Doug Robinson: Former Utah speedster Cal Beck finds new identity outside of football

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 12 2012 9:16 p.m. MDT

Cal Beck teaches his class about teamwork at Parkside Elementary School. Beck, once a promising University of Utah football player and hero of the Freedom Bowl and the BYU-Utah game was forced to quit football because of migraines but now teaches third grade at Parkside Elementary Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, in Murray, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As the BYU-Utah rivalry game approaches again, Cal Beck inevitably remembers what was and what might have been — the what-ifs, he calls them. It's been 18 years since his gridiron heroics placed him firmly in Ute lore, and yet he can still recall the two biggest plays of his life so vividly it's as if he were watching them on videotape.

They are bittersweet memories. With a game-saving dash against the archrival Cougars, followed by another game-saving dash a few weeks later against Arizona in the Freedom Bowl, it seemed to be the beginning for an 18-year-old freshman.

A year later he was all but done.

It is remarkable how quickly Beck was forgotten and left behind. He was a rising star for two seasons, a big-play kickoff returner on special teams and a shut-down cornerback on defense. Then the injuries and headaches began and he was gone.

For the next 10 years he searched for relief from debilitating pain while also trying to redefine himself as something other than an athlete and deciding what to do with the rest of his life. He was known as the Rocket in athletic circles, but who was he beyond that?

"It was my identity," he says. "It was like erasing me. I was No. 5. I was the Rocket."

Beck was one of the fastest prep athletes in state history. A three-time state sprint champion at Cottonwood High, he capped his prep career by winning the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the Great Southwest Classic, which matched the best athletes from the southwestern states, including Texas. In an all-comers collegiate meet in Provo following the official high school season, he ran times of 10.30 and 21-flat for 100 and 200 meters — times no Utah prep has ever approached.

Beck, undersized at 5-foot-10, was offered a football scholarship by the Utes just 10 days before the 1994 camp opened and then only because another Ute player had failed admissions requirements. His speed made him an instant contributor as a kick returner and cornerback. With the Utes trailing BYU by four points and just a few minutes left in the game, Beck returned a kickoff 67 yards to set up the game-winning touchdown.

"For a kid who grew up around the rivalry, that was a dream come true," he says.

Five weeks later, the Utes found themselves trailing Arizona 13-9 with four minutes left in the Freedom Bowl. The Wildcats chose to take a safety rather than risk a punt from their own end zone and kicked off to Beck, even though he had already had two long returns that night. This time he raced 72 yards to the 5-yard line, setting up another game-winning score.

"I had had a dream that I was standing on a stage with coach (Ron) McBride and I'm crying," he recalls. "The next thing I know I'm on the stage with Miss California, Miss Anaheim and McBride holding the MVP trophy and crying."

The following season he started all 11 games at corner and was regularly assigned to cover the opposing team's best receiver. Teams rarely even threw his way and he still managed to collect four interceptions.

"He was a very talented player, with great speed," says Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who was a defensive assistant at the time. "He was a very good cover corner. That's a hot commodity for a defensive coordinator. His best days were ahead of him, but he never got to tap his potential."

While preparing for his junior season Beck injured his hamstring. After missing the first two games, he played against SMU and pulled the balky hamstring again, forcing him to miss two more games. He saw spot duty the rest of the season. The hamstring wouldn't heal.

And then there were the headaches. His mother has told Beck that he complained of pounding headaches when he was a child, but the first one he recalls occurred during his senior year in high school. He woke up with a headache during the night and tried to walk to his parents' room for help, but collapsed in the hallway. He lay there for two hours crying in pain.

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