It had been 790 days between starts for San Francisco 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard going into Saturday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals. In between, Beathard endured a lifetime’s worth of grief.
Earlier this week, Beathard observed the one-year anniversary of the death of his younger brother, Clayton, who was stabbed to death outside of a bar in Nashville, Tennessee, on Dec. 21, 2019. On the same day as that painful anniversary, Beathard got word that he’d be starting against the Cardinals.
On Saturday, Beathard, buoyed by a stifling defense and a career performance by running back Jeff Wilson Jr., led the Niners to a surprising and cathartic 20-12 victory against Arizona at State Farm Stadium in Glendale.
“It means more than I can really put into words,” Beathard said. “Everything that I’ve been through the last year and it being the year anniversary of my brother passing, it’s just one of those things that you can’t really put it into words. … You can’t write a script any different. I couldn’t handpick this to go the way it did.”
As Beathard, 27, searched for the best way to explain his emotions after going 13-of-22 for 182 yards and three touchdowns, the meaning of Saturday’s victory could be found in his haircut and the jacket he was wearing.
On Thursday, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan noted that Beathard had gotten his hair cut for the first time in a year. Asked why he chose to cut it this week, Beathard said he had been growing it out because his brother liked his hair long so he wanted to keep it going for him.
When he opted to get it cut this week, Beathard acknowledged it was a part of his healing process.
“I was like, ‘All right, it’s been a year now so I can cut it,'” Beathard said.
Standing at the podium with his freshly shorn brown hair, Beathard wore a black jacket with the word “King” emblazoned down the right side and a picture of Clayton on the left. It was a gift from Clayton’s pastor near where he went to college at Long Island University, a gift Beathard said reduced him to tears upon receiving it.
“It’s got a lot of meaning for me,” Beathard said. “First and foremost, the king is our lord and savior Jesus Christ and it has a lot of irony with me just because my little brother’s middle name is King. He was Clayton King Beathard was his full name. And my other brother, Tucker, dedicated his album to Clay and it was called the ‘King.'”
Beathard hadn’t started a game since Oct. 28, 2018, which coincidentally was an 18-15 loss to the Cardinals in the same building where the teams met on Saturday.
It was the final start Beathard made after five consecutive losses upon replacing Jimmy Garoppolo, who tore his ACL in Week 3 of that 2018 season. Nick Mullens replaced Beathard the rest of that season and wrested the No. 2 job behind Garoppolo away for all of 2019 and this season as well.
But with Garoppolo out with an ankle injury and Mullens landing on injured reserve this week because of an elbow issue, Beathard was back in the mix against the Cardinals as the Niners had no other options.
That Beathard was able to put together such a performance after a devastating year came as no surprise to Shanahan and Beathard’s teammates.
“You could feel during the week of practice, he came in on Wednesday when he first got his reps just so ready to go,” Shanahan said. “I think you could tell how hard they played for him, too. I was very impressed with C.J. and very happy for him today.”
Beathard is set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, something he won’t worry about until the 6-9 Niners get through next weekend’s finale against the Seattle Seahawks.
For now, he’s leaving an indelible mark on his teammates in an otherwise challenging season in San Francisco.
“I’ve always been so inspired by C.J.,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “Just how this guy just grinds regardless of what’s happened to him and the circumstances. This guy has gone through a lot in the last couple years. I felt like he was being unfairly judged for his first couple years in the league and just how tough it was to play as a rookie and a second-year guy with the roster we had at the time.
“When he got his opportunity like he did tonight, I felt like he was going to run with it. I’m sure he could tell you about all the plays that he’d like to play better. But I’ll just tell you the guy inspires us so much and we are so happy to go out there and perform for him.”