TAMPA, Fla. — Optimism surrounding C.J. Beathard’s encore of a historic season bubbled throughout the summer of 2015 and well into training camp.
It reached a full boil late in August when the ‘Back Porch Revival’ transformed Kinnick Stadium into a northern version of the Grand Ole Opry. Headlined by Blake Shelton and Big & Rich, the 87-year-old football stadium played host to its first concert. Up-and-coming country star Tucker Beathard, C.J.’s younger brother, was among the many performers that day in Iowa City.
At one point Tucker Beathard asked his brother to join him on stage. Just as they did countless times growing up outside of Nashville, Tenn., the Beathard brothers belted out a song together. It capped an offseason of ultra-high football expectations and an unsustainable build-up.
Now, four months later, it all seems like a blur.
“Honestly, it feels like the blink of an eye,” Beathard said. “It feels like literally I was just getting ready for that concert and the season flies by. It always does. You work all offseason long to get ready for football season, then it feels like it goes by so fast. It goes Week 3, Week 8, three, ‘Wow, we’re going into the last home game.’ It’s crazy how fast it goes by.
“That’s why you’ve really got to try as much as you can, as tough as it is to enjoy it, and embrace each moment and just take it all in.”
In hindsight, the momentum was unsustainable. Beathard guided Iowa to 13 consecutive wins to open his career, 15 if you count just regular-season starts. He proved a difference-maker as a junior with his legs and arms in guiding the Hawkeyes to a 12-0 regular season and within 30 seconds of the Big Ten championship. Beathard became only the sixth Iowa quarterback to start a Rose Bowl and the first in 25 years.
Beathard became almost a mythical figure. But like a country-music song, his Iowa career has had its dog days. He was embroiled in a quarterback competition that took up most of the 2014 season. Beathard fought through an injured groin in 2015 to lead the Hawkeyes to their first 12-win season. In a roller-coaster 2016 season that featured numerous offensive injuries and the graduation of most of his receiving threats, Beathard’s statistics belie his impact.
Monday, Beathard closes the book on his Iowa career in the Outback Bowl against Florida. He has the highest winning percentage of any quarterback in school history with at least 20 wins. His story has multiple layers and is rich in context. He graduated, became a father and developed into one of Iowa’s most recognizable faces.
His journey was filled with adversity, yet Beathard always seemed to come out on top.
“I think he got everything and then some,” said his father, Casey Beathard. “He got a diploma, he got some hardships and he became a father out of it all, so I would say that’s a full growing up in five years. I don’t think he’d change anything about it.”
Heading to Iowa
Beathard grew up outside of Nashville as the son of renowned country music songwriter Casey Beathard and grandson of longtime NFL executive Bobby Beathard. C.J. Beathard committed to Ole Miss before his senior football season in 2011 and remained committed when coach Houston Nutt and his staff was fired. New coach Hugh Freeze agreed to honor Beathard’s commitment but sent mixed signals to the family just weeks before signing day in 2012.
“I asked Coach Freeze, can we get the elephant out of the room here, and he said sure, ‘What’s up?’ ” Casey Beathard recalled. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but we feel like the red-headed stepchild, like you just inherited a guy and I’m not sure you really want him. He goes, ‘Well, that’s pretty perceptive of you. We’re going to honor this scholarship because we like C.J. He’s a good guy, he’s a good player. We’re going to let him compete. But he’s probably not the guy I would have recruited.’
“I was like, ‘Oh, I wish you would have told us this a while ago.’ ”
At the same time, former Iowa assistant Eric Johnson was a Vanderbilt graduate and had several ties to the Nashville area. Through Beathard’s high school coach, Iowa received the quarterback’s tape. Former offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe flew to Nashville in late January 2012 to meet with Beathard. Although he remained committed to Ole Miss, Beathard and the family took an official visit to Iowa. Beathard loved everything but the cold and the distance.
Freeze originally gave Beathard his blessing to look at other schools, but he confused the family by questioning why they took a trip to Iowa. Holding offers from both schools, Beathard finally made his decision official the day before signing day.
“One morning he woke up and I’m like, ‘Buddy, signing day is like two days away. You’ve got to let somebody know something,'” Casey Beathard recalled. “He said, ‘I know what I’m going to do.’ That’s the day I saw him grow up. I said, ‘What are you going to do?’ He said, ‘I’m going to go to Iowa. I need to go to Iowa.’ I went, ‘Wow.’ Susan and I couldn’t have been more proud of his decision.”
