BY JOHN ROHDE
Sept. 7, 2017
A pint-sized Emmanuel Beal thought boxing might be his destiny while growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Beal was determined, energetic, tough and athletic, but he also was on the small side. Boxing was the best opportunity to hit somebody his own size, plus Beal could reap the tutelage of his uncle and older cousin, who both competed in Golden Gloves.
Beal recalled he had to cut his workout short in the gym because he had a football scrimmage that same day. A fifth-grader at the time, Beal knew he had to choose between boxing and football. The fact Beal, OU’s starting weakside linebacker, returned as the Sooners’ leading tackler from last season proves he chose wisely.
There have been a lifetime of decisions for Beal since his retirement from the sweet science, however.
In the middle of seventh grade, though none of Beal’s siblings wanted to do so, his family moved from Michigan to Ohio. “That’s a point where you start building relationships with friends and people, then you just up and move,” Beal said. “None of my brothers and sisters wanted to leave, but it literally was for our best interests.”
Beal’s first year of varsity football was his sophomore season in high school. “Physically, my coaches saw something there,” Beal said. “I guess I was good. Looking back, I guess I could say I was all right at it. I guess it was my way of seeing the ball. I just see the ball and go get it.”
Beal’s performance in the classroom was not all right, however. Michigan State ended its recruitment of Beal when they looked at his grades. Torn what to do next, Beal decided to leave football and wound up working at a gas station and in a factory. “I spent a year outside of football,” Beal said. “Then I was like, ‘I don’t like working.’”
Beal looked for a junior college located close to home. With no NJCAA programs in Ohio, Beal said his closest option was Lackawanna College, located 475 miles away in Scranton, Pa. “When I got accepted (as a student), I was there the next day as a walk-on (for football),” Beal said. “I just felt if you really want something, nobody can stop you from getting to where you need to go.”
Beal didn’t physically work out during his one-year retirement, but his love of football never waned. “I thought about football every day,” Beal said. “I literally watched every game of college football and I was like, ‘Man, I can do that.’ It just drove me even more to get back into football.”
Though he weighed shy of 200 pounds, Beal played defensive end his first season at Lackawanna and switched to outside linebacker the following year. Beal said the move “wasn’t that tough a change,” the primary difference being whether he took his stance with a hand in the dirt.
Beal’s first major-college scholarship offer out of junior college came from Akron in Ohio. His first offer from a Power Five conference came from OU, although Beal admitted he was naïve about the Sooners. “I just knew they were good at football. That’s all I knew,” Beal said. “And when you’re in juco, whatever school you think you could play at – or whatever school that offers you – you just take it.”
Thing is, OU initially didn’t have Beal in mind when studying players from Lackawanna. Sooners offensive lineman Ashton Julious and running back Marcelias Sutton also played for the Falcons.
“We were actually looking at some other players on his team when he showed up on film,” OU inside linebacker coach Tim Kish said of Beal. “Very athletic, great speed off the edge. He was really more of an outside linebacker than he was a true inside linebacker. (We) couldn’t pass up that athleticism. On film, he showed us great instincts for playing on the defensive side of the ball. It was a no-brainer to us at that time to get involved with him, and thank goodness we did.”
Beal played in all 13 games last season and started the final 10 after replacing injured Tay Evans. Beal finished with 81 total tackles, second only to fellow linebacker Jordan Evans, who is now with the NFL Cincinnati Bengals.
Just like in his youth, Beal remains determined, energetic, tough and athletic. He also remains on the small side for the position he plays. Listed at 6-foot, 218 pounds, he has gained roughly 15 pounds since arriving at OU.
“I’ve been hearing that my whole life,” Beal said of being undersized. “It’s like, ‘OK, so what’s new?’ I’m accustomed to playing against bigger people. It really wasn’t a problem to me. It was something I was used to. It just goes in one ear and out the other, honestly … I don’t care what people say. At the end of the day it’s football. Size really doesn’t matter in football. If you worry about size, then you’ve already lost.”
Sooners All-American offensive tackle Orlando Brown, who goes 6-foot-8, 345 pounds, often collides with Beal in practice and there’s much respect on both sides. “The impact he made was immediate,” Brown said of Beal. “I think our coaches trust him a lot. The energy level and emotion that he plays with gets everybody going around him from a defensive standpoint or even an offensive standpoint. He’s really physical. He’s a lot stronger than he looks. He has a really good understanding for the game, too. He’s really quick, he’s really fast, which I think is really important. If you’re going to be an undersized guy, you’re going to have to be overly fast. As far as I know, he’s pretty much in the top tier in speed and athleticism for his position.”
Beal said playing smart is his equalizer. He might have struggled in the classroom earlier in life, but being a student of football hasn’t been a problem. “I became smarter than what most people think,” Beal said. “When you are undersized, you’ve got to be smarter than a lot of other people. You’ve got to study two times harder than other people. You have to know where you have to be when the ball is snapped. I think that’s what got me here. I studied a lot. When I look back, it’s just amazing to me how everything has happened.”
Kish has become close to Beal and respects the path he took before coming to Norman. “It’s to his credit to have that character and that drive and that willpower to want to do something really positive with his life and for his family,” Kish said of Beal. “He chose to go back to school, which we’re certainly glad he did.”
How has Beal endured? “To me, it’s pretty simple,” Kish said. “It’s his drive. It’s his motivation. He’s been a team guy since he’s been here. He’s not real talkative at times, but when he does speak, people listen. When he first got here, the enthusiasm when he went out there had was second to none. He might as well have been a freshman coming in. He just tried to fit in and be a part of the team and help out any way he could. His drive was there. His motivation was there. It is an amazing journey.”
Although this is Beal’s second and final season with the Sooners, he quickly became close to his new teammates. These benefits have been evident all week as the No. 5-ranked Sooners prepare for their showdown against No. 2-ranked Ohio State at 6:30 p.m. Saturday back in Beal’s hometown of Columbus.
“Because he’s going home, we’re all going to play that much harder because that’s my brother and I want him to get a win in Columbus,” senior defensive end/linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said.
In addition to Beal, junior offensive lineman Alex Dalton, freshman long snapper Kasey Kelleher, defensive coordinator/outside linebackers coach Mike Stoops and Kish all hail from the Buckeye State. “I tell you, from our leaders to our scout team, everyone is dialed in on this game,” Beal said. “Not only are they doing it for me, they’re doing it for themselves, their families, the good of the program, the coaches and the staff.”
“We always talk about those type of things,” OU senior strong safety Steven Parker said of teammates returning to their home areas. “We chat about it throughout the week, but there’s going to be a lot more chatter this week because of all those guys going back to Ohio.”
Interestingly, Beal never cared about the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry while growing up in Grand Rapids. All that changed when he relocated to Columbus, but it was never Beal’s dream to play for the Buckeyes. His family’s allegiance instead was for their old home state, not their new one.
“I wouldn’t say ‘hate,’ but that’s when the dislike really came (toward Ohio State). That’s literally what happened,” Beal said with a chuckle. “An Ohio State fan will argue with you all day long.”