Beamer is a true story about football, race, manhood, and redemption. There is no better guide through such risky terrain than Tim Beamer.
Tim is not famous. He should be. Racism and scandal hobbled his career. Like thousands of other Black athletes, Tim limped away from big-time football exploited and discarded. Cut from the New York Giants with a shoulder injury, he spent thirty years killing bugs. And yet Tim is a winner, a ray-beam of hope for our time.
This is a book for the heroes unsung, for the people our fathers and forefathers used and abandoned. Where did they go? What did they do? What do we owe them, and what can we learn from them now? Beamer is more than a tribute, more than a sports book, and more than a slog through the mire of white guilt. Tim and I traveled far back in our past, confronted our demons, confessed our secrets, exposed the dark truth of an infamous scandal, and found common ground. We shared heartache, for sure, but also laughter, brotherhood, and love. This was a journey that helped make us whole.
Excerpts from Beamer
Copyright Neil Caudle, 2023
At the age when children toddle, Tim could run. He would race up the slope fifty yards to his grandmother’s house and back, faster and faster. He never wondered why. He ran because he could, for the joy.
From her kitchen, his mother watched his little brown cap bob along like a cork on a wind-rippled pond. “Don’t run so fast!” she yelled. “Don’t jump so high! Don’t slide so hard!” The more she yelled, the harder Tim ran and jumped and slid.
A proud mom
I remember Louise Beamer’s face turning back to smile at the white folks as we leaped up and cheered for her son. I wondered what it felt like to make a mom so proud. To make a town so proud. After one of his touchdowns, a white woman called to her, “Louise, what are you feeding that boy of yours?”
“Collard greens and pinto beans!” she chimed. We hooted. It was funny. And it never occurred to us white folk back then that the food on Louise Beamer’s table would actually build a stronger body than the cheesy casseroles and country-fried steak we were eating at home.
When I tell Tim that story, he smiles. His smile is different when he thinks about his mom. It doesn’t gather and bunch in his face; it relaxes the planes and eases the lines. “That sounds like her,” he says fondly. “She had a great sense of humor. But I didn’t know about that until now.”
A missing photo
…for the moment, we’re still in Galax, telling old stories from home. We climb the concrete steps of the stadium. Verl Brown stops twice to catch his breath and calm his ailing heart. When we reach the top, and he recovers his breath, Brown turns to Tim. “Before I go back to work, I need to tell you about something. If you go inside the gym, you won’t see that picture we had of you with the Buffalo Bills. They did some work in there, and when they put the case back together, the picture wasn’t in there. I told them, I said, ‘Tim Beamer’s picture needs to be back in that showcase. The man went to the pros. That’s the highest accomplishment anybody can make. And his picture needs to be back in there.’ They’re looking for it now. Somebody took it out, but it will be put back in there.” By the end of this speech, Brown is shouting, barely controlling his outrage.
Tim shrugs and says quietly, “It’s okay.”
But no, it’s not okay. Verl Brown is retiring. Who will stalk the halls like a man possessed, drumming into the heads of each new generation the facts of their history? Who will lionize the brave kids who broke the color line, faced down the bigots and bullies, and prevailed? …So now I understand his urgent, fist-clenched resolve to get the story told and the photo restored to the trophy case. We cannot afford to let those heroes fade from view.
Turned away from the dance
On our way out of town, we stop at the site of the former Galax Country Club. The swimming pool has been filled and paved over, but the clubhouse remains intact, smaller and humbler than I had remembered. We walk around the building, and Tim shows us where the caddie stand once stood. He explains the position of the first and second tees and the layout of fairways. The slopes seem impossibly steep. We could drop a Titleist and watch it roll a hundred yards.
We walk back around to the front of the clubhouse and stop near the door. The door where they turned him away.
It happened during Tim’s senior year. At the homecoming game, Joan arrived at the stadium, already dressed for the dance. She would not have had time, after the game, to go all the way home to Bethany and change clothes.
“I knew she was there at the game, so I sort of showed off,” Tim says.
Sort of. Here’s how Larry Chambers reported the game for the October 19, 1975 edition of the Galax Gazette:
Galax had a pleasant homecoming Friday night as the Tide rolled over Fort Chiswell 45-13 behind the four-touchdown performance of Tim Beamer. Beamer scored on runs of 66, 74, 12, and 48 yards in leading the Tide to their third win of the season.
