C.J. Beathard was enjoying a family reunion at the beach in Kitty Hawk, N.C., sitting alongside his aunt Karen. She asked him about losing the starting quarterback job to Jimmy Garoppolo last December.
“Did it hurt your ego?” Karen Beathard asked with a laugh, knowing her unassuming nephew had always put his team first dating to his earliest football days in grade school.
“Not at all,” he responded. “Because I know God has a plan, and it’s for him to decide when it’s my time. I’ll learn more (as a backup), so I’m going to use it as a positive.”
His optimism came from a place of perspective. The woman he was sitting with was battling a situation far more difficult than being relegated to a backup role.
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Karen Beathard had been diagnosed with breast cancer — for a second time.
She’s undergone chemotherapy since February and is slated for nine more treatments, not including 45 more radiations, and is waiting to be approved for surgery because the cancer spread. She regularly travels from her home near Franklin, Tenn., to Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, one of the few facilities in the country that specializes in her form of inflammatory cancer.
“I still have a long way to go,” Karen said in a phone interview with The Bee.
She initially overcame breast cancer three years ago, undergoing a double mastectomy and reconstruction. She thought she was in the clear. But it returned in a new form, which has Beathard playing with a heavy heart while the calendar flips to October, when the NFL raises cancer awareness with its annual “Crucial Catch” campaign.
On Tuesday, Beathard attended the 49ers’ Crucial Catch Fashion Show, where he walked down the runway with 2-year-old Tatum McKerr. She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in March.
Beathard and Tatum were fast friends. She gave him the all-important responsibilities of holding her bottle and blanket while Beathard got to know her mother, Sinead. “The nicest, most down-to-earth guy. I was talking to him like I’ve known him my whole life,” Sinead McKerr said of the 49ers quarterback.
The encounter hit home for Beathard because Tatum was nearly the same age as his daughter, Lyla, who turns 2 in December.
Fighting, with joy
Karen Beathard is married to C.J.’s uncle, Kurt, one of four children to Bobby Beathard, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August following his 33-year career as one of the NFL’s top personnel executives. Bobby helped construct four Super Bowl winners — two with the Miami Dolphins in the 1970s and two in Washington in the 80s.
Kurt Beathard is currently the offensive coordinator at Illinois State and has worked as C.J.’s personal quarterback guru in the past.
Away from football, C.J. grew close to Karen because her three daughters, LaRae, Grace and Eva, were similar in age to C.J. and his brothers Tucker and Clay. The cousins and parents were constants in each others’ lives, both during the school year and their annual family reunions at the beach.
The Beathard family last offseason would convene at Bobby’s house in Tennessee on Sundays, where C.J. would get a chance to see his aunt Karen when she wasn’t bedridden by chemotherapy treatments. “There are times after chemo that I can’t go anywhere. I’m kind of stuck in the house. Your immune system is down so low,” Karen said.
Karen and C.J. have a unique relationship. They have found ways to gain strength from one another, helping overcome their vastly different life obstacles.
Karen’s sickness gives C.J. a different perspective on life and reminds him there are more important things than football. The support Karen gets from C.J., and the rest of the family, ranging from hugs to cross-country text messages, is helping her deal with the rigors of her treatment (but she hates watching C.J.’s games because of the hits he takes).
“It keeps you motivated to keep fighting and keep positive,” Karen said. “A lot of people don’t know this about C.J., he is very emotional and very deep. And a very loving person, compassionate. And he doesn’t generally say too much, but you can feel it from it from him. (It’s) just how he is. I think it’s something a lot of people just don’t know about him, that he loves deep.”
Said C.J.: “When you talk to my Aunt Karen, you see how joyful she is, how she tries to really live every day. None of us know when our last day’s going to be. But when you have cancer that’s really trying to kill you, it’s so easy to give up and just call it quits. But to see her fighting, to see how joyful she is around everybody, it’s like, man, there’s no reason for me to be angry or mad right now.”
‘Feels like the world is ending’
Beathard’s young NFL career hasn’t been easy or glamorous.
He was widely considered a late-round draft prospect in 2017 before the 49ers surprisingly traded up to the third round to get him. He struggled as a rookie after taking over for veteran Brian Hoyer in Week 6 of 2017, surrounded by a roster in the first year of team-wide rebuilding project. The 49ers went 1-4 in his starts and began the year 0-9, the worst start in team history.
Beathard hardly looked like a building block as first-year pro, ranking at the bottom of the league in most meaningful passing statistics. Then the New England Patriots shocked the football world and traded Garoppolo to San Francisco last Halloween.
Beathard became the odd man out. Garoppolo took the same downtrodden supporting cast and led the 49ers to a 5-0 finish to end the season. He parlayed that into his massive five-year, $137.5-million contract signed in February, which runs longer than Beathard’s four-year rookie deal, worth roughly $3.5 million.
Garoppolo, with movie-star looks and near-perfect fundamentals, shares little in common with Beathard, whose Tennessee twang, slender build and unassuming personality often go unnoticed in an otherwise boisterous 49ers locker room.
Beathard, like any player in his situation, struggled last season coming to grips with his new reality as the long-term backup after momentarily being the starter. That’s when he turned to his deep-rooted Christian faith, which he shares with the rest of his family, including his aunt Karen.
“It feels like the world’s ending,” Beathard said of his rough 2017. “Being able to look back, read the bible and know that God has a plan for my life and everyone’s life, it kind of gives you peace knowing that if you just put your faith in him, keep working, do your best in every situation you can, it’s all going to work out for the right reasons.”
But now Beathard is back in the driver’s seat as San Francisco’s starter after Garoppolo went down with a torn ACL in Week 3.
Last week against the Chargers, in his first start of 2018, Beathard threw for a career-best 298 yards, including an 82-yard touchdown catch-and-run to tight end George Kittle, who believes the 49ers could remain competitive with Beathard under center. The two were teammates at Iowa for five seasons before they joined San Francisco in the same draft class.
“When you see him approach it, he deserves 100 percent of my attention because that’s just the guy he is. You don’t want to let him down,” Kittle said.
‘That’s who C.J. is’
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan liked Beathard in the draft because of his leadership traits, even though he’s not the loud, demonstrative type. Beathard’s also become known for his toughness, repeatedly getting back up after taking some viscous hits. “He’s a badass,” Kittle said last week.
“I think the biggest key in being a leader is being yourself. People will follow people who are themselves, that have special qualities. And that’s who C.J. is,” Shanahan said.
C.J.’s ability to galvanize the people around him while being quiet and unassuming became apparent to Karen when he was first playing quarterback in grade school. Those traits have come to define him.
“Even when he was a little kid, he was just like that. But very caring of other people,” Karen said. “And he’s always been a leader. But not because he tried to be. But it just kind of fell to into place.”
When Beathard takes the field Sunday against Arizona at Levi’s Stadium, he’ll do so knowing the outcome against the Cardinals means little in the broader picture of life.
“I think that’s what C.J. sees when he looks at me,” Karen said, “that you have to keep that strength. You can’t go down that other road, and you can’t do it with football either. You have to look ahead and say that in end that it’s God’s plan, whatever it’s going to be, whether you like it or not. But if you don’t have trials and tribulations, you’re never going to A, appreciate anything you have, and B, you’re never going to learn. And I think he lives like that.”