CHARLOTTE - Back in 2007, Jon Beason met with several teams at the annual Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. He remembers them asking how long he thought he would play in the NFL.
As a reporter prompts him with this well-known story on Wednesday morning, Beason knows precisely where the question is going. He told the teams he thought he'd play for about eight years. They asked the linebacker, 'Why not 15?' He replied, based on the way he played, he wouldn't last that long.
"If you play the game hard and you play linebacker," Beason said, "your body will tell you when it's time."
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Beason knew only one speed, one way to play. He engaged that part of himself every time he stepped on a football field, whether for practice or one of the 93 games he played with the Panthers and Giants in his nine-year career.
"I remember (longtime Panthers kicker) John Kasay telling me, 'You've got to save some of that for Sunday.' And it was just against my nature," Beason said. "You can't play full sped for 80-something plays if you don't practice that way. So that's how I trained, that was my approach.
"I think I got cut short, but I wouldn't change it."
As the Panthers' No. 25 overall pick in the 2007 draft, Beason made an immediate impact, starting every game and making three Pro Bowls in his first four seasons. He made highlight-reel plays with his relentless drive and athleticism, coming up with interceptions, tackles for loss, passes defensed, sacks. All of that earned him what was at the time the richest contract for a middle linebacker in league history.
Beason signed that deal just as training camp was starting after the 2011 lockout. But in Week 1, he tore his Achilles in Arizona. That started a string of unfortunate injuries that eventually forced him to hang up his cleats.
That situation is an example of why the NFL Players' Association wanted a long ramp-up period for this year's training camp to prevent as many soft-tissue injuries as possible. But ironically, Beason feels like the first significant injury of his career would have occurred regardless.
"I was a paranoid preparer," he said. "I trained in a way - and my teammates would attest to this - that whether it was the middle of March that we had to report to under the old CBA, or the middle of April under the new CBA, I came in in the best possible shape."
The goal was that if he received a phone call, Beason would be ready to go the next day. So he trained that way, never missing a game, never missing practice to that point in his career.
"I went three and a half seasons without missing a snap," Beason said.
When his Achilles started to bother him while working out during the lockout, Beason switched his training routine. He used a pool instead of a grass field to relieve pressure on his joints. Once the lockout ended, he began treatment at the facility and sat out the preseason so he could be as healthy as possible for Week 1.
Ultimately, the Achilles gave out four minutes into the third quarter of that opening game.
So after starting all 64 regular-season games in his first four years, Beason played just eight over his next three seasons. His Panthers' career then ended in October 2013 with a trade to the Giants.
"There is no connection like hearing your name called being drafted by one of the 32 teams," Beason said when recalling his disappointment about being traded.
"In that moment, you have this instant love connection. There's a level of commitment ... that's finite. It's almost like your ethnicity. It's like, this is who you are. This is who you will always be. You're doing to die that way."
Beason played the final 12 games of 2013 with the Giants, which would be the last time he'd make it through a season healthy. He played four games in 2014 and five in 2015 before the leg injures he'd suffered caused him to retire.
"I think a lot of players don't have the opportunity to realize that it's not so much that you're not good enough, because guys get cut. But it's that you physically cannot do it anymore," Beason said. "And when you know that writing is finally on the wall, now you start to wonder and say, what's the new passion in your life?"
Beason considers himself fortunate because just as he was retiring, he became a father.
"It was amazing how I didn't have to go through the transition of finding a new identity," he said.
There is palpable joy in Beason's voice as he describes his 4-year-old daughter, Mya Leigh. Like most parents, he's spent a lot of time with her during the pandemic. They've been trying out different sports like basketball. He tries to make sure she's building a skill while also having fun within the activity.
"Now it's legit daddy daycare," Beason said with a laugh.
He's also kept himself close to the game through broadcasting. After starting at CBS Sports, Beason was a part of the first group of commentators with the ACC Network last fall. His role as an analyst allows him to play to his strengths, breaking things down by the Xs and Os. And it fits in with his main priority, which is raising his daughter.
Plus, covering the ACC keeps Beason close to "The U." A Miami native who's now living in Ft. Lauderdale, Beason donated $250,000 toward constructing his former school's new football performance center, where a defensive meeting room is named after him. He also has a provision in his will for a scholarship fund to be established in his daughter's name.
"Those things are important to me," Beason said. "I think being appreciative of what I was able to obtain, knowing that it is great fortune, I feel blessed in that sense, and I know that I need to pay it forward."
Beason has other passions in business - he's owned restaurants and dabbled in some real estate development. But nothing quite matches the joy he used to get from competing between the white lines.
Beason has considered coaching, but he knows he wouldn't like the time commitment or moving around the country, especially as it relates to his daughter. He said every good coach he's ever been around had an air mattress in his office. That's just not an option for him.
"It seems selfish that I was able to accomplish so much of my dreams to be like, now I'm going to go off and try to be the best coach," Beason said, noting that he likes having the flexibility to watch film at his house and still be present.
But if there's one regret Beason has about his career in Carolina, it's not bringing home a Lombardi Trophy.
"I really, truly wanted to be a champion," he said. "If there are moments where I don't sleep well at night, or when I watch any sporting event - doesn't matter what it is - the moment where the clock says all zeros, you have more points than your opponent, and you win a championship? That still hits me right at the core of my heart. I wish I could've been a champion."
As players Beason was personally connected to have left the roster, he admits he doesn't follow the team as closely as he didn't in the past. But as the Panthers begin their new era under head coach Matt Rhule, Beason hopes fans can be patient.
"Realize that it just takes time. The leaders have to emerge and become ripe, so to speak," he said. "That would be my message to Panthers fans, Panthers nation: give it time."
Some may take longer to emerge than others. But if they're anything like Beason, they'll give everything for every play they're on the field until their bodies don't let them do so any longer.
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