed kid. He saw the future: a life in football, with everyone watching. "In my head, it was always, I'm going to be a college quarterback, I'm going to play in the NFL," C.J. says. "It never crossed my mind, like, I'm short, I'm underweight, it's probably not going to happen."
When Bobby Beathard breaks down his grandson's game, the former Redskins and Chargers GM can't find a flaw. He gushes about C.J.'s arm, about his feet, about his ability to read complex defenses. Perhaps 13 years away from the game have softened the eye of the man this magazine once called the smartest in the NFL; more likely, the 79-year-old is (understandably) biased when it comes to Iowa's 6' 2", 209-pound starting quarterback.
Going back three generations, the Beathard family is steeped in football and includes a quarterback who played professionally for a decade (Bobby's brother, Pete), an NFL scout (Bobby's son Jeff) and a longtime college coach (Bobby's son Kurt). Casey, Bobby's third son, played in college at Elon, and his three boys were standout high school quarterbacks: After C.J., 22, there's Tucker, 21, an up-and-coming- country music singer, and Clay, 18, a freshman QB who's redshirting this season at UT-Martin. Casey and his wife, Susan, also have two daughters, Charly, 16, and Tatum, six.
Say the name Beathard in 2016, though, and C.J. is the one who comes to mind. He's arguably the nation's second-best senior quarterback behind Ole Miss's Chad Kelly, but he was an unknown a year ago, having made just one spot start as a sophomore in 2014. That day, replacing the injured Jake Rudock against Purdue, C.J. passed for 245 yards and ran for 29 more in a 24–10 September win. In early December, he went to coach Kirk Ferentz and asked where he stood; the prospect of another year backing up Rudock might have led him to transfer. But coming off a 7–5 regular season, Ferentz agreed C.J. deserved a shot. The quarterbacks split reps against Tennessee in the Taxslayer Bowl, and though Iowa lost 45–28, C.J. (13 of 23, 145 yards and two TDs) outplayed Rudock (2 of 8, 32 yards). Not a week later, Ferentz named C.J. his starter for 2015. (Rudock transferred to Michigan, where he started before being drafted in the sixth round by the Lions.)
Going into 2015, Iowa didn't receive a single vote in either preseason poll. The Hawkeyes started 5–0 before finally breaching the AP Poll, at No. 22, and by the end of their first undefeated regular season in 93 years they were third in both polls and No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Iowa was back, powered by an offense that incorporated elements of the spread and allowed C.J. to be his uninhibited self, a skilled and accurate pocket passer who can keep plays alive with his feet. "You can do a lot of things with him in the run game if you choose to," Ferentz says. "We just have to try and figure out what's smart for him."
But for much of last season, Beathard's role in Iowa's rushing attack was limited; he suffered a groin injury in Week 3 that lingered for the rest of the year. Even while slightly gimpy, though, he led Iowa to a 5–0 record in one-possession games—until the Big Ten championship. With a chance to win on their final drive, the Hawkeyes couldn't advance past midfield and lost to Michigan State 16–13. Four weeks later Stanford pummeled them in the Rose Bowl 45–16.
Despite that inglorious postseason, C.J. has become a cult hero in Iowa City, where he's led Iowa to a 3–1 record this season on 55 of 93 passing for eight touchdowns and just one interception. (He also rushed for a touchdown in the Hawkeyes' beatdown of Iowa State on Sept. 10, capping a four-touchdown day in which he threw for 235 yards.) Iowa's one loss, though, was season-altering. It came in Week 3 to FCS powerhouse North Dakota State and dropped the Hawkeyes from No. 13 clear out of the AP Poll, costing them a shot at a playoff berth. But with late-season matchups against Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska, Iowa still has a shot at the Big Ten West title and C.J.'s first bowl victory.
The call that made Bobby Beathard's career came in 1972, when, after stints scouting for the Chiefs, the AFL and the Falcons, he was hired as the Dolphins' director of player personnel. He earned a Super Bowl ring 11 months later, after the only perfect season in NFL history, and in '78, Washington named him general manager. He hired Joe Gibbs as coach, and the team went to three Super Bowls, winning two. In 1990, he returned to his native California to run the Chargers, who reached the Super Bowl four years later.
