Editor's note: This story was first published in 2013.
MOODY – The man in the grainy black-and-white photo is comatose dead weight. His mouth is gaped, jaw relaxed in lifeless stupor. Teeth are jarred loose. Blood drains from his nose. Heels drag as two comrades tug under his shoulders. He looks like a combat casualty being removed from the battlefield. Only this isn’t war.
It’s the 1970 Iron Bowl, and the gladiator in the ring is Terry Beasley. The greatest wide receiver in Auburn history is unconscious after taking a brain-smashing hit in the middle of the field. He can’t remember the moment. The concussion erased his memory like a damaged hard drive.
“I was barely breathing,” Beasley says more than 40 years later. “Barely.”
It’s impossible to survey the scene without a churned stomach, sickened with the knowledge of this modern era. Beasley has never seen the iconic photo, which was published in The Birmingham News. Hard to blame him. No man yearns to gaze at his ruin.
The snapshot defined Beasley’s career almost as much as the blind toughness that followed. A modern player experiencing Beasley’s kind of trauma would have no choice. Their game would be over. Test after test would follow before they could return to the field. Beasley played in a different time. Once he awoke on the Legion Field sideline, revived by ammonia tablets snapped under his nose, Beasley didn’t linger on the bench. Head pounding, memory absent, he strapped his helmet and returned to the huddle. Cotton balls held together by chewed gum jammed up his nostrils, clogging the bleeding.
The same routine happened over and over again. Throughout life, Beasley says he has had at least 52 concussions, most happening on the football field. His fearlessness won lifetime affection from Auburn fans as much as his record stats and “Sullivan to Beasley” highlights.
He also paid a price. With each concussion, punishment piled up. Today, at age 63, he lives outside Birmingham. Blinds are pulled shut in his home. His den is dark. There is a pile of fan mail wishing him good health. Over the years, he’s gotten too many letters to count. Beasley says the farthest address came from Ethiopia. There are many well-wishing Auburn – and Alabama – fans. Beasley says he’s grateful for them all.
Few artifacts from his playing days hang on the walls. Daily migraines are the only reminder he needs. Beasley has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the same disease former NFL linebacker Junior Seau and many other pro football players suffered. Doctors told him his brain looks like Swiss cheese. Each concussion punctured a hole.
The damage shut down the pituitary gland in his frontal lobe, preventing his adrenal glands from producing cortisone. As a result, Beasley is riddled by blood clots.
Most days, Beasley has a seizure. Most weeks, he visits the emergency room. This is his reality. The player became a legend. He retired to live in perpetual pain.
Always, the question is at the center of his existence. Was Beasley’s beating worth it?
There wasn’t a defender within 15 yards. His quarterback could’ve “shot put” the pass, Beasley says, and he would’ve scored. Instead, the football sailed over his head. Beasley jumped. His legs were undercut by a Tennessee safety, who recovered to make the play. He landed helmet first. Knocked out cold, Beasley wouldn’t remember the next two quarters. He played them anyway.
The scene was immortalized in Sports Illustrated. It was the second game of the 1971 season, a brutal showdown in Knoxville. Auburn would win 10-9. On this day, defense was the star.
Tennessee All-American safety Bobby Majors wasted no time taking his shot. On the game’s seventh play, Majors hit Beasley midair. Beasley flipped and crashed onto his head, the kind of spectacular train wreck you see in movies.
"I knew he was hurt," Majors would tell Sports Illustrated. "When he got up his eyes were glazed. And he hung around our defensive huddle for a moment before wandering over to his own side."
Beasley remembered being hit. He remembered waking up in the locker room at halftime, after sleepwalking through a couple offensive series. In between, everything was empty.
That was always Beasley’s way. The receiver former Georgia coach Vince Dooley once famously labeled “Boy Wonder” – the Robin to quarterback Pat Sullivan’s Batman, Dooley would say – was ahead of his time. Beasley still holds nine Auburn receiving records, including most career yards (2,507) and touchdowns (30). No one has matched his 12 touchdown catches in 1970, except himself. Beasley followed that season with 12 more touchdown catches in 1971.
Beasley was larger than life with a poster-boy smile and wavy, red comb over made for the South. He remains the only Auburn receiver to become a two-time All-American. He was co-SEC MVP with Sullivan during the quarterback’s 1971 Heisman Trophy season. In 2002, Beasley was inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame.
Dick Schmalz, a former Auburn receiver, is often asked if he played with anyone who could compete in this modern era. Players are bigger now, faster and stronger, generally regarded as better than their counterparts from 40 years ago. To Schmalz, Sullivan and Beasley remain the only teammates who were timeless.
“Just having Pat and Terry on the field, the defense had to be so, so aware of that, that it helped the rest of us on offense,” Schmalz says. “We sort of had an advantage. It’s hard to double cover two receivers. Most of the time, Terry was being double covered – and for good reason.”
