Nate Burleson envisions OBJ boosting Browns with Jarvis Landry sidelined: 'It is something out of a movie'
When Browns star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. talks about the importance of inspiring kids who might feel like giving up, it's not just lip service.
New co-host of “CBS Mornings” and former NFL receiver Nate Burleson and his sons, Nathaniel II, 17, and Nehemiah, 15, know Beckham is sincere when the three-time Pro Bowl selection says he believes his series of comebacks could influence youngsters to chase their football dreams despite adversity they may encounter.
A few years ago, Burleson told Beckham that Nehemiah had suffered a fractured ankle. Beckham immediately asked Burleson to FaceTime with both of his sons. During the conversation, Beckham showed them a scar he has from ankle surgery and told Nehemiah he would also work his way back to the football field.
“My son was on the other line cheesing from ear to ear,” Burleson said Thursday night during a phone interview with the Beacon Journal.
Beckham fought back from the fractured left ankle he suffered in 2017 as a member of the New York Giants and a hernia that bothered him throughout his first season with the Browns in 2019.
On Thursday, Beckham described the surgeries on those injuries and the one he underwent Nov. 10 on the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered Oct. 25 in his left knee as “devastating,” but he said retiring without achieving his career goals would send the wrong message to those who look up to him, so he didn't really consider it this time around.
Beckham's most recent comeback is on the verge of being completed.
After Friday's practice, coach Kevin Stefanski said Beckham will play when the Browns (1-1) host the Chicago Bears (1-1) on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium. Beckham fully participated in practices throughout the week for the first time since the torn ACL occurred.
Beckham said he wanted to face the Kansas City Chiefs in the Sept. 12 season opener, “but it just didn’t happen that day.” Stefanski said Beckham didn't feel like he was ready for a significant workload after warming up before the game at Arrowhead Stadium, so he was made inactive for the 33-29 loss and again a week later for a 31-21 win over the visiting Houston Texans.
Now Beckham will likely give the Browns a boost, even with what's expected to be less than a full workload. The offense could use a lift because Beckham's close friend and five-time Pro Bowl receiver Jarvis Landry will miss at least three games on injured reserve with the sprained medial collateral ligament he suffered against the Texans.
“It is something out of a movie,” said Burleson, an Emmy Award-winning studio analyst for CBS' “The NFL Today.” “They kind of have that connection, right? They're always on the same page. It seems like when they're hanging out off the field, it's almost like you're looking at two brothers hanging out, not two friends hanging out. But it is perfect timing.
“There's nothing like confidence from another guy you respect, and I believe that's what you're going to see with Odell back on the field, getting busy, doing his thing, and Jarvis is going to be his biggest champion. If Jarvis is on that sideline, just watch how animated he is and how much confidence he instills in Odell.”
As Burleson spoke about former Louisiana State University teammates Beckham and Landry, he recalled how he felt when his good friend Deion Branch suffered a torn ACL when they were together in the Seattle Seahawks' receiving corps.
“It was almost like a responsibility I felt like I had to hold it down for my brother, and I embraced it,” Burleson said. “I really did, and a lot of my confidence came from him.”
Burleson can relate to Beckham in more than one way. It's not just because they became friends years ago through Beckham's mother, Heather Van Norman, who had gotten to know Burleson after reaching out to compliment him for the way he comported himself as an NFL Network analyst.
Long before Burleson spent training camp with the Browns at the end of his playing career in 2014, he suffered a torn ACL in 2008 with the Seattle Seahawks.
Burleson said he had heard about “the mental hurdle” players need to clear while returning from a torn ACL, but he didn't understand it until he experienced his own comeback.
“It's not the jumping 'cause in football jumping is reactionary,” Burleson said. “Ball's up in the air. I load up. I go up and grab the rock. So the movements that you make when you're not thinking about it doesn't bother you, but it's the movements that you're planning out and you're telling your body to do. So when Odell's coming off the line of scrimmage and he's planting his leg in one direction in order for the [defensive back] to bite, he's thinking about that move.
“I'm thinking about that move when I'm coming back from my injury. I'm thinking about it, and in my mind I'm thinking, 'All right, if I slam this foot into the ground and I load up on my knee, is it going to hold up as well as it did before? Am I going to explode out of that plant when I'm running a route and I know I've got to get out of this break?'
“I'm thinking about it seven steps away. I'm hauling ass. I can hear myself breathing, the pitter-patter of my cleats on the grass. I've got this guy next to me pushing and shoving. I'm thinking I've got to get out of this break, and I've got to put this foot in the ground and I better come out of it fast 'cause this DB's all over me and the quarterback is expecting me to come out with this rock. Those are the moments when you think about it.”
Beckham has looked great in practices since mandatory minicamp in mid-June, but Burleson said “it takes a game” for a high-level receiver to truly know how he'll rebound from a torn ACL.
“As much as I would think practice helped me, it was the game where I finally felt like I'm good to go,” Burleson said. “Because you may get pushed, shoved, maybe even hit in practice, but there's nothing like a tackle where you get up, you look at your body, you dust yourself, you walk back to the huddle and you're whispering to yourself, 'I'm good. I got this.'”
Beckham had surgery about 10½ months ago. He said the plan early in the rehab process was to play again at the 11-month mark, but he began progressing “faster and faster.” Asked if he's ahead of schedule, Beckham said, “I guess you could say that.”
Every injury, surgery and recovery is different, but Burleson said he started running six months after surgery, sprinting at about seven and a half months and cutting at eight or nine months. Burleson said a tweaked hamstring interfered at one point, and it took him “a solid calendar year” before he felt confident.
The good news for Burleson, 40, was he eventually realized his surgically repaired left knee felt “so much stronger” than his right knee. That surprised him, particularly because he had suffered other torn ligaments in his left knee earlier in his career. Coming off the torn ACL, Burleson had one of his most productive seasons in 2009, when he caught 63 passes for 812 yards and three touchdowns in 13 games.
“I did so much rehab on [my left] leg, and it was strong,” Burleson said. “I was leading with it when guys were trying to tackle me. I was jumping off of it. I was cutting off of it. Once I got out on the field and I made a guy miss, I ran over a dude, I stiff-armed one guy and they were all off planting on my surgically repaired leg, at that point, I never thought about it again.”
Beckham said he hasn't been thinking about his surgically repaired knee lately, but he has been focused on staying mentally and spiritually strong. He said he has worked hard “to not only get back, but improve and to try and be better than I ever have been.”
Burleson can envision it, even with Beckham turning 29 on Nov. 5. When Burleson and Beckham were texting back and forth this past offseason, Beckham sent him a workout video he had yet to release on social media.
“I remember texting him back, saying your body looks stronger than I've ever seen it,” Burleson said. “He was like, 'Yeah, that's the plan.' So at that point, I remember going to work [at NFL Network] saying [on the air], 'Yo, I spoke to Odell, and he's going to light the league up.'
“There's the argument on the flip side that we've seen the Browns successful without Odell. I'm on the other end. I argue, OK, if that is the case, just imagine if Odell recaptures the magic and he gets back into the fold in the way that he was right before he went down.”
Three weeks before Beckham's ACL shredded against the Cincinnati Bengals, he had his best game with the Browns, scoring three touchdowns in a 49-38 road win over the Dallas Cowboys. That's the magic Burleson hopes Beckham can discover again.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.
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