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.
"I was terrified," he recalls. "We all were terrified. It went away, and I thought it was a freak thing."
The pounding of football probably didn't help. Years later, during a visit to a migraine specialist, he tried to tally the number of concussions he had had during his playing career. "We lost count," he says. "I suffered one at least every year of little league and up through high school, and each time I'd have to sit out for a while. I got my bell rung plenty in college, but I never told anyone. I was trying to win a roster spot. But during class I would get headaches and I would go back to the dorm to try to nap them off."
The migraines began in earnest before his junior year, when he was dealing with the hamstring issues, but it wasn't until late that fall that they became debilitating.
In a 1997 Deseret News column, this is what I wrote about Beck's symptoms, as he described them to me at the time: "It begins as a literal pain in the neck, and when it comes Cal Beck knows that his silent enemy has announced its return. The pain rises slowly into the back of his head, begins the long march forward, settles behind his right eye. Pain so severe that light hurts. Sound hurts. The mere act of talking hurts. He's sure his brain is imploding, sure someone is driving a white hot poker into his eye. And then there's the wild, crazy nausea and the blurred vision and the dizziness. His world spinning out of control. If only the pain was caused by a rival on the football field, he would know how to fight back, but all he can do is retreat to his room, to his bed, with the curtains drawn, to darkness and silence, and hope that sleep will come for him. Sleep, blessed sleep, his only refuge. All he can do is wait. The siege is under way. Another migraine headache has begun."
The migraines struck with a vengeance during the holiday season of 1996, immediately after his junior season. Beck, unable to sleep or eat solid foods for days at a time, lost weight and began missing class. There were days he couldn't get out of bed. He visited a long line of doctors — chiropractors, allergists, psychiatrists, psychologists, migraine specialists. They tried medication, meditation, diets, relaxation therapy, acupuncture, massage, vitamins, MRIs, CAT scans, eye tests, neurological tests, a back brace (to correct his posture) and even a change of altitude and climate (he was sent to sea-level San Francisco and Seattle for a week to see if it would help).
"They had me on a narcotic for a while," he says. "I was in class one day and a teammate told me, 'Dude, you're drooling.' I couldn't even feel it. There were times I drove to school and couldn't get out of the car. I pushed myself to the limit."
He missed the '97 spring camp and dropped out of school. "My senior year was coming up, and I can't even get out of bed or go work out or go to class," he says.
The headaches lasted one to 12 hours, and recovery from each episode required four to 48 hours. "It's the most excruciating pain I've felt," Beck told me at the time. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I just want to die. I try to fall asleep. Once in a while I can do it, but it's not me falling asleep. It's my body shutting down. It's the only way I can get through it. It taxes the body so much. When it goes away, I'm so exhausted I can't move. I'm dehydrated. I shake when I get them. It's like I'm having a seizure or convulsions. It's common to go three days without eating. If I get a migraine, I wouldn't expect to eat until the next day."
He started to feel better in the summer of 1997, and enrolled in school so he could report to fall camp. But three weeks before camp opened, the headaches returned. He reported to camp anyway. Following the first morning workout, he had a migraine in the afternoon and another in the evening. McBride found Beck asleep in his darkened dorm room. "I could tell the coaches were thinking, what if he doesn't come back, and that really hurt," Beck says. "But they had to be realistic." After missing a team meeting, he managed to complete a conditioning test the next morning and then went to bed the rest of the day, with coaches repeatedly coming and going to check on him. He finally packed his bag and went to McBride's office, where he sat and cried.
"I was done," he says. "I couldn't do it anymore. My world was shattered. It was the beginning of a dark time."
He tried to continue his education, but he was often unable to attend class. That winter, Utah athletic director Chris Hill informed him that his scholarship was being pulled because he was missing class. Beck argued that he had been unable to go to class and that Ute officials were aware of this, but he knew it was futile and that Hill had made up his mind.
"Once I could no longer put people in the stands, the feeling was different," says Beck. "As I was walking out of that meeting, I saw (teammate Kevin) Dyson driving a brand new car. He was getting ready for the (NFL) draft. I thought, that should be me. I could've played pro football somewhere."
Whittingham does not dispute this. "He could've been an NFL prospect from my evaluation," says the coach. "(NFL scouts) like that great speed. He didn't have great size, but he was a very good player and very coachable."
During one good spell in 1998, Beck called a Ute coach to ask for another chance to play his senior season, but he was refused. Football was finished.