Bobby and his first wife, Larae, divorced in 1971, and he resolved that he'd never let the game get in the way of fatherhood. When he took the Miami job, it was on the condition that he be allowed to bring his children from California to training camp. "We used to run around barefoot on the Dolphins' and Redskins' football fields, just on our way to a pond to catch frogs," Casey recalls. His favorite hiding spot in the Dolphins' facility was under Don Shula's desk, and one of Bobby's prized possessions is a photo of Casey walking next to Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka, Csonka's hand resting on the six-year-old's head.
Today Bobby's home in Franklin, Tenn., is littered with photos of his family and the trappings of a 40-year career. In his living room, there's a graduation photo of him and John Madden; they were teammates at Cal Poly. There's a huge shell full of painted game balls, an action shot of Super Bowl XVII and a photo of him gifting Ronald Reagan a Redskins jersey after Super Bowl XXII. This was the world C.J. and his four siblings were born into, and being the grandchildren of a legend wasn't much different than being the kids of an up-and-coming scout. There were training camps to attend, balls to catch from JUGS machines and vacations spent knocking around San Diego's practice fields.
From the time he could talk, C.J. adored Junior Seau. (Bobby speculates that he once scored the linebacker's chinstrap. Susan thinks he collected treasures out of Seau's trash.) He also loved to draw, and every Sunday morning during football season, decked out in a Chargers jersey and sweatbands, the little boy drew his favorite player. Once he finished each masterpiece, complete with a note wishing the linebacker good luck, C.J. would hand it to his mother, who would fax the image from Nashville to San Diego, where Bobby would deliver it to Seau. The future Hall of Famer would send a message back, telling C.J. he'd be thinking of him on the field. Susan still has each of the original drawings, filed away as soon as she fed them through the fax.
Bobby retired from the Chargers in 2000, but he didn't stay out of football long; in '02, he agreed to a one-year contract to be a senior adviser with the Falcons. Atlanta is only a four-hour drive from Nashville, so C.J., then eight, and his siblings were able to visit their grandfather more often. Three-year-old Charly delighted in racing Michael Vick, claiming once than she toddled faster than the quarterback. C.J. was in awe of running back T.J. Duckett and linebacker Keith Brooking, but he couldn't fathom that his life was the envy of his Pop Warner teammates. "You don't really realize until you get older and look back on it that those were some really cool times," he says. "Just being there all the time, walking through the locker room like it was nothing, being able to do it with my brothers was great."
At 50, Casey Beathard looks like a shorter version of Brett Favre. Dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt, khaki shorts and a Panthers visor, he reclines on his father's couch in Franklin, his right knee bandaged after a recent procedure. With a heavier twang than one would expect from a man raised in California and Virginia, he tells the story of how he—in C.J.'s words—"veered off the path."
A receiver at Elon, Casey had no future as a player, so upon graduation in 1990, he returned to Northern Virginia, where he'd attended high school. Disinclined to get a desk job, he landscaped and painted while playing guitar in his spare hours. Music had always been a passion, and friends encouraged him to try performing full time, so in '91 he packed his truck for Nashville, a city he'd never so much as visited. Once there, he worked in the mail-order department at the Country Music Hall of Fame, where he met Susan, and washed dishes at the Bluebird Café, a tiny venue known for live music.
In the summer of 1992, struggling on about $700 a month, Casey accepted a job from his father paying three times that as a scout for the Chargers. The money was welcome, but his music career stalled. "I was always filling out reports," he says, "and I never got to my guitar." He lasted less than a year.
The following November, C.J. was born. Then Tucker arrived—with the help of a midwife, in the house Casey and Susan shared with four roommates. By then Casey had gotten a $12,000 advance on a record deal—the entirety of which he spent on the spot to provide for his growing family—but he soon realized performing wasn't for him. Country concerts had turned into rock shows, and he preferred the comfort of a stool and a microphone in a smoky bar. Instead, he turned to writing, and not long after, he penned what would be the title track of Chesney's 1997 album, I Will Stand.
