Editor's note: Fourth in an occasional series exploring the pros and cons of starting a true freshman at quarterback, and the experiences of the six freshmen who started for BYU.
PROVO — John Beck was one of the last recruits that committed to legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards not long before Edwards announced his retirement in 2000.
After serving an LDS Church mission to Portugal, Beck enrolled in January 2003, participated in spring drills and couldn’t wait to embark on his college football career, but under a new coach, Gary Crowton, who was entering his third season at the helm.
During the offseason, Beck would sit by his locker with his helmet on, drawing laughs from teammates like defensive lineman Brady Poppinga.
“I was just so excited to be back playing ball. I was so confident going into it, believing that I knew what I was going to do,” Beck recalled. “I was going to work as hard as I could. I was going to believe in myself, I was going to give it everything I had. I had a lot of confidence and trust in myself that if I did all those things, everything would work out. But it’s one of those things where I was confident in playing football but yet there was a lot of football I didn’t know.”
In the 2003 opener at home against Georgia Tech, on the same night BYU was honoring QB legend Steve Young, Beck was given one series as a true freshman. It went like this — he was sacked on first down, fumbled on second down and on third down he threw an interception on his first collegiate attempt.
“Before the game, I remember Gary Crowton told me, ‘John, I’m going to give you a series. What plays would you like to run?’ I didn’t want to pick elementary school plays that are so simple,” Beck said. “If I get a series, I wanted to go for it. The play that I threw the interception on, it was all verts. It was trying to push the ball downfield on my first-ever pass attempt. I’m grateful that I had that mindset as a young player because you have to be able to take some risks. That’s how you learn a lot.”
After the game, Beck was so bothered by his awful debut that he ripped his parking pass off the rearview mirror in his car and threw it on the ground, not realizing that it was his pass for the entire year. He thought it was only for that game.
That kind of summed up his night.
“It was frustrating,” Beck said.
The following week, Beck played against nationally ranked USC, earning his first-ever completion and he made some plays with his legs. Then he was knocked unconscious and was sidelined for the game at New Mexico.
“That’s when (starting quarterback) Matt Berry broke his hand,” Beck said. “Then, boom! I’m the starting quarterback.”
He became just the second true freshman to start at quarterback at BYU, against Stanford — seven years after the first, Drew Miller, accomplished the feat.
Once again, Beck was thrilled to play — and start.
“I just felt like I had prepared well and I had given it everything I had. Good things will happen. That was definitely my mindset,” Beck said. “I really believed that I would make plays, even if I don’t know totally what’s going on. I’m a playmaker, so I’m going to make plays.”
In that first start at home against Stanford, Beck completed 22 of 45 passes for 279 yards but threw two interceptions and was sacked seven times. The final sack came after Beck had driven the Cougars to the Cardinal 9-yard line late in the game. BYU coughed up five turnovers in an 18-14 defeat.
Before the game, Beck remembered looking up at the mountains, thinking, “This is exactly what I had planned on. Being the starting quarterback, playing against Stanford. Man, this is going to be exciting.”
But when the game ended, Beck was hit with a hard dose of reality.
“It plays out where you don’t know what you don’t know. There are in-game situations and a play’s called. I maybe had run that play once during practice,” he said. “It’s being called in a critical situation when you’re backed up against the goal line. I hadn’t been backed up against a goal line since high school. That was 1999.
“All of the sudden it’s 2003 and I’m playing against Stanford, backed up against the goal line and it’s hitting me: ‘I haven’t been in this position in a game in a long time.’ Then you realize there’s a lot to learn from this experience. There was so much to learn every time I watched tape after the games.”
Beck was at a disadvantage at the start of his career at BYU because the offense he ran in high school wasn’t anything like the offense he ran under Crowton.
“I had a lot to learn. I was out there playing football as confident as I could with the things I knew. But I would make mistakes because of what I didn’t know,” Beck said. “I remember this feeling of, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.’ I’d make a mistake but I understood why I made the mistake. There was a lot of those moments.
“When I got put onto the field, I felt like I had to do the things that most people go through in practice and learn. I was having to do that on game day. I had plays in the game and I would make a mistake but I had never been in that situation before. I was like, ‘Gosh, I wish I would have done this but I never would have known to do that had I not had this experience now.’ ”
Following a 24-10 defeat at home to Air Force, Beck told reporters, "I hate losing so bad" as tears welled up in his eyes. He drew some criticism and derision for being so emotional after the game but it revealed his ultra-competitive nature and how much he cared about playing well and winning.
Yes, Beck experienced plenty of rough moments as a true freshman starter, including a humiliating 58-13 loss on homecoming against Colorado State.
The key for young quarterbacks, he said, is to be resilient.
“There are going to be situations where your confidence in your performance is going to take hits. That’s just the way that it goes,” Beck said. “I remember jogging off the field against Colorado State. The stadium is booing us (in Provo). It wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t expect to be booed playing college football.
“I’m not preparing like somebody that deserves to be booed. I was giving it all that I got. But when plays aren’t being made and you’re getting your butt kicked, you’re going to get booed.”
In the end, though, Beck was cheered by BYU fans.
After that frustrating freshman season filled with growing pains and injuries (he missed a handful of games, including at the end of the season, because he was injured) and a 4-8 record, Beck started as a sophomore and as a junior. But the Cougars finished 5-6 and 6-6, respectively, those years.
Entering his senior campaign, Beck was straddling a line separating greatness from mediocrity. During his career, he had endured losing seasons, coaching changes and learning a new offensive scheme. Beck was looking to finish his career on top.
That’s exactly what he did. In 2006, Beck led the Cougars to a Mountain West Conference championship and produced an iconic, game-winning touchdown pass to Jonny Harline to defeat archrival Utah. In his final game, BYU blitzed Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl, 38-8, and the Cougars earned a No. 16 national ranking.
“For him to have the senior year he’s had makes him probably as good as any quarterback we’ve had in the history of BYU,” Beck's quarterback coach, and former Cougar QB, Brandon Doman said at the time. “To beat Utah in the last game, I think it sends him into the history books as one of the great ones.”
When Beck finished his career at BYU, he was the No. 2 all-time leading passer with 11,021 yards and he became a second-round NFL draft pick. He spent six years in the NFL.
Beck’s meteoric rise from struggling true freshman quarterback to second-team All-American stands as one of the most impressive career turnarounds in BYU football history. Through patience, hard work and on-the-job training, Beck learned — and earned — his way to greatness.