Beasley didn’t have the biggest hands, but they may have been the strongest. Even now, former teammate and Auburn receiver Terry Henley – nicknamed the Oxford Flash – begs mercy when he shakes his friend’s hand.
That superhuman trait carried over to everything Beasley did.
“He was the only man I ever saw that could stand flat-footed and jump over a Volkswagen,” says Henley, who had 11 touchdown catches in 1972.
Beasley used his athleticism to hurt the defense where it was most vulnerable, constantly running routes across the middle of the field. Today, he would be a slot receiver, fitting the same mold as Wes Welker and Percy Harvin. Across the middle, Beasley knew his body would suffer every game. “That’s where they gut you,” he says now. “You better have your head on a swivel, literally. Because somebody will knock it off.” The week before his concussion at Tennessee – in Auburn’s 1971 opener – Beasley was hit so hard against Chattanooga he cracked a tooth in half. He didn’t repair it until after the season, fearing pain killers would slow him down.
Always, Beasley thought the punishments were worth it. Here was the place he made his reputation. Lost between linebackers and safeties, the man who “felt faster than Superman” could roam free and break away. To Beasley, the courage to run routes amongst the defense’s biggest and fiercest defenders was what made a complete receiver. Don’t go across the middle, Beasley thought, and don’t make the team. “You don’t make nothing,” he says. It’s pure dirty work, and the most inglorious of jobs was left to him.
“We didn’t have nobody else to go over the middle,” Beasley says. “They wanted to live a little bit longer.”
For all the concussive hits, Beasley never anticipated lasting health problems. He just shook off the pain, cleared the cobwebs. “I just thought you keep going, bite your tongue and go harder,” Beasley says. “Hit him harder. Don’t let them hit you. You give him the blow.” Which is how he found his way back onto the field in Knoxville.
Sullivan to Beasley helped ignite a second-half comeback. His 30-yard catch put Auburn at its 5-yard line, setting up the winning touchdown. Sports Illustrated’s postgame report read like a heroic tale, full of valor and courage and impossible resolve. “Damn that Beasley,” one Tennessee defender muttered at the end. “Why did he have to come to?” Now, it’s a horror story with a title that offers an ironic twist:
“He’s Down. He’s Out. He’s Back. He Wins!”
Arms outstretched, Beasley dove for a pass. He had almost landed when a Clemson safety hit him full-speed, head on. The collision broke Beasley’s nose. Two teeth were knocked out, stuck in his mouthpiece. Beasley says he unintentionally swallowed them. He also made the catch.
Beasley says he never wanted to play football after college. His preferred path was on the track. When Beasley ran, Henley says it was like “there were wings on his feet.” Schmalz says Beasley’s talent was “way, way ahead of his time.” Beasley ran a 4.2-second, 40-yard dash when stopwatches rarely clicked that fast.
Eventually, he thought his speed could take him to the Olympics. To Beasley, this was more than a dream. It was the smarter option. By his junior year of college, Beasley felt concussive affects. Sometimes, he’d struggle to read his own handwriting. Often, he’d forget his teacher’s lectures soon after class.
Beasley wanted to stay at Auburn to coach receivers for the junior varsity team while he trained on the track. He pitched the idea to coach Shug Jordan. “All these kids coming in, they don’t know how to be a receiver,” Beasley told Jordan. “They don’t know what to do.” Jordan wouldn’t have it. No way Beasley wouldn’t squeeze every drop of his football talent, the grizzly, old coach told him.
The San Francisco 49ers drafted Beasley in the first round of the 1972 NFL Draft, the 19th overall pick. He received a $30,000 signing bonus, he says, and his rookie contract paid him a $42,000 salary. It was good money for the time, but hardly enough to last – and far from the multimillion-dollar contracts modern players sign.
“I got cheated again,” Beasley says.
Beasley hated San Francisco, which he calls “Sin City.” It defined the Wild West in the early 1970s. To a boy from Alabama, the Golden Gate Bridge was a portal to a different world. Beasley was uncomfortable from the beginning.
“I couldn’t go to a theater and watch a clean movie, a funny movie or an old Western,” Beasley says. He was disgusted with the rampant pornography. “They are Sodom and Gomorrah, for sure.”
On the football field, things were better. Beasley wasn’t as close to his San Francisco teammates as he’d been to those in Auburn, but he says the team had good camaraderie. He teamed with another famous quarterback, catching passes from current South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. Beasley had one catch as a rookie. He started to turn into the player everyone expected with three touchdowns in 1973.
Always the complete receiver, Beasley was more than a pass-catcher. Perhaps his favorite moment came when the 49ers traveled to Chicago during his rookie season. Lined up in the slot, Beasley got the assignment nobody wanted – blocking Bears linebacker Dick Butkus. On the first snap, San Francisco gained more than 20 yards on a power sweep.
