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The incomparable Terry Beasley gave his life for football and made it safer for today’s players

Auburn’s Terry Beasley leans back in his classic style to grab a bomb from Pat Sullivan. (Courtesy of Auburn Photographic Services)

“The frustration tormented him. I can’t imagine being told how great he did and Terry not being able to fully remember what he had done, not feeling good and not being able to do what he used to do, not being able to fully remember and enjoy what he did.”

Former Auburn receiver Dick Schmalz

 

 

 

Alabama’s Tommy Wade had just inflicted the kind of hit that all defensive backs crave. Lumberjacks get the same satisfaction when they swing an axe at a tree one time, hear it crack and watch it splinter when it crashes to the earth.

Early in the 1970 Iron Bowl, Auburn All-American receiver Terry Beasley didn’t see the lumberjack coming. He was looking back at a pass thrown by future Heisman Trophy quarterback Pat Sullivan when Wade arrived and the world as Beasley knew it went black.

“It was third and long,” Wade said. “He caught it about five yards in front of me with his chest.”

Wade aimed for Beasley’s chest but his helmet ended up striking Beasley’s single face guard, which offered little protection. The ball was ejected like a spent rifle hull.

Wade’s exuberance at the clean but devastating blow quickly vanished when Beasley, who collapsed face down on the turf, didn’t get up. A concerned Wade showed his class and sportsmanship, viewing Beasley as a fellow human being and not a despised rival.

“After a bit, I leaned over and said, ‘OK, Terry, you’ve rested long enough, let’s go,’” Wade said. “Then I realized he was out and I started yelling to their sideline for some help.”

The help Beasley got was being dragged off the field by Sullivan and tight end Robby Robinett — his eyes blank, his mouth gaping, his limp heels tracing a wobbly trail on the artificial turf — and having smelling salts waved under his nose until he regained consciousness.

“Blood was coming out of his nose and ears,” Tigers defensive end Danny Sanspree said.

Sullivan was heard to say: “I think he’s dead.”

On the sideline, when the comatose Beasley finally awakened, he looked at the Legion Field scoreboard and thought he was hallucinating; it said the Tide was leading 17-0. Beasley didn’t know which was worse — the score or the fact the impact with the turf speared his upper teeth through his upper lip. Stitches came later but the immediate remedy was to pack cotton balls and Juicy Fruit gum under his lip.

Beasley was trembling and nauseous when Auburn coach Shug Jordan walked over and said, “Hoss, we need you,” to which Beasley responded by putting on his single-bar helmet, which in those days wasn’t much better than shoving a cardboard box on your head.

Beasley was not about to refuse Jordan’s plea.

“That’s all it took,” Beasley recalled years later. “Whether I was ready to play or not, I was going to play football.”

 

It cost him his life

 

That was football in those days. Go to the training room and “a coach would look in and call you a candy ass and ask what you were doing in there,” Beasley said in his 1999 book, “God’s Receiver,” written with Rich Donnell.

“If you could walk a semi-straight line, you played,” fellow Tigers receiver Dick Schmalz said. “We didn’t have the benefit of all the knowledge the experts accumulated the last 50 years.”

Wade, who was certain Beasley would not return, was astonished when he jogged back onto the field.

“I was kind of shocked,” Wade said. “I thought he wouldn’t know what his name was, much less play. It was miraculous.”

Wade grew incredulous when, on his first touch upon returning, Beasley sprung loose on a 42-yard end-around, during which he slung Wade off his hips like a busted Hula Hoop.

“People ask me why did he go back in,” Auburn running back Terry Henley said. “Because you’re a football player and you don’t want to sit out. You play the game to win. His first play back in, we ran that inside reverse, which we never did. It gave us the momentum to come back and win that game.”

Beasley didn’t recall the details of Wade’s hit until long after his career was over.

“It was as if he was shot out of a cannon,” Beasley said. “But I don’t blame Tommy Wade for playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”

And that is Terry Beasley in summation. He, too, played it the way it was supposed to be played — he was spectacular and tough in a sport that ultimately cost him his life. But perhaps his longest-lasting legacy is making the sport safer for those who followed him.

 

Today’s players owe Beasley

 

By his own count, Beasley suffered 16 concussions in his college and brief NFL career. He described the most benign of the aftereffects as “slobbering on yourself and seeing little fireflies.” After years of tortuous headaches, seizures, nausea, sleeplessness, mood swings and depression, he died of an apparent suicide on Jan. 31 at the age of 73, Moody police said.

Beasley suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy; after a brain scan, a doctor told Beasley his brain looked like Swiss cheese. Former NFL star linebacker Junior Seau also committed suicide in 2012 due to the effects of CTE.