After the game, Joan waited while Tim cleaned up. When he found her, she was lovely in her gown—pink or bright yellow, and he doesn’t remember which—with a crinoline cloud of full skirt that seemed to float along the ground. They drove to the country club—the same club where he’d worked as a caddie for years. They walked to the door. Tim saw his classmates and teammates milling around inside, some of them glancing his way. The guys at the entry said, “You can’t come in,” and closed the door—“Boom,” Tim says.
The memory is still so acute that his voice tightens down on the pain. “My girlfriend had to sit there, for that whole game, in her beautiful dress,” he says. “And nobody told either one of us we couldn’t get into the dance. That one hurt.” Joan didn’t cause a scene or make Tim feel worse than he did, but he knew that she was disappointed.
In Galax, Virginia, in 1965, you could score four touchdowns, thrill a crowd hoarse from the cheering, and still be forbidden to dance. I try to imagine the depth of Tim’s pain, but it’s like trying to imagine the far side of Saturn.
Chewing the tail
What was it like, leaving home for Urbana-Champaign?”
“It was amazing to me," Tim says. “First of all, I flew on a plane.” He has never outgrown the thrill of travel by air. That flight to Illinois zoomed him up and away from the world he had known until then.
“The guy who was sitting beside me in first class said, ‘Try the shrimp,’” Tim recalls. “Well, I’d never seen a shrimp before, so I ate the meat, and then I started trying to chew the tail. But he was cool. He said, ‘Don’t eat that part,’ and he showed me about the hors d’ oeuvres. And then he gave me his card and said he was an alumnus, and he said that if I had any problems or questions to call him. Here I was, the first time on an airplane, and a white man offers me help. I didn’t know what to do with that. I put the card in my pocket, and the whole time I was in Illinois, I carried it. But I never called him.”
That encounter set the tone for Tim’s year at Illinois. He went to Urbana-Champaign for the meat, but he wound up chewing the tail.
The scandal at Illinois
Sitting at Tim’s dining-room table, I pull out four sheets of paper. After waiting through ten months of stalling by the University of Illinois bureaucracy, I have finally managed to obtain, with Tim’s permission, his record—or what remains of it—from the university’s archives. His name and grades have been redacted, but details in the pages confirm that the documents refer to Tim Beamer. I hand them over. He leafs through them. His brow furrows and his jaw sets hard.
“Have you ever seen these before?” I ask.
“No,” he says through his teeth. Then, he starts at the beginning and carefully reads.
The text responds to the Big Ten Conference Commissioner’s recommendation that the student, a freshman football player, be ruled ineligible for “no more than one year” for a twenty-dollar loan received from Pete Elliott, the head football coach. …The report includes a first-person statement attributed to the student named in the heading. The statement is dated 1/16/67 but is not signed. A rambling, sometimes contradictory narrative describes how the student took a loan from Coach Elliott for a Thanksgiving trip home to Virginia with a paraplegic schoolmate and itemizes the expenditures for gas, tolls, and food. “I have received no other money, other than what my parents send me,” the statement says.
As he reads, Tim says, “‘…on the basis of a personal loan.’ That’s a lie.” He reads a little more and says, “That’s a lie.”
I ask him again, “So you’ve never seen this document?”
“Oh no, and it’s a lie,” he says. “Everything I’ve read so far. They wrote up all of this stuff, and every bit of it’s a lie. It’s a cover-up. And they’re saying what I thought and what I said, and all of that’s a lie. It’s insulting. Damn, I lost my scholarship over twenty dollars?”
… Cast aside by Illinois, Tim was damaged goods. Back home in Virginia, he wrote to the colleges that had tried to recruit him. “All of those who’d been trying to get me, they wouldn’t touch me,” he says. “They wouldn’t even answer my letters.”
In the case of Tim Beamer, the slush-fund scandal at Illinois stripped away his scholarship, set him back a year, and damaged his reputation. It also may have cost him the chance to become known as one of the truly great athletes of his generation.
Heroics at Johnson C. Smith
Eddie West tells his favorite Tim Beamer story, which involves a game at Morris Brown College in Atlanta that year. Morris Brown was known for two things, West says: an All-American defensive back named George Atkinson, who would go on to play for the Oakland Raiders and win a Super Bowl ring, and officials with a taste for home cooking.
