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Southeast Missouri State football player Beck counts his blessings
Brandon Beck can probably appreciate Thanksgiving more than many people.
The Jackson native, who recently completed his sophomore season as a Southeast Missouri State fullback and special teams performer, said he counts his blessings often.
Beck has been able to live out his dream of playing college football near his home town after surviving cancer and a tour of duty in Iraq.
"Yeah, along with my faith, it just causes me to live every day thankfully," Beck said. "I've seen a lot of perspectives, a lot of different things. It makes you appreciate all the little things. Nothing is guaranteed. I try to live my life like that every day."
Southeast football coach Tony Samuel beams like a proud father when discussing Beck, Southeast's oldest player at 25 who joined the Redhawks as a walk-on in 2011 and became a major contributor this year, making four starts at fullback.
"You want to talk about a guy that's been through a lot and seen a lot," Samuel said. "He's a great guy and he's a really great story."
Where to begin the story is the hard part because there's plenty to tell.
Commitment to serve
Beck, an all-conference and all-region linebacker at Jackson High School before graduating in 2006, signed to play college football at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.
But an itch to serve his country altered his plans.
"My junior year in high school I had looked into joining the military, maybe doing reserves. I always felt like I wanted to do something like that," Beck said. "My senior year, after I signed to play at Lindenwood, that summer -- it was July 4th -- I can remember watching a news telecast. They were interviewing some kids and asked them to raise their hands if they were planning to go into the military some day.
"Only a couple raised their hands. It was in the middle of the Iraq war. I thought, 'Why not me?' I talked to my recruiter and within a couple of weeks I was shipping off."
Beck said he wanted to take his commitment to serve as far as he could.
"I didn't want to take a desk job. I wanted to be in combat," he said. Late in 2007, Beck began a scheduled 15-month tour in Iraq. He said it was a real eye-opener.
"It's crazy," he said. "You're over there so long. The first time, going to combat, was definitely strange. Receiving combat, you grow up a lot, that's for sure. Thank goodness I never got shot."
Major health scare
Beck's stint in Iraq was close to ending when his life took another major twist. Beck said some members of his unit noticed swelling in his neck. Further examination revealed swollen lymph nodes, and soon Beck was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He needed surgery, which was performed in Germany.
"I was supposed to do a 15-month tour in Iraq but I came back a month early at the end of April, 2009," Beck said. "At first you hear the word 'cancer' and it scares you. But they assured me it was very treatable."
Beck, after leaving Germany, spent a month and a half at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., then returned home. He underwent about five months of chemotherapy at Washington University Medical Center in St. Louis and was ultimately given a clean bill of health.
Beck said refusing to think negative thoughts helped him get through his health scare. It allowed him to be back with his family again, which was all the encouragement he needed.
"I tried to take a positive out of it," he said. "I was just excited to be around my family again, all my friends. I was honestly just excited to be home."
Resuming his dream
Beck finished his military duties in December of 2010 and immediately resumed his original goal of playing college football. He turned his attention to Southeast.
"After I joined the military, I always told myself I was going to play college football," he said. "When I got out of the military, that really became a dream of mine."
Beck enrolled at Southeast in January of 2011 and approached the coaching staff about joining the program. He participated in spring practice and made a quick impression.
"We liked him right away," Samuel said. "He was a very hard worker."
Beck made his mark on special teams for the Redhawks in 2011, playing in 10 games and recording five tackles. He also concentrated on a different position, fullback, after starring at linebacker in high school (although he did play some fullback for Jackson).
"After walking on at SEMO, I was just really excited to be a part of the team," Beck said.
That excitement would grow even more the following season.
First college TD
Beck progressed from almost solely a special teams performer last season to a key contributor at fullback this year. Samuel credits Beck with helping the Redhawks survive a tough injury situation.
Second-team fullback Josh Nicks sustained a season-ending knee injury on the opening kickoff of Southeast's first game, at Central Michigan. That immediately elevated Beck, who had been in a tight battle with Nicks, to No. 2 on the depth chart.
Then, after starting fullback Ron Coleman suffered a knee injury, Beck suddenly was first in line. He started four straight games beginning at SIU on Sept. 16, when he received his first two collegiate carries that went for 15 yards.
"It was awesome," Beck said of his starting role. "I was excited this year to get more playing time, trying to become more of a leader on the team."
The 5-foot-10, 220-pound Beck scored his first collegiate touchdown on 5-yard run at Jacksonville State on Sept. 30.
"It was really exciting," Beck said.
Beck, continuing to see action at fullback after Coleman returned to the starting lineup, finished the season with 68 yards rushing on 14 carries, a solid 4.9 average. He also recorded three tackles on special teams.
"When we lost Nicks, and then Coleman went down, he [Beck] had to carry a lot of weight and he kept playing on special teams," Samuel said. "He did a great job."
'Old man,' leader
Beck, as the Redhawks' oldest player, has taken plenty of jabs from his teammates.
"The kids call him 'Old Man,' " Samuel said, smiling. "They have a lot of fun with it but they really respect him."
Beck said he generally takes the good-natured ribbing in stride.
"When I first got on the team, I found it kind of funny. Then it got kind of annoying. Now I just don't care," he said with a laugh.
Samuel said the Redhawks might have fun with Beck's age but, when it comes down to it, he's been one of the squad's most admired players the past two years and a true leader.
"He's spoken to the team a few times. When he told the team what he's been through ... you have an awful lot of respect," Samuel said. "The things he's done and seen, most of these guys can't even imagine."
Beck, although soft-spoken, said he has taken his role as elder statesmen and team leader seriously.
"I tried to lead more by example," he said. "I know a lot of the guys looked up to me, and it made me feel good."
Another new chapter
Beck will soon begin yet another new chapter in his life, one that won't involve football.
A nursing major, Beck plans to attend an accelerated nursing program at a St. Louis hospital beginning next year. That means, barring a last-minute change of plans, this was his last year of college football.
"We're going to miss him, his quiet leadership," Samuel said.
Said Beck: "It was tough to leave, but then again I'm just excited to go to nursing school and start the next chapter in my life."
Beck said he was attracted to nursing for the same reason he was drawn to the military -- the chance to make a difference.
"I recently read a book called 'Radical.' It really talked about serving the poor and those less fortunate," Beck said. "It had an alarming statistic, that 30,000 children die every day from starvation and diseases. Being a Christian, that really made an impact on me."
Just as all of Beck's life experiences have made an impact on him, including playing football at Southeast.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world," he said. "I met a ton of good guys, I played for an awesome coaching staff and I got to play close to home. ... I got to fulfill my dream."