MIAMI — The black ski cap embroidered with a single word constituted perfect messaging for C.J. Beathard as we talked this week during a media session at the 49ers hotel.
The word: Faithful.
The hat was promotional merchandise for a song that C.J.’s brother Tucker, an award-winning country music singer, released in 2015. It seemed ironic that of all the teams that might have drafted the quarterback when he came out of Iowa in 2017 it was the tradition-rich franchise that rolls with this theme for a marketing campaign: Faithful Then, Faithful Now.
“It’s one of those ‘God things,’ “ Beathard told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s kind of cool … kind of crazy. There’s a meaning to it.”
And even deeper meaning now. It has been less than six weeks since C.J.’s younger brother Clayton, 22, was one of two men who died after being stabbed during an incident outside the Dogwood Bar & Grill in Nashville in the wee hours of the morning of Dec. 21.
Yes, getting to Super Bowl LIV is big for C.J., the grandson of Hall of Fame general manager Bobby Beathard. The third-string quarterback has mimicked Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes in practices with scout-team duty to prepare the 49ers’ defense. Yet in a larger context, football is merely a diversion for the grieving.
“It’s been the toughest month of my life,” Beathard, 23, said. “It’s nothing that you’d want anybody go through, especially in losing someone that close to you.”
Beathard, a Christian, is coping with faithfulness. He realizes that he is at an early stage of the grieving process, and how we deal with death varies for the individual. Some days better than others — and every day a test of what it means to be faithful.
“There’s two ways you can go in a situation like this,” he said. “You give up on it or get even deeper in it. Over this last month, I’ve dove into the Bible more than I ever have, just trying to find some peace and trying to find God’s promises about heaven and just knowing where my brother is.
“He was a Christian, wore it on his sleeve and wasn’t afraid to share it. So, knowing the hope that I have, I know I will see him again someday. It’s really what gets me through it. Without being faithful, I don’t know where I’d be. It’s tough enough as it is.”
There seemed to be a natural flow for Beathard in sharing deep personal sentiments against the backdrop of the big game. Part of that comes with a 49ers culture that, going back at least to the 1980s, has long been built on a strong support structure. Over the past two years, the substance of the culture, which flows from the top, has been tested by death. In January 2018, defensive tackle Solomon Thomas’ sister Ella, 24, committed suicide. In December of that year, Tony York — son of team owners Denise and John, brother of CEO Jed — took his own life at 35.
When Beathard learned of his brother’s death, after 1 a.m. PT while the team was in Los Angeles for a game against the Rams the next day, the first call went to 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. Within minutes, Shanahan was in Beathard’s room, consoling him. A short time later, Beathard was off to be with his family in Tennessee. General manager John Lynch drove him to the airport.
Beathard was touched when tight end George Kittle, also his teammate at Iowa, told him the victory was dedicated to him.
“It’s so much more than football,” Beathard said. “Real life, it will take you by storm.”
Thomas recalled how the news “broke my heart. Deep sadness. I just wanted to give my energy and love to his family. I knew the pain they were going through.”
Over the past few weeks Beathard and Thomas have grown much closer because they both lost a sibling at an early age.
“I was mad and angry about it,” Thomas told USA TODAY Sports, reflecting on the loss of Ella. “I wanted to encourage him not to get to that point because it can turn into a pretty dark place. Right away, your whole world is turned upside down and shattered. So, I wanted to let him know that he had someone to talk to.”
Jordan Matthews, the veteran receiver who leads the team’s Bible study group, expressed a similar sentiment. Beathard had already cultivated strong relationships with several teammates as he regularly attended the sessions throughout his 49ers tenure. Yet that proved to hold a deeper purpose in the wake of tragedy. He needed to talk about death.
“A lot of people don’t want to go into hard topics like that,” Matthews told USA TODAY Sports. “They want to defer. ‘Let’s talk about football again.’ But no, we need to ask some hard questions. That relationship we already had, that gave us the opportunity.”
Another opportunity for healing came with Beathard’s first practice back during the bye week, after he returned from bereavement leave. During the red zone drills, Shanahan asked the third-stringer if he wanted some reps with the first team.
“Heck yeah, I want to get some reps,” he said.
Shanahan gave him four plays. He threw three passes, for three touchdowns.
“The other play was a run,” Shanahan told USA TODAY Sports. “If I had called four passes, he probably would have had four touchdowns. It was so CJ.”
Shanahan also called on Beathard to address the team in the middle of the field after practice.
“He let his emotions go,” Lynch told USA TODAY Sports.
Which, Shanahan added, “made everyone emotional. It was a special moment.”
It’s unclear whether Beathard will suit up for Super Bowl LIV — third-string quarterbacks are rarely on the active game-day roster — but he’s already contributed. Remember, he’s been playing the part of Mahomes, even to the point of trying no-look passes or rolling way out of the pocket and heaving it deep downfield.
If Richard Sherman gets a pick, Beathard gets an assist? Beathard laughed.
“Maybe I showed him something,” he said, “and he won’t be fooled with it in the game.”
Win or lose, you don’t need to remind the 49ers that there’s more than merely the biggest game of the year.