It's 2026. Odell Beckham Jr., America's most famous athlete, takes the field at MetLife Stadium. He high fives fans in blue, white, and red jerseys. He stretches. And then ... Beckham Jr. meets an opponent at midfield to kick off the North American World Cup. It's his final hurrah as America's greatest-ever soccer player.
Does this sound like a parallel universe where fútbol is football? Not to Colin Rocke, the former professional indoor player who coached a 12-year-old Beckham Jr. at the Carrollton Association Soccer in New Orleans.
Rocke noticed Beckham Jr.'s unique stutter step on the soccer pitch, not the gridiron. He saw how quick he was in space; how competitive he was on the field and how much he hated to lose.
Put it all together, Rocke thought, and you get a near-perfect youth soccer prospect.
"Odell could be on the U.S. national team," said Rocke. "When I watch Odell play (American) football, he changes routes and he changes speeds. His first couple steps are so quick out of his break that you're almost five steps behind him when it happens.
"If he stuck with the game, he'd be an elite soccer player."
So, what drew such a talent away from the world's game and toward America's game? What made the star Giants receiver such an awe-inspiring soccer prospect? As the 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off and United States men's national team is stuck home watching it, we asked Rocke to guide us through Odell Beckham's soccer career that never came to fruition.
As told to Nick Toney
(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)
Colin Rocke: I was a player before I coached. I was drafted by the Dallas Sidekicks professional indoor team; at that time, indoor soccer was bigger than the MLS. It paid more, too. I played overseas in Germany and that's when I was hurt in exhibition. I tore my ACL, so when I returned, they sent me to our farm team -- the New Orleans Storm. That's when I encountered Odell.
A fellow coach came up to me one day and told me 'you've got to see this kid.' I asked who he was. Was he a technical player? I was always a technical player. He said 'You just have to see him.' So I went to check out one of his youth practices and he stood out from the beginning. He was intense. Quiet, but intense.
So, I saw him in a weekend game and I saw him use the little stutter step. Juke one way and just push the ball the other way. If the opposing team didn't double him or foul him, he's going by you. He didn't have a whole bunch of soccer moves, but he was very elusive.
When you started working with him as a coach, what would you work on?
Mostly skill drills. One-vs.-one. How to keep possession and use that agility to run between defenders. We did so many different things -- a lot of the things we trained showcased the agility. I wanted more technique from him, his athleticism was the natural part.
American football fans know him as a talent who gets a little animated out there on the field. Was soccer-playing Odell the same way?
[Laughs.] He was exactly the same kid. Exactly the same. He was not cool about not winning. He was always upset about not winning. Even when he was younger and he lost, I'd pull him aside -- say 'Hey, it's alright man.' He'd go 'Coach, don't even try to talk to me right now. These fools have been fouling me.' He'd have none of it. You'd have to understand and agree with him.
And you know what? If every kid competed like that, a team of those kids would win every game. To be honest with you, if you look at the players who make it and get there [to the pro level], the reason they do is that exact attitude. They refuse to fail. If I took Odell in the back of a pool hall to play pool and he lost, he'd be pissed. That spark and intensity is the same. That's not something you teach. I was similar as a player.
Other than that speed and elusiveness, what set Odell Beckham Jr. apart from other youth soccer players?
He had some real natural coordination. All the best athletes are really soccer players. And his family! His mom's a star track athlete, his dad's a former football star. He was disciplined about getting better, I still talk to his mom a lot and he always worked hard. He had a professional attitude about training that most kids don't have.
If Odell was so good at soccer, why'd he move away from it?
It's a different mentality. Kids who play soccer are different; soccer is a grind. Football is more stop-and-go, quick intensity. And here, top athletes get identified early. Athletes get pulled into basketball schools or football schools -- very few top high schools for athletes are known as soccer schools. I was shocked when he told us he'd do football full-time. I saw that [greatness] in him.
He ended up as a great football player -- just not the kind you coach. Can you see soccer skills on display when Odell's out there making one-handed catches?
[It's similar to American football]. You watch NFL defenders change direction and their acceleration off the mark isn't close to his. He looks like he's quicker. He's coming right at you and then changing direction and separating. He can catch, but his change of direction is different.
So fill in the blank. If Odell stuck with soccer, he'd be ...
This kid could've been a really, really good soccer player. He has all the highest-level athleticism. On the national team, probably. Odell could be on the U.S. national team. He would be playing overseas in one of the European leagues. He wouldn't settle for a professional league or stage that wasn't the best. That's his mentality as a soccer player, and it's his mentality as a football player.