Driving home from a family vacation in North Carolina the summer the album dropped, Casey turned on the radio outside Knoxville. There's a new song from a local boy, the deejay said, and we're previewing his album. Casey's interest was piqued; Chesney fit that bill. There's one song in particular on this album that's my favorite, the deejay continued, and I think it's going to send Kenny Chesney to another level. Casey's heart pounded as the piano intro to "I Will Stand" began. Susan started to cry.
For years Casey had compared songwriting to football when he talked to Bobby. Songs were like free agents, he told his dad. They got tryouts and they got cut, but sometimes they stuck and even became big. "That's when I thought, Man, I made it," Casey says. As the song finished—its final notes cut short—the deejay apologized for playing the wrong track.
When C.J. and Tucker were in middle school, they formed a band with Clay and called it Fayd 49. Fayd sounded interesting, and 49 was an homage to their street address. Going with the obvious choice, the Beathard Brothers, would have been embarrassingly similar to the Jonas Brothers, C.J. says. It also wouldn't have differentiated the trio from the Beathard men who'd come before them. This latest generation had its own identity, bonded by music as much as by football.
In the short-lived band C.J. was the lead singer. He and Clay played guitar, Tucker the drums. "Tucker's a phenomenal drummer," Casey recalls before his father cuts him off.
"C.J.'s not a phenomenal singer," Bobby says.
"He thinks he is," Susan adds. She can't help but laugh.
The group played a few local benefits, but when C.J. entered high school, he had no time to practice; football came first. The teenager dreamed of playing for Ole Miss, and after a standout junior season and a six-inch growth spurt, he earned an offer and committed almost immediately. But when coach Houston Nutt was asked to resign the next winter, C.J. had to scramble. He wasn't suited for Hugh Freeze's spread offense, so his high school coach, Roc Batten, sent his game tape to teams with pro-style schemes. When Iowa showed interest, Bobby chimed in; he'd tried to hire Ferentz as San Diego's offensive line coach in 1996 and remains a fan of Iowa's coach.
Just a week before signing day in 2012, C.J. and Casey visited Iowa City, where they were invited to a breakfast for recruits at the Ferentz home. Casey expected a catered affair, but when he and C.J. arrived—entering from a garage full of trash cans and bicycles—it was Ferentz's wife, Mary, frying up the spread. Before long she struck up a conversation with Casey; a country music fan, she wanted to know everything about his career.
C.J. switched his commitment almost immediately after returning home. "As bad as I wanted to go to Ole Miss," he says, "I knew what I needed to do."
He arrived in Iowa City the next summer with a twang and no idea how cold the weather would turn. Still, it was hardly culture shock. Many teammates were country music fans, and that first summer he got them backstage passes to a Toby Keith show at the Great Jones County Fair in Monticello. He didn't talk much about Casey or Bobby, but it didn't take friends long to figure out the family tree. Still, they were struck by the freshman's lack of pretense. When a group decided to drive to Panama City, Fla., for spring break that year, C.J. offered his parents' house as a stopping point. That night, he took them to the Wildhorse Saloon, a downtown Nashville bar, and jumped in when the square dancing started. Was he good at it? "He knew how to do it," says senior tight end George Kittle. "I don't know if he was good at it."
Around that time, C.J. began growing out his red hair, and what started out as a shaggier cut turned into a mane that fell in waves past his shoulders. At one point, C.J. let a cousin straighten it. Eventually, it got so long he had to tuck it up into his helmet. When it came time to consider cutting it, an aunt convinced him to donate the hair to Wigs for Kids before the 2015 season. A few days after the makeover, Iowa held its yearly Ladies Football Academy, which benefits the local children's hospital. "They were all talking about how cute he is now," receiver Matt VandeBerg says. "The moms of Iowa City love his haircut."