Beathard was one of two quarterbacks recruited by Iowa that year, joining junior-college transfer Cody Sokol. The other young quarterback was Jake Rudock, who was a class of 2011 signee.
All three sat behind James Vandenberg in 2012. Rudock officially was the backup, while Beathard and Sokol redshirted. The trio would turn into a full competition for 2013 and beyond.
Competing with Jake
Rudock, a sophomore, was Iowa’s most ready quarterback to open 2013. He started every game, managed the offense, tossed 18 touchdowns and the Hawkeyes won eight games. Beathard earned the second-team nod, played in five games and passed for a touchdown in the Outback Bowl. Sokol sat the bench as a third-teamer and transferred to Louisiana Tech after the season.
“I think it was a really interesting situation,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We had three quarterbacks on campus that all proved to be really good players. Cody went down and did a great job at (Louisiana) Tech. They won nine games, I think. He was a good player. Then you’ve got C.J., who was improving, and Jake clearly was the best guy in our minds coming out of that camp or we wouldn’t have started him. But as the year went on, there’s a dynamic. Things are always moving and shaking.”
Trajectory is difficult to project when coaches judge young football players. Rudock easily had the best grasp of the offense in 2013. He was accurate, tough, smart and displayed good leadership traits. He was the perfect candidate for a Ferentz offense. Beathard was athletic and had big arm, but was a little wild. But by his third year, Beathard had closed the knowledge gap. His arm strength couldn’t be ignored along with his game feel and leadership qualities. Iowa went into 2014 with Rudock as the starter but coaches openly said Beathard would play.
Iowa expected to contend for the Big Ten West Division title, but it seemed to miss something. In a pair of hard-fought November games, the Hawkeyes lost by two points to Wisconsin and in overtime to Nebraska. Those games could have vaulted Iowa to the divisional title. But the results combined with losses to 2-10 Iowa State and a 51-14 pounding at Minnesota turned fans edgy. Coaches, parents and especially quarterbacks joined them.
Beathard loved everything at Iowa except for his playing situation. The clock was ticking on his college career. His parents almost daily sent him Bible verses, testimonials and even country-music lyrics as motivation. Casey Beathard encouraged his son before the TaxSlayer Bowl to talk with Ferentz to discuss his possibilities. Finally after much prodding, C.J. Beathard went to Ferentz.
“If you don’t feel it’s going to happen, then go ask the coach,” Casey Beathard said. “Talk to him. ‘Where am I? Is this a point where I don’t fit into these plans?’ The last thing in the world he wanted to do was leave. He didn’t want to leave. You couldn’t have talked him into going to Alabama if they said anywhere. He loved it, except for the playing time.
“He found it in him to go talk to coach. He talked to coach and he came out one day and told me I talked to Coach Ferentz today and he told me, ‘Well, we aren’t in any hurry to make a change. … But we’re at a point where we’re up for giving you a shot here.’ It just fell into place.”
Looking back, Beathard appears unfazed by the situation. Perhaps its personal maturity or lack of recency that allows him to shake off that situation.
“You’re going to face a bunch of adversity in life,” Beathard said. “But if you look back down to it, if I’m frustrated because I’m not playing, starting or this, that, there’s people who have it way worse. There’s people who are on their death bed. There’s kids out there who have cancer. So, really, I don’t have it as bad.”
BTN Matt Millen just compared CJ Beathard to Joe Montana
— MochaTruck (@MochaTruck) November 15, 2015
Ferentz rotated the quarterbacks in TaxSlayer Bowl preparation and promised both would play in the game. Rudock opened the game and struggled, completing just 2 of 8 passes for 32 yards. Beathard played for most of the final three quarters. He rushed for 82 yards, and passed for two touchdowns and 145 yards. But Tennessee ran up a 42-7 third-quarter lead and won 45-28.
Iowa’s quarterback controversy escalated. Players wanted clarity. Within six days, Ferentz provided it.
“We just felt like the fair thing to do was open the door,” Ferentz said. “You can only pick one. It’s not like other positions where you might be able to rotate guys. That was a tough call. As it turns out, history will prove this or not prove this, but we’re probably going to see that we had two NFL quarterbacks when had gone 15 years and we had one. It’s interesting with the timing of everything.
“When you’ve got two people that are really good, you can’t make everybody happy. It’s impossible. The good news is it worked out really well for everybody. Jake had great success his next year and obviously C.J. did the same thing. That was one of those situations where it turned out well for everybody.”
