Odell Beckham

Contributed photo--Newman football coach Nelson Stewart interacts with ESPN analyst Herman Edwards, and New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who played for Stewart at Newman. Beckham is in Orlando, Florida, for the Pro Bowl and invited Stewart as part of an NFL program honoring the players' most influential coaches. 

Nelson Stewart and his wife Emily sat in the stands and watched as Odell Beckham Jr. took a lap around the field after the NFC's practice in preparation for Sunday's Pro Bowl.

Beckham Jr., the New York Giants receiver, was high-fiving every one of his fans that he could.

He signed as many autographs as he could as fans chanted his name.

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Nelson Stewart, Beckham's high school coach at Isidore Newman School, glanced over at his wife, who was recording it all to capture the moment.

"We both kind of teared up," Stewart said. "It's so surreal. This is a long way from Lupin Field."

Lupin Field, located on Newman's uptown campus, is over 600 miles away from Orlando, Florida, where Beckham is this week. But Beckham makes sure to keep his hometown and his alma mater close at all times.

It's why his high school coach is in Orlando with him and will be on the field when Beckham takes the field during the pregame introduction. Stewart and his wife traveled to Orlando this week to join Beckham. It's part of a program where players invite their most influential coaches.

"He's always been there for me since Day 1," Beckham said during a Saturday morning interview on ESPN's SportsCenter.

This is OBJ's third Pro Bowl trip in his three seasons, a no-brainer of a pick after hauling in 101 catches for 1,367 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. He caught eight of those passes against the Saints in an early game this season. That was the game he wore the Mardi Gras-themed cleats with the words "NOLA Boy" on them during pregame warm-ups. Later in the season, he wore cleats with the actual grass from Lupin Field implanted in them. For Beckham, the city and his high school alma mater are always close to him.

Stewart surprised Beckham with his high school jersey during Saturday's SportsCenter segment.

It was the No. 3 jersey from Beckham's freshman year. It's the number he wore throughout his high school career. Nobody has worn that number again, although the school hasn't officially retired it yet.

Eventually the school will.

Currently, the No. 18 (worn by Peyton, Eli and Cooper Manning) is the only Newman number that has been retired. It was retired in 2007.

It hangs on a wall overlooking the football field at Newman.

"Just to the right of the Manning jersey is an opener area," Stewart said. "It's almost prophetic that Odell's jersey will be there. It used to be that everyone thought about 18. But now there are two numbers. Next to 18, it's the most special number we have."

 

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And for Stewart, Beckham was always a special player, the best one he's coached since taking over as head coach at Newman.

"Every time he touched the football, he would just take your breath away," Stewart said.

But it was a moment when Beckham had left Newman that Stewart really got a glimspe of how special Beckham was.

Beckham was a freshman at LSU and the Tigers had just lost the national championship game to Alabama. The game was played in the Superdome, just a few miles away from Newman.

The next morning, Beckham was on Lupin Field, running.

"That was the moment for me," Stewart said. "There is something special here when you have an 18-year old kid who just lost the national championship and he's back at his old high school at 10 in the morning the next day to work."

That type of work ethic, Stewart says, is what has helped Beckham become one of the best receivers in the league. With that fame has also come plenty of criticism, especially with Beckham's often times flamboyant antics on and off the field. His on-the-field rivalry with cornerback Josh Norman has been well-documented. So was his trip to Florida early in the week of the Giants' playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.

"When you are playing at the level he is, the spotlight is always on you whether good or bad," Stewart said. "His passion and his competitiveness are his best attributes. Sometimes the way it's conveyed or the way it comes out people may take the wrong way. Obviously he is still young, and it's a process. But when you go to that locker room I can tell you how they feel about him."

His teammates voted him Most Valuable Player this season. Stewart thinks before all is said and done that Beckham will eventually become one of the NFL's all-time greats, a spot that would eventually land him in Canton, Ohio.

"It's surprising, just the magnitude of it all," Stewart said. "You don't realize it at the time that you're coaching a Michael Jordan type, which is what he is now. The magic of it to me is that he's in the spotlight, but you can sit down with him and have a regular conversation and he is so authentic and humble, which is how I've always known him. He's a real hard-working, humble kid and always remembers the people from his past that helped him get him where he is.

It's why Stewart was in Orlando this week to see the guy who was No. 13 on a list published last year as one of the most marketable athletes in the world. He was the highest ranked NFL player on the list.

But to Stewart?

"He's the same kid from Jefferson Avenue to me."

Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.