Teammates were ecstatic at the attention from the over-30 set. C.J.'s hair had been a perfect opportunity to mock the unflappable quarterback. They'd been worried that once it was gone, they'd have no ammunition to toss back after one of the quarterback's strings of good-natured ribbing. "He just likes giving everyone shit," Kittle says. "He'll be—I don't want to say dickhead, but he'll be a dickhead. If someone says something that there's an obvious answer to it, he'll just completely make fun. Oh, yeah, really, uh-huh, uh-huh, yeah, oh yeah."
C.J. approaches any competitive pursuit with equal parts discipline and mania. He plays hard, is a stickler for the rules and demands perfection in outcome if not in form. His golf swing is a monstrosity, but he can hammer the ball, and he trash-talks through friends' backswings. During a game of H-O-R-S-E, if someone's foot edges over the free throw line, he throws a fit. Kittle especially enjoys watching C.J. crouch in a corner, gripping his controller while playing video games. He looks like a lunatic. Anyone else would be tortured by that level of intensity, Kittle thinks. C.J., though, is having the time of his life, and the extremes are somehow endearing.
In 2014, the night before Tucker was scheduled to leave for Middle Tennessee State on a baseball scholarship, he decided to forgo college and focus on his music career. (The second Beathard brother has always forged his own path. Even as a toddler, watching C.J. cheer for the Chargers, he demanded a Charles Woodson jersey, and he roots for the Raiders to this day.) His parents were disappointed at the timing of his choice, but they supported it. Unbeknownst to Tucker, A&R scouts had been watching his gigs since high school. Within a year of choosing music, he had signed a record deal.
Tucker spent last fall on tour with his band, playing tiny venues and the occasional bigger gig at a festival or as an opening act. When Iowa beat Maryland 31–15 at home on Halloween, Tucker had a show that night at Iowa City's First Avenue Club. It was the only game of C.J.'s that he was able to attend and his first glimpse at how high his brother's profile was rising; the Hawkeyes were 8–0, and C.J. couldn't walk around Iowa City without being besieged. Tucker, as is their custom, ribbed his brother for his newfound celebrity status. Still, more than anything, he was proud. "Sometimes," Tucker says, "I can't tell if I get more excited when he succeeds than I do for myself." C.J. is less sentimental in his support. "I'm looking forward to when a bunch of people recognize him," he says, "so I can give him a bunch of crap."
As his tour moved on, Tucker watched the Hawkeyes anyway he could: at sports bars if he was lucky, streamed on his phone if he happened to be in the van. He was glued to the screen on Nov. 7 when, with the Hawkeyes down 17–14 in the second quarter at Indiana, C.J. dropped back for the play that would come to define him. It was second-and-goal from the seven-yard line, and offensive coordinator Greg Davis called a quarterback draw. C.J. ran left, evading one linebacker, and then hurdled another three defenders, launching himself into the end zone. "I'm just guessing everybody on our sideline knew what was going to happen," Ferentz says, "because you could see the situation unfold, and you know how C.J.'s wired." After the play, he limped off the field—only to return for the next series in a 35–27 win.
During the regular season Iowa played only once at night, which meant Tucker's gigs rarely conflicted with C.J.'s games. The Big Ten championship, though, kicked off at 8:15 p.m. EST, forcing Tucker to improvise. He had a show that night at a club in Charlotte, but he couldn't bear to miss his brother's shot at the College Football Playoff. By the time he went on stage at Coyote Joe's, the fourth quarter had begun in Indianapolis. Iowa was losing 9–6 and Tucker, the only Beathard sibling not in Indy, propped his phone in front of him where no one in the crowd could see it. As he sang, he kept one eye on the screen. C.J. threw a touchdown pass. Michigan State punted. Iowa punted. Then came a long Spartans drive that ended in a one-yard touchdown run, and it was back to C.J. with 27 seconds to go. Still, Tucker sang. C.J. was sacked. Tucker wished for a miracle because when it comes to his brother, he believes in such things. C.J. threw. Receiver Tevaun Smith had the ball, it looked like, though who could tell on that tiny screen?
It took Tucker a split second to realize that Smith had fumbled, that it was over. There would be no playoff for the Hawkeyes, no shot at perfection. He willed his mind to focus, looked out at the crowd and thought of his brother as he sang on.