A few days ago, in the Cowboys-Giants game, Odell Beckham Jr. made a very difficult catch. How? He just did it.
For NFL receivers, catching a football is a reflex. There is no break in the circuit. There is a ball in flight and a neurological command to go get it. The rest is autopilot. The hands simply move into place. But to know where that place is and how to get there requires a life devoted to catching footballs.
To most people, the ball is just the brown pointy thing. But for me, a receiver, the ball is the reason I play the game. I love that ball. The only way I am validated on a football field is if I get to hold it. It is a sacred stone and it is mine. I'll die to catch it. And my relationship with the ball began before I could even talk.
American athletes have incredible hand-eye coordination, largely because we start so young. A boy's ability to throw is fostered early and becomes a badge of honor. It's also a good indicator of what skill position he will play if he winds up playing football. Running backs have notoriously bad arms and average hands. Their arms are bad because they don't play catch. If you catch, you must also throw. This is why all receivers have good arms. I've never met a receiver with a bad arm.
Defensive backs have bad hands and bad arms. Quarterbacks have good hands, but don't run as well. Wide receivers can catch and throw. And they can run! They become intimate with all aspects of the ball. They know what a football means, if you know what I mean.
But you can't just play catch and call yourself a receiver. You have to get open. To get open on a route, you tell a lie with your body. This is harder than it seems. You may think you are leaning one way, but you're not. To pretend to go one way when you really plan to go another way is counterintuitive. To do so at top speed requires a full-scale deception perpetrated against yourself. Every muscle, every bone, every ligament must be in on the lie, lest the defensive back see through you, and crush you.
And even when you tell a beautiful lie, it doesn't always work. (The other guy gets paid, too!) You often find yourself covered and the ball is in flight. The fatty heaved it up. Now it's yours. You are running at top speed, nearly 20 mph. Your brain and eyeballs are bouncing in your skull. Monsters are converging on you at deadly angles.
As the ball falls to earth, you steady your vision. Your body is straining at its limits. Your mind is empty. The subconscious starts to run through the algorithms; your limbs respond, and you snare the flying oink. ODB snared the oink with only a few fingers. Strong fingers, to be sure. And great gloves, too. I never wore gloves in high school or college. I preferred the raw-dog approach. I wanted to feel the ball and I wanted the ball to feel me.
But when I got to Denver, the thin, dry air made me re-evaluate. The ball moves through the air differently at altitude, and the moisture that makes the leather tacky simply disappears. I put on gloves and it changed my life. The gloves are thin and comfortable and gave me confidence. I caught everything: balls I shouldn't have caught, balls I almost dropped. They all just stuck to my hands. It felt so right.
ODB's catch has branded him on the scrotum of football lore. The greatest catch ever! Impossible! Unbelievable! Every day, American Football Illuminati (AFI) tell us what football means and what is impossible. But there is something else scratching at the floorboards: the evolving American athlete. He is getting bigger, faster, more technical, and, if that catch was any indication, more focused.
To make a reflexive catch like the one we just saw means that the mind believes that it is possible; it has been there, has tickled those frontiers, has knocked on those doors already; and so the action is fluid and result is expected.
Recent videos of ODB's warm-up routine show him working on one-hand catches, often from difficult angles. He is pre-wiring his brain to duplicate the action in competition, if the need should arise. The week of practice is spent pre-wiring the brain to carry out each play's assignment, which—in the NFL—is the most important thing for your longevity. The more nuanced stuff, like creative catches, is up to you to learn on your own time. You can't try those during practice. NFL offensive football is a rigid operation. Coaches want to see it look a certain way during practice, and if you fuck up an otherwise perfectly executed play by doing "your own shit" then they blow an O-ring. An NFL veteran is someone who has managed to keep the O-rings intact.
But let's think about something here, for one moment. ODB, a man with the football skills we just witnessed, is not allowed to trust his football instinct UNTIL the ball is in flight. He must stick to the PLAN until the ball is let go. He cannot simply feel the coverage, get open, and send Eli Manning extrasensory signaling that Eli will interpret. This telepathy happens all of the time in football. But it must be fostered. The connections I had with my quarterbacks in high school and college were extrasensory: brain waves and head nods and leprechauns. He sees what I see. I know it, so I am free to react to it.
But in the NFL, the freedom to improvise exists only for the quarterback. And even for him, it is rare. Our finest football players, men who would make Batman blush, must adhere to the small-minded tactics of a bygone era. And the arbiters of that era, uncoincidentally, are the men who also cannot conceive of such a catch being made in the first place.
But you saw ODB's face after the play. No big deal. He's made that catch before.
Nate Jackson played six seasons in the National Football League as a wide receiver and a tight end. His writing has appeared in Deadspin, Slate, the Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. A native of San Jose, California, he now lives in Los Angeles. His book Slow Getting Up chronicles his experiences in the NFL. Follow him on Twitter, @NathanSerious.
Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images