This marks the 30th anniversary of USA TODAY recognizing the nation's top high school athletes. As we prepare to unveil the 2012 American Family Insurance ALL-USA Football Team at the end of the season, we'll dig into the archives and check in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades.
Brendan Beal ran out onto the field prior to Minnesota’s opening game this season at UNLV, wiping tears away, thinking about how long he had waited to play college football.
Most of the players on the 2007 American Family Insurance ALL-USA high school football team are in the NFL or looking at post-college careers. After two knee surgeries, a neck injury and a transfer, Beal, 22, is a redshirt junior linebacker in his first season with the Gophers.
“I definitely appreciate this chance because after all that time, I know how wonderful it is to play football,” Beal said. “At times, with guys like me, who were all-everything out of high school, you can take it for granted.”
Beal signed with Florida in 2007 out of Liberty High in Bethlehem, Pa. He arrived early in Gainesville, eager to play for the Gators, who won the national title the year before he signed. Like his father, Craig Beal, who was a linebacker at Boston College, he was blessed with excellent speed for his 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame.
“He was very mature, mentally and physically, for a high school player and he really wanted to get better,” said Rhode Island physical trainer Kevin Kelliher, who has worked plyometrics with Beal during offseasons. “He was a coach’s dream because he soaks up everything like a dry sponge. Unfortunately, because he hits so hard and so fast, he hurts himself and he doesn’t realize it.”
During the 2008 preseason camp, Beal tore his left ACL and missed the season after having surgery. He worked to get himself back in shape and was named the MVP of the Gators 2009 spring intersquad game. During preseason camp, however, he ruptured a disc in his neck and missed another season. By the time he was ready to play again, in 2010, he was the fifth linebacker on the depth chart.
He asked for and was given permission to transfer. Because of excellent grades, he had plenty of options. He transferred to Minnesota, feeling that he would fit in with then-Minnesota coach Tim Brewster’s physical defense. Brewster’s linebacker coach, John Butler, had just sent three players that season to the NFL combine and assistant coach Kevin Cosgrove had recruited Beal when Cosgrove had been at Nebraska. Within three months, Brewster was fired, along with Butler and Cosgrove.
NCAA transfer rules meant he had to sit out the 2009 season. Just four days shy of the 2010 season, another player rolled into Beal’s left knee, hyperextending his ACL, forcing another surgery. He briefly thought about giving up football.
“It did cross my mind at times after going through two major ACL surgeries,” Beal said. “You question a lot of stuff. You question, ‘Why me?’ I ended up getting over it. I’ve always been a fighter.”
His surgeon, David Altchek, who is the New York Mets’ team doctor, told him there was no reason he couldn’t recover fully. He also spoke nearly daily with his father and became friends with the closest thing he had at the time to a position coach, Minnesota trainer Ed Lochrie. When he wasn’t rehabbing, he studied. In May, he was one of seven players on the team to earn a distinguished scholar award.
By May, the pain in his knee was beginning to ebb and was excited about playing again. Before long, he was practicing without a knee brace. When he broke his hand in preseason camp, he was determined that wouldn’t stop him.
“Playing with a broken hand is like putting on a Band-Aid for him,” Minnesota linebacker coach Bill Miller said. “He’s a great example of what college football is all about and hanging in there when it doesn’t look good.”
He’s played in all nine of the Gophers’ games this season. Though he only has 14 tackles, he hasn’t given up on the NFL, especially since he has another season at Minnesota.
“I know I’m not yet the player I was but I’m back and I’m healthy,” Beal said. “Speed-wise, I’m faster than I was before, but there’s a lot of fundamental stuff I have to work on. I am coming around every week. I see some of these guys in the NFL that I knew coming out of high school and I think, ‘Oh my God, that should be me!' It just makes me so determined to get there.”
If a NFL career doesn’t happen, he already has a degree in finance and is working toward a Masters in quantitative finance.
“Now, I’m playing for the love of the game,” Beal said. “I know more what it does for you, all the connections it brings. It is truly unbelievable how it will affect the rest of your life.”
Follow Jim Halley on Twitter @JimHalley.