The royalty of the 1950s in New York sports, the young men from that time whom the old men who saw them still talk about, were Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
Robinson wasn't as young as Willie and The Mick were, didn't get to the big leagues until he was 27 years old because he wasn't allowed to. Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was still, by all possible accounts, a dazzling presence who changed the way the game looked, in all the best ways.
And while he was at Ebbets Field, integrating baseball and integrating the stands at the same time, as Pete Hamill once said, you had Mays at the Polo Grounds, running a mile one time to catch a ball that Vic Wertz hit. And you had the young Mantle at the old Yankee Stadium, running the way he could when he still had his legs underneath him, hitting balls a mile from both sides of the plate.
I've only seen Jackie Robinson play baseball in old black-and-white footage. By the time I fell in love with baseball as a boy, Mantle and Mays were in their 30s, and Mays was in the process of playing out his prime at Candlestick Park; my most vivid memories of him were in the '62 World Series against Mantle and the Yankees. But everything I know about them tells me how exciting they were in the '50s and how there hasn't been a New York athlete as exciting since.
Until Odell Beckham Jr.
This is what I think about him: I don't just think he's the most exciting player in the NFL right now. I think he's the most exciting New York athlete in 50 years.
It doesn't mean that it will last with Beckham. It doesn't mean there won't be times down the road when he will take a penalty or give a cheap shot and make your head want to explode, the way his has sometimes exploded during his short NFL career. There are no guarantees that he will stay healthy, or always have the kind of quarterback he has now in Jersey with Eli Manning. It doesn't mean he is going to run all the way to Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame the way he ran away from the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, when he took a pass over the middle from Manning and did what he does, which is turn it into an instant highlight film.
By the way? If you saw the game, you know. It didn't look like a scoring play until it was. Some of those Cowboys defenders were running with Beckham until they weren't. Maybe there are other players faster than he is in stopwatch speed. There were other players bigger than Wilt Chamberlain and Wilt still looked like the biggest guy in the world. When Beckham has a football in his hands -- or just one hand -- and he is running in space, he is Usain Bolt.
He was the star of this night, with one moment, even on a night when he dropped the kind of sure touchdown pass that he sure doesn't drop very often. After the game, this was his own evaluation of his performance:
Won't sleep well knowin I left some out there... take the good wit the bad . Good win fellas- Odell Beckham Jr (@OBJ_3) December 12, 2016
This from the kid who has become such a very bad man for the people asked to cover him, the kid from Eli's old high school, Newman, in New Orleans. Beckham being this good at football doesn't excuse some of his bad behavior, particularly last season when he looked to be completely out of control against Josh Norman and the Panthers, when Norman -- a loose cannon himself -- clearly figured out how to push Beckham's buttons. It doesn't change the fact that there hasn't been anyone quite like him since the '50s.
Go back across all the years. Clyde Frazier, the greatest Knick of them all, was all grace and cool. Joe Namath was something to see in that brief period when he still had his own legs underneath him, before he somehow made it to Canton despite having thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes in his career. Derek Jeter was great and so was Mariano Rivera, and Reggie Jackson, and Tom Seaver, and Don Mattingly, and Mark Messier, when he finally made it to New York. There was magic to what they accomplished, the same as there was with Lawrence Taylor, the most thrilling defensive player the NFL has ever had.
Beckham is just pure magic. He put himself on the country's radar, and his name up in lights, when he reached all the way up into the lights and pulled down a pass with one hand in another Sunday night game against the Cowboys, when he was a rookie. He already has nine touchdown plays of 60 yards or more in his career. He turned 24 a month ago. With the over-the-top behavior he has shown, with Norman and with taking his helmet off for no earthly reason and getting a little hinky with a kicking net this season, what is truly over-the-top is his talent.
There are a lot of wonderful young receivers in pro football. You start with Antonio Brown, who has put amazing numbers in the books the past few years, and whose own amazing never seems to take a day off. And there is Dez in Dallas. And Julio. And Amari. You better start paying attention to a kid from the Chiefs, Tyreek Hill, right now. He went to a place called Coffee High School. Instant, clearly.
The Steelers wouldn't trade Brown for anybody. The Giants feel the exact same way about Beckham, whose real job description is streak of light. There he was against the Cowboys, catching the ball at midfield before Bolting. Again: Take a look at the replay. See where Brandon Carr is after Beckham has the ball. See what happens to him. Beckham had another gear. Carr didn't. The only time Beckham finally stopped running was when it was time for him to moonwalk in the end zone.
Beckham has caught 79 passes for 1,109 yards with three regular season games to go, even in a Giants passing offense that has struggled at time this season, especially lately, even with Beckham in it. He has nine touchdowns in 13 games and averages 14 yards a catch and you wonder what those numbers would look like if the Giants actually had a big running game. They don't. Dak Prescott has Ezekiel Elliott. Eli doesn't. What he mostly has is No. 13.
There are a lot of reasons why, if the Giants don't fall apart down the stretch, they will be a team to be reckoned with in the NFC playoffs, and to watch. They have now handed the Cowboys the only two losses they've had this season. You know what the Giants defense did to Dak and Dez and Zeke and them on Sunday night. But in so many ways, it will come down to Beckham, in a January season when one play can make all the difference. He's that one play. That kind of player. Been a lot of them since Jackie, Willie and The Mick. Never one quite like him. OBJ as in OMG.