“It’s a shame he suffered so many licks,” Tigers defensive back Roger Mitchell said of Beasley. “We saw it at Auburn. He was knocked coo-coo by some teams.”

Henley said today’s players owe Beasley a huge debt of gratitude.

“The rule changes of today is a product of Terry Beasley,” Henley said. “You can’t hit a defenseless player, you can’t target and no hitting someone from the blind side. The equipment has changed tremendously. The guys playing today in a safer game can thank Terry Beasley for that.”

That Beasley could take the punishment he did and keep going was due in part to his upbringing, when he often took beatings from his alcoholic father.

“When my dad was beating me with his belt buckle, he’d take chunks of skin out,” Beasley said. “I tried to block out the pain. My upbringing taught me how to live with mental and physical pain.”

He began drinking himself. One of the seizures “felt like a volcano going off in my chest,” Beasley said. He suddenly couldn’t remember why he called someone on the phone or why he went to the grocery store. He took electric shock treatments. His perfectionism contributed to his depression.

When it seemed overwhelming, Beasley would say: “God, I’m ready, take me.”

 

‘Frustration tormented him’

 

His Auburn teammates found Beasley’s unraveling health and his death difficult to absorb.

“A man doesn’t know what a man will do when he gets so debilitated,” said Bill Newton, who blocked the two punts in the fourth quarter to beat Alabama 17-16 in 1972. “Terry had terrible concussions at Auburn. That little guy was as tough as a pine knot but he took some hits.”

Henley, Schmalz and defensive back Johnny Simmons each saw Beasley in recent years, even in recent weeks, and felt hollow.

“Terry had to fight a lot of demons,” Simmons said. “We went to a banquet for him when Pat (Sullivan) was alive and Pat had his oxygen bottle and Terry was in his wheelchair. It was bittersweet to see that. It was depressing to remember what they used to look like.”

Schmalz said it was agonizing to see Beasley grow unable to appreciate praise about his career because large swaths of it were erased by his injuries.

“To know his life was permanently damaged because of that was bittersweet,” Schmalz said. “The frustration was with him for quite a while. I sat with him at Pat’s funeral. He had good days and bad days but the frustration tormented him. I can’t imagine being told how great he did and Terry not being able to fully remember what he had done, not feeling good and not being able to do what he used to do, not being able to fully remember and enjoy what he did.”

Henley said he last saw Beasley about a month before his death at a luncheon in Birmingham with Auburn fans.

“He was very thin,” Henley said. “He spoke to the group and said very few words. His wife’s son told me whenever he would come to a luncheon like that, he slept for two days because he was exhausted.”

Henley preferred to remember Beasley as a premier, seemingly indestructible player.

“People who saw Terry Beasley play, they got a blessing,” he said. “They saw one of the greatest to play in Alabama and in the country. He looked like a thoroughbred getting ready for a race. You know those thoroughbreds have that swagger about them when they came out? That’s the way he walked.”

 

Beasley always came through

 

I was one of those who saw Beasley play and he is one of the reasons I wanted to be a sportswriter. Like many boys in the early 1970s, I tried without success to emulate Beasley’s famous motion in which he leaned his head straight back to catch passes from Sullivan. He explained he didn’t have to slow down to catch a ball that way.

I waited hours in a line at Joe Bullard Oldsmobile in Mobile to get Sullivan’s and Beasley’s autographs when they came to the 1972 Senior Bowl. I interviewed him once, before he became imprisoned by his brain injury.

A couple of years ago, I had a Sullivan-autographed jersey on my office wall and wanted one from Beasley to hang next to it. A mutual friend arranged it, although he cautioned most days Beasley was confined to a darkened room or bed.

But Beasley came through, as he always did in games. A few weeks later, I got it in the mail. Painstakingly written by a black Sharpie on one of the 8’s was: “To Jimmy. May God Bless You! & War Eagle. #88 Terry Beasley.”

I remember the warmth that went from my head to my toes when I took it out of the box. I am looking at his framed jersey as I write this. I have often imagined how difficult it was for him to do but he did it because it was asked of him.

“He had this attitude — ‘Pat, just throw it and I’ll get it,’” Schmalz said. “He was not going to be denied. He was such a force.”

And that is how he will be remembered, a force who could be relied on, whether it was catching a pass, making someone feel good or changing the game for the better through his sacrifice.

(Editor’s note: Beasley’s and Sullivan’s quotes in this column are from Beasley’s book and a TV interview after Shug Jordan’s death. The others came from interviews conducted by the author after Beasley’s death.)

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