This story appears in the July 16, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine — and get up to 94 percent off the cover price. Click here for more.
Before the thick beard and the blond ’do, before the collage of hundreds of tattoos covered his body, before the Spiderman-like, three-finger snag that broke the Internet, Odell Beckham Jr. had a pink velvet blazer. Even as a teenager getting ready for his middle school dance, the Giants wide receiver always had to find a way to stand out.
“Everybody was getting their suits and I was wondering, What can I do to be different?” he recalls. “That blazer might have been a size too big at the time, but I just had to have it. To me, it was the hottest thing in the world.”
After that Sunday-night snatch against the Cowboys as a rookie in 2014, Beckham soared into stardom, setting league records, grabbing headlines (for both touchdowns and controversies) and earning endorsement deals and invites to A-list events in the seasons that followed. But last October, a fractured ankle in Week 5 knocked him out of the NFL spotlight and slowed his social momentum. So after undergoing surgery, the 25-year-old embarked on a don’t-forget-about-me tour, putting on a fashion show every time he stepped out. First it was weeks spent in a custom Supreme x Louis Vuitton red walking boot, then shirtless workouts in leopard-print shorts. There were nights out with rapper Drake, courtside seats at NBA games and scores of painful ink sessions to complete a pair of full leg sleeves that run hip to ankle. (On his right side he has a “leg of legends” with portraits of Tupac, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Prince, Jesse Owens, Heath Ledger as the Joker and more; his left is a “jungle theme” with zebras, giraffes and other animals.) It all provided a glimpse into the personality of an enigmatic, unapologetic and eccentric star.
“I’m weird,” he says on a Friday in June in New York City, a collar of layered diamond chains glittering around his neck. “I think I just naturally stand out.”
True, that. While walking to the Saks Fifth Avenue store in downtown Manhattan, Beckham is casually dressed in gray sweat shorts with the hood of a blue Amiri pullover covering up his cockscomb of bleached curls, and it’s clear he no longer needs a flashy jacket to attract attention. He can barely walk a few feet before someone takes notice of him and scurries over to snap a photo. He compares the experience with that of being in a zoo.
“You know how you go there and you look at the lions and tigers and elephants?” he says. “You’re not there to talk to them, you’re just there to stare. That’s how I feel. It is what it is, but there’s no privacy anymore.” More subdued attire might help, but that’s too big a price to pay.
It’s the reason he prefers dark-lensed sunglasses to trendier colored ones—“people be all up in my eyes”—and why, according to his mom, Heather Van Norman, he generally doesn’t talk to people, especially recently. Instead, Beckham fills the void by murmuring song lyrics, mostly to himself but sometimes aloud or in the middle of a conversation. “That’s just O,” says Van Norman, Beckham’s chief adviser and confidante.
Inside the store, Beckham runs precise routes through racks of clothes, avoiding anything in the royal-blue family and gravitating towards red, his favorite color. He also steers clear of long pants; he prefers shorts so he can expose his tattoos. Beckham’s style is bold and distinct, a mix of sport and street with a steady flow of designer labels: Supreme, Gucci and Balenciaga, to name a few. You’ll rarely see him in a suit, but after signing a five-year, $25 million deal with Nike in 2017, he’s almost always spotted with a pair of Swoosh sneakers swaddling his size 11 feet. His looks have even sparked a fan’s Instagram account (@objfits), which makes it hard to repeat an outfit more than once or twice. “It’s all a little bit different to me,” says Beckham, who as a kid growing up in a modest New Orleans home would go out in clashing colors because he was just so eager to play and really didn’t care about what he was wearing.
Beckham is loving every minute of this new life football has created for him, even as he enters a 2018 season shrouded in doubt about his health and his place in the Giants’ offense. Just turn up the speakers and blast the beats and you’ll see Beckham come alive, those melodic mutters transformed into coordinated dance moves for every lyric in the song. “Dancing to music fuels my soul,” says Beckham, who struts with the same assertiveness on the field. “Not everybody can do what I do with the swag that I have. It’s just a confidence thing.”
While his time away from football has unmistakably allowed Beckham to upgrade his style, it’s also given him time to reflect on how he got here. “I remember taking football for granted at times ,” he says. “When it’s stripped away from you, you appreciate it more. I’m just ready to get back on the field, honestly.” Whether he’ll return to New York under the last year of his rookie contract for $8.5 million, or hold out during training camp and demand more is the lingering question.
In Saks, a few shirts from Virgil Abloh’s Off-White collection caught Beckham’s eye. “There’s something about his work—it’s done but it has an unfinished touch to it,” he says. Beckham knows there’s unfinished business to be taken care of. It’s going to be unpredictable, but we say: Start the music, raise the volume and just wait and see what move Odell Beckham Jr. comes up with next.