Ferentz elevated Beathard as the clear starter and relegated Rudock to a backup role. Rudock graduated that May and transferred without conditions to Michigan. He started every game for the Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines in 2015 and now is a backup quarterback with the NFL’s Detroit Lions.
From starter to star
Nobody commands a room or a huddle like C.J. Beathard. The party starts when Beathard walks through the door. It’s been that way since childhood and it’s only been enhanced in his years at Iowa.
He’s also a bit of a prankster.
“He’s kind of a sarcastic dude,” Iowa tight end George Kittle said. “He lays into people but it’s kind of funny. He’s really great to have around. He’s always got a smile on his face.”
“He can be very straight-faced to your face,” linebacker Bo Bower said. “Like, ‘You said what?’ You don’t know if he’s kidding or not. Then he has that big smile on his face and you almost want to hit him. He can definitely be sarcastic.”
Beathard’s also a giver. On a nice spring day in downtown Iowa City, Beathard left a restaurant with a styrofoam lunch box and walked by a homeless man. After a 15-second conversation, Beathard handed the man his lunch. He frequently visits hospital patients and reads Bible verses with children.
He never tells anyone about this, and some of it is observable only from a distance.
“He’s just a likeable guy,” Casey Beathard said. “He does have a good heart. He’s funny. He’s really caring. He’s a likely guy. He’s gets friends and fans everywhere he goes. He’s a really loyal guy.”
When Beathard became the starter in 2015, he created an aura of confidence from players to local fans. Beathard was a second-team all-Big Ten quarterback in 2015, throwing for 2,809 yards, 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions. With Iowa trailing Iowa State by a touchdown midway through the second quarter, Beathard produced four plays that announced his arrival. As he was sacked on first down, he avoided a safety by stretching the ball out of the end zone. The next play, Beathard scrambled in the end zone and ran 44 yards to midfield. Then, Beathard flicked the ball to running back Jordan Canzeri for a 19-yard gain. The drive ended with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Tevaun Smith on a ball that was high, hard and only where Smith could catch it.
Uncommon plays became routine through the 2015 season. Against Pittsburgh, Beathard scrambled for 8 yards on third-and-10, rolled over and called timeout with 2 seconds left to give his team enough time to kick a 57-yard game-winning field goal. With an injured groin muscle that later required surgery, Beathard ran for first downs against Indiana and Minnesota in vital situations. He threw three touchdowns in the cold against Purdue. He tossed an 85-yard touchdown to Smith against Michigan State that gave the Hawkeyes a 13-9 fourth-quarter lead in the Big Ten title game.
With talented players like Smith and tight end Henry Krieger Coble, Beathard elevated the team around him. He made plays and so did they.
“I don’t know how to describe it or articulate it, but guys tend to rally around him,” Ferentz said. “(Bill) Parcells always said the quarterback’s job is to move the team. For the team to win and be productive, that’s for a guy who runs it, a guy who throws it. A guy who’s productive. (Tim) Tebow comes to mind. Jump passes, running the ball. Whatever your style is, it’s about being productive and getting your team to win. C.J. has that ability. Guys just kind of gravitate toward him.”
Much of that is in the intangibles. Unlike some quarterbacks who can be arrogant or off-putting, Beathard is the opposite. He takes his teammates to Nashville to hang out in recording studios. He buys ice skates in the dead of winter and plays hockey on frozen ponds. He argues about topics ranging from WWE to politics. He’s a leader, but he’s also one of the guys.
‘He puts the team first and the biggest thing is he’s got a good head on his shoulders and comes from a great family,” said Bower, the Iowa linebacker. “He’s not selfish at all. Very humble. Can’t ask for more.”
“C.J. is a guy, he could throw four picks in a game and go out there and throw another deep ball,” Kittle said. “He doesn’t care. He’s all about the next play. He doesn’t care how he played in the last game. All he cares about is the next play. I think that’s why he’s such a successful leader.”
This year was a test in leadership. Four of Iowa’s top six receivers from 2015 graduated. The other two were injured for at least half the season. The Hawkeyes struggled to come up with productive replacements, which meant Beathard had to play more conservatively.
“C.J. was unbelievable,” Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “I was asked earlier, ‘Well, you made a comment that he might be the best that you’d ever coached.’ C.J., his numbers will not reflect the kind of year and the way he handled what he had to do. He probably doesn’t get enough credit for the job he does in the run game because he does a tremendous job in that regard also.”