“I got in his way really well,” Beasley laughs.
The 49ers stuck with what worked, running a power sweep to the opposite side on their next play. Beasley wasn’t sure it was a good idea. “You don’t mess around with an All-Pro and make him look silly two times,” he says. “It never happens.” He was right. At the snap, Butkus came at him – and he was swinging.
“I ducked under him,” Beasley says. “He almost went to the ground. … He was trying to hit me in the helmet. I kept moving around him. I almost sparred with him – I was throwing a jab or two myself, popping him.”
Battered before he ever made the pros, Beasley couldn’t withstand those encounters. His health problems were more than concussions. Beasley would have a knee replacement, shoulder injuries, a broken arm, dislocated fingers and more surgeries than he could count. His NFL career was over after three seasons. Beasley had 38 catches for 570 yards and three touchdowns.
When his career ended early, Beasley was at peace. He sold a landscaping business he started in college, then made a good career as a salesman. There were no regrets. He didn’t know what waited.
The rain was pouring in Baton Rouge. These were horrible conditions for passing the football. Beasley would still end up with several catches in a 21-20 loss at LSU. This play wasn’t one. As Beasley remembers, a soaked football slipped out of Sullivan’s hands. Here came safety Tommy Casanova, the only three-time All-American in LSU history. Beasley never saw Casanova coming. Lights out.
Marlene Beasley met her future husband at his low point. She was a psychiatric nurse. The first time she saw Beasley, he was lying in a hospital bed.
Marlene knew the rule against dating patients. She wasn’t supposed to fall in love with someone who depended on her for treatment. They started dating anyway.
“I knew who he was, so of course I talked to him,” Marlene says. “We just clicked right away.”
Maybe it was fate.
Marlene entered Beasley’s life in 1992, at the start of a hellacious four-year period. Pain forced Beasley awake at night. He could never find a deep sleep. After weeks of fatigue, he had a nervous breakdown. Beasley was misdiagnosed as clinically depressed. Doctors wrongly said he had schizophrenia. The right answer was hard to find.
“I was a psychiatric nurse,” Marlene says, “and I’ll be the first to tell you, if you walk into a psychiatric hospital, you’ll walk out with a psychiatric diagnosis whether you have one or not.”
Starting in 1992, Beasley underwent two rounds of electroconvulsive therapy, each consisting of 18 treatments. They strapped tubes to his head and sent shockwaves through the holes in his brain. The pain was unbearable. Beasley believes it did more harm than good. After each treatment, it took days to recover. When his doctors wanted to start a third round, he and Marlene sought a second opinion. They quickly learned what they know now – severe pain and post-traumatic stress disorder was keeping him awake.
In 1996, Beasley was handed another false alarm. Doctors believed his head pain resulted from a brain tumor. Fearing the worst, Marlene didn’t want her man to go through the ordeal alone. The couple married on the 50-yard line in Jordan-Hare Stadium, a February wedding in the snow. They say it was a rushed decision, but having Marlene as a companion was the best thing that ever happened to Beasley.
“It felt like I still hadn’t left,” he says. “Like I still had a part in the world.”
Late in the 1970 Iron Bowl, the cobwebs cleared. Beasley looked up at the lights and was surprised. He didn’t remember the sunset, or nightfall. Auburn beat Alabama that year, 33-28. Sullivan’s performance would become folklore. Schmalz says Beasley’s refusal to stay away from the field inspired Auburn. With his next breath, Schmalz admits Beasley would’ve been better off on the sideline.
When Seau committed suicide in May 2012, his family donated his brain to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. The Beasleys remain thankful.
Until recently, chronic traumatic encephalopathy was mostly associated with boxers. The Boston University study consistently found CTE in retired football players with a history of repetitive brain trauma, the kind Beasley experienced.
“This trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau,” the Boston University study found. “These changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement.”
Tau protein leads to dementia. Beasley knows the affects only get worse with time. Memory lapses became more severe. He says Marlene has taught him how to read and write and add numbers. Now, living in his home outside Birmingham, days and nights are often mixed up. He gets lost easily. When he has seizures, he slobbers uncontrollably. “Like a baby,” Beasley says.
It’s not the life Beasley expected when he left Auburn. But this is his reality. The player became a legend. He retired to live in perpetual pain. Beasley hasn’t lost the toughness he showed as a player. He is determined to make the most of life. In his backyard, Beasley grows fruit trees. The harvest will be ready next spring. He has a workplace inside his shed, a place to be alone in his thoughts.
That doesn’t change the question at the center of his journey. Was the path to becoming Auburn’s greatest receiver worth the destination? Beasley pauses a long, eight seconds.
“It had to be,” he says quietly. “It had to be. I put too much time and effort into being the best that I can be.”
Ryan Wood was the Auburn sports beat writer in 2013.