Beck was adrift without any of the old anchors in his life — no school, no job, no football — and he was living at home. He sunk into deep depression. Feeling suicidal, he checked into a hospital for five days.
"I was an athlete and had nothing to fall back on," he says. "I was lost. I hadn't finished a degree. I didn't know how to earn a living or even if I could. The hospital stay was a good experience. It widened my vision — you're not a former football player, you are a human being and you need to take care of yourself. If this chapter has to close to get healthy, so be it. I continued to see therapists and counselors. I learned who was there regardless of what you're doing and who you are and who was there because of what you're doing and who you are. There were those who truly supported Cal and those who supported the Rocket."
He describes himself as "incapacitated" by migraines for years. He was afraid to take a job for fear he wouldn't be able to meet expectations, but eventually mustered the courage to seek employment while continuing to deal with the headaches. During his playing days he discovered that he enjoyed working with youth and volunteered to do speaking engagements as a representative of the team. Through a former teammate, he got a job as a counselor at an adolescent treatment center for 18 months. A friend helped him find work as a tutor and substitute school teacher, but it was only temporary because he lacked a degree. He worked as a waiter for 2½ years at various restaurants and then as a valet parking attendant (on one awkward occasion, he parked Hill's car). Then he worked as a clerk at a pain clinic and later a urology clinic.
After years of doctors, tests and treatments, he has never been completely cured of the migraines, but in recent years the headaches have became more controllable and less frequent. "I remember telling my mom at one point, 'I feel different, more clearheaded,' " he says. "Hope turned into dreams again."
One of those dreams was to work with children again, so he returned to the University of Utah in 2004, at the age of 28. Three years later he graduated with a degree in sociology and criminology and two years later he completed a master's degree in elementary education. While still working on his master's degree, he marketed himself at various school districts. "I know you don't interview for a couple of months," he told them, "but I'm a male teacher and I want to teach first grade. I know that's rare. I'm giving you a chance to get the jump on the interview." Murray School District officials interviewed and hired him to teach at Parkside Elementary in 2008, at the age of 32. He has been there ever since, although this year he moved to third grade.
"I love it," he says.
His last severe migraine attack occurred in 2006. He was bedridden for six days and lost 20 pounds. But this time a doctor made a significant discovery — his right eye didn't dilate at the same rate as the left eye, which contributed to migraines. Computer screens, fluorescent lighting, and sunshine could bring on the attacks — and of course in football he had been exposed to the sun constantly. He began to wear sunglasses to limit light exposure, but it wasn't just light that caused the headaches. He eventually learned that the migraines are brought on by a perfect storm of events. He avoids certain foods, sleeps on a customized pillow, gets his neck "aligned," keeps himself hydrated, practices good posture and so forth.
"I don't plan my life around migraines anymore," he says. "I get about one a month, and it's usually manageable. My family knows that if they come downstairs and I'm lying down in a certain position, that I'm dealing with a headache and to leave me alone for a while. At school, I discovered there are others who have this problem. We've got each others' backs. If we need 10 minutes, we cover for each other."
He credits his wife, Deidre — whom he married in 2006 — for helping him to find relief and, ultimately, happiness. "She was the catalyst," he says "Without her … well, she didn't quit with the headaches, and that was my strength for some time, because my energy for fighting migraines was well overspent." They have two sons — Calbert V, who goes by "Flash," and Flynn, aka "FX."
Says Whittingham, "I'm proud of him. It's good to see his success. He was always a very nice, respectful young man."
Now 36, he is a nice, charismatic, articulate middle-aged man who attacks his job with the same enthusiasm he brought to football. He dresses like Abe Lincoln on President's Day; he cuts his hair and dresses like Martin Luther King on the civil rights leader's birthday, giving excerpts of his speeches to the kids; he dresses like an Indian chief on Thanksgiving and Elvis on the singer's birthday and Cat in the Hat in honor of Dr. Seuss. He also averages about three touchdown passes during recess in pickup games with the kids. As if that weren't enough time spent with children, he coaches the Murray Youth Track Club.
"It was difficult for me to move on," he says, looking back. "Now I've got my beautiful wife and sons. I love my family, love my job, I'm happy. Even though I was in the deepest, darkest times for 10 years and I would ask why me, I understand it was all worth it because I found a way to make it work. Things are not always going to turn out the way you want, but living with no regrets is better. If I had to sacrifice football to get the family and relationships I have now, so be it. I wouldn't change anything. Consider football cut."
One postscript: Following an interview with Beck, I received a text from him that read, "Thank you for the opportunity and follow up. Talking about it did me a lot of good."