Beathard threw for 1,874 yards and 17 touchdowns this year. But he threw 84 fewer passes and his rushing yards fell from 237 to minus-24. From seven different offensive line combinations to a struggling receiving corps, Beathard was more caretaker than playmaker.
“Real life can be cruel sometimes,” Ferentz said. “It can be stranger than fiction. Last year he was anything but healthy, but the guys around him were healthy and we threw the ball and had a pretty good attack. This year, he’s healthy, but unfortunately nobody around him is healthy. We’ve had the line combination. (Tevaun) Smith is in Indy. Henry Krieger Coble is in Denver. (George) Kittle had a sprained foot, it would have been better if it was busted. (Matt) VandeBerg is out for the year. You go from having four guys that were pretty good to throw the ball to, to basically none of those guys and you’ve got Riley (McCarron) trying to carry the load.
“I remember back in ’97, we had three of our (offensive line) starters get hurt,” Ferentz continued, talking about his days as the Baltimore Ravens offensive line coach. “We’re in camp. So, three guys move up and we’re filling in with the two-line. I walked up over to (head coach Ted Marchibroda) in one of our practices and I said, ‘You know, is this the worst second-team line you’ve ever seen in your career?’ He just started chuckling. He was a great guy, but he knew what I was getting at. We couldn’t do anything up front, so it was impossible to evaluate the second-team quarterback, running back or receivers because we couldn’t hold the fort at all. Nobody could do their jobs. I’m not saying it’s been that bad, but it would have been interesting to see C.J. with last year’s surrounding group. But it doesn’t work that way.”
The future is bright
C.J. Beathard originally wanted to be a musician. His father has written songs for some of country music’s top acts, including the iconic football song “Boys of Fall,” which was performed by Kenny Chesney. Beathard himself makes a slight cameo in the music video.
Beathard grew up singing and playing instruments with his younger brothers Tucker and Clay and they put together a band when he was in eighth grade. They still jam once in a while when he returns to their Nashville-area home. No cover songs, just original material.
“We were good,” he said. ” I think without a doubt if we could have kept playing and doing stuff, especially with my dad, he always said if you guys get together a five-song set with everything done, a lot of stuff we had half the song we just never finished them. If y’all finish five songs, I’ll take you to the studio. We never did just because we could never find time to. But I think without a doubt we could still be playing.”
Tucker Beathard, however, kept playing. He’s a rising country star who has toured with Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert. His song “Rock On” landed in the Country Top 10 charts this fall. His success has inspired his older brother.
“I think the worst time for him to look at it is during spring and summer,” Casey Beathard said. “Those are the times when Tucker is the busiest and so he’s always in the media these last two summers and there’s always a show to go to when C.J. is usually in a weight room or sweating or throwing up on a field trying to run, that’s when he’s going, ‘I should have been in music.’ I should have done music. I think that’s when it dawns on him. Then it goes away as soon as the season starts.”
Beathard’s demeanor aids him in football. Through his father and grandfather, he has met and famous people throughout his life. He spent time at the houses of country music stars and met NFL players in locker rooms from Atlanta to San Diego. Where some people might become intimidated, Beathard just shrugs.
“I guess you can be prepared for that in some sense when you’re younger but I feel like a lot of it you’re just born with,” he said. “I’m a calmer guy. I don’t really get rattled by too much.”
Sometimes, it’s his family that gets rattled instead, especially with what fans say in the stadium and write about him on internet message boards.
“He’s like ‘Dad, don’t read it. Don’t read it,'” Casey Beathard said. “I said, ‘OK, sorry I brought it up to you what people are saying.
“He was the one that talked Susan and me off the ledge.”
Beathard’s intangibles will serve him as he approaches professional football, as will his competitive instincts. Casey Beathard described his son as a fierce, confident competitor. He participated in the summer Peyton Manning academy and was surprised with how advanced he was when compared to others in knowledge.
He’ll participate in the Senior Bowl next later in January, and he’ll likely get drafted. Chances are, he’ll face similar adversity in the NFL as he did in college. But in the future, as in the past, he’s prepared for it.
“I know I’m going to get an opportunity at the next level at some point,” Beathard said. “I’m confident enough in my ability to know it doesn’t make my self-confidence go down when I see the passing yards are this low. They are, but I’m going to get a shot somewhere and I’ve got enough confidence in my ability that I know I’ll do fine. I’m excited for that opportunity.”