“We were down by a touchdown late in the game,” West recalls. “The quarterback we had, Elroy Duncan, was an All-American too. So Beamer goes streaking down the sideline, and he was about thirty yards down the field when Elroy threw the ball seventy yards. And everybody from Morris Brown started cheering because there was no way in hell Beamer was going to catch that shit. But he did, and after he scored the touchdown, we heard one of the officials say to the other one, ‘Why didn’t you throw a flag?’ And the other official said, ‘I didn’t think he was going to catch that thing.’”
According to a press report that confirms West’s story, two “northern professional scouts” were watching as the pass from Duncan to Beamer went for 67 yards:
Beamer, a 9.3 sprinter and best in the CIAA century dash, outlegged a Morris Brown defender down the sideline with 1:17 left in the game and ruined Morris Brown's chances of a come-from-behind victory. (The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 11, 1970)
Tim and his teammate, O. J. Simpson
Tim’s problem with O. J. wasn’t moralistic, and it wasn’t personal. The Juice made a lousy teammate, Tim says, but “Personally, we got along fine.” So well, in fact, that O. J. and his first wife, Marguerite, trusted Tim with their kids.
“I used to babysit little Jason and the little girl, Sydney, when they were about two and four—when O. J. and Marguerite wanted to go somewhere,” Tim says. “We all lived in the same apartment complex, and I would keep his kids for a little while.”
If O. J. was his antagonist on the team and a mooch at the parties, why in the world would Tim agree to babysit the Simpsons’ kids? Tim’s self-respect doesn’t follow the usual pattern. If you dis him to the coach, watch your head. But if you show him something worthy—a wife and kids, a brilliance for running the football—he will honor the good. He will help you when you need him. And he will not assume that you’re guilty of murder, just because you’ve been accused.
A man who defies definition
Tim likes telling this kind of story, in which people turn out better than expected and contrary to type. Sometimes, I suspect that he is steering me away from the predictable, white-guilt narrative—Black guy suffers injustice but prevails. Tim doesn’t want his life defined that way, and he doesn’t want to drive another wedge into the racial divide. “I’ve been to a lot of places where people told me, ‘Don’t go over there,’” he says, “but I went over there and had a ball.”
It would be easy, in today’s political climate, to mistake that mindset for submission, but the Beamer brothers don’t submit. Like their father, who signed the petition that cost him his job, and their mother, who stood in a crowd of white faces to speak for Black children, the Beamers stand up. In his youth, Tim fought the white boys who bullied his brothers, and I do not doubt for one minute that he would fight like a windmill in a whirlwind today if someone gave him cause.
As his brother Donald puts it, “Tim was always the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back, but if you did something wrong, he would kick your butt.”
I believe it. On the one hand, Tim is a dormant volcano who sometimes vents heat; I would not want to cross him. On the other hand, he is easy to know, easy to talk to, and easy to like—a gentle, considerate man as charming and wise as Sheriff Andy Taylor. Tim still watches reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show,” even though his real-world experience has long since shrunk its characters down to size. He remembers meeting Don Knotts, the actor who played Deputy Barney Fife, in San Diego when Tim was with the Buffalo Bills. “All of us big football players were sitting out by the pool,” Tim says, “and Don Knotts came by, and he was the nicest guy. He was so tiny—he couldn’t have weighed eighty-five pounds...”
Tim can do Mayberry friendly or uptown savvy. He can dress like a native New Yorker and carry himself like a man who is wise to the street. But he’s a walking contradiction. In some of his stories, Tim is a picaresque novice whose escapades toss him in the tempests of the sixties and seventies, landing him, like Forrest Gump, among the legendary figures of that era—from O. J. to Elvis, Don Knotts to Muhammad Ali. In other stories, he’s the captain of his fate, the man who can outplay the best. He is fearlessly honest, especially about his own faults, but when he praises other people, they ascend into myth. The people he’s admired were the greatest, the smartest, the toughest, the coolest, the most awesome, and the baddest of all.
And all of these stories ring true because Tim does not pretend. True to his grandfather’s motto, he is who he is. And yet he defies definition. We have covered a lot of ground together, but I do not claim to know the man in full. To get closer, I’ll need help from the woman who knows him the best.