Last Chance U Laney Coach John Beam Talks RJ Stern Oakland Football Future

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Here’s the thing about football coaches: There’s a difference between watching Bill Belichik give some sassy postgame presser and actually calling one on the phone. A few minutes in, you realize why only certain humans are able to tell other humans to run this way, that way, and way over there, without any fight.

Take John Beam, who is featured in the newest season of Last Chance U, the Netflix docuseries that follows around junior college football teams, like his. He’s the head coach of the Laney College Eagles, who won the California Community College Athletic Association Football Championship in 2018. When Beam talks to you, one on one, he ends every other sentence with, Right? or Do you know what I mean? A lot of people do that. Beam, though? It’s not just some turn of phrase. He’s engaging with you, keeping your attention. He’ll pause, and you have to say: Right, coach—I do know what you mean.


In Last Chance U, we get a good look at what made Beam a legend in Oakland, CA, during his 40 years coaching football in the area. Yeah, he can coach up a football team. (See: The massive championship ring on his finger.) But there are a lot of good coaches out there. Beam’s magic is this: He’s not interested in shipping his kids off to some D-1 school and never hearing from them again. In Last Chance U, you see him give his players brutally honest advice, offer mentorship long after their playing days, and try to figure out some way to help life off the field for kids who even struggle to afford food. He can give a hell of a speech, too.

Beam has watched the new season of Last Chance U. And there’s something it got wrong. Beam had a problem with one thing. Early on in Season Five, Beam jumps on a segway and scoots himself across the field, looking like a mustached mall cop for one brief, shining moment, leading you to believe that legendary football coach John Beam is the kind of man who rides a segway.

“I do not have a segway at practice, by the way,” Beam says. “The cameraman had it, right? And so the kids are like looking at it, and I go, ‘I can ride it.’ And the kids go, ‘Coach, you can’t—you think you can do it? ‘I’m like, I’m an athlete, I can do anything.’ That’s why I got on the segway! But more importantly, it was the camerman—”

Beam cuts himself off. “But that was the whole thing. It’s okay to be vulnerable,” he says. “It’s okay to try things. Right?”

The week before Netflix introduced the country to Laney, we called Coach Beam for a dose of that run-through-a-wall, pick-up-your-head energy only a football coach can give. Isn’t that what we all need right now?

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ESQUIRE: Thank you for taking the time to talk.

JB: Well, pandemic. You wash your car, cut the grass, get your tires rotated. There ain’t much left to do on a Friday.

ESQ: Is there even any football work to do right now?

JB: You know, we’ve been Zooming. Basically, what I’m trying to do is keep in touch with the kids, right? Make sure they know we’re still here for them. We can help them if they’re in need or the family’s need, right? But as far as X’s and O’s, not really.

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ESQ: One of the nicest parts of the season is when you show us the walk you take with your wife in the morning. I’m just curious—when did that start?

JB: When I was at Skyline High School, I would go to school about six every morning, be the first teacher there to work with the kids. But when I went to community college, the day didn’t start until like 10, 11 o’clock. So my wife and I just started walking as a way to catch up. In fact, she figured it out: Since March, the pandemic, [we’ve done] about 300 miles of walking. I walk in the morning with my wife. I walk in the afternoon with my granddaughter. I take her in a stroller, we just go out and walk.

ESQ: What was that like watching your season of Last Chance U?

JB: It was hard, it was hard. You see yourself, right? You know, God was I that guy? You know what I mean? Sometimes, I’m pretty hard on RJ [Stern], and like, Oh man, I didn’t realize I was that hard on RJ, I could’ve done a better job with him. So it’s a way to reflect on coaching—maybe all coaches should see themselves like that. Maybe we can change ourselves a little bit, right? Also, the struggles that all the players go through. I know them, but now to see ‘em? It’s a little bit different to know that you’re not sleeping on a couch, or you’re couch-surfing, or you’re in a car. And then to realize how helpless you are because of rules. There’s nothing I could do to help legally, right? All these rules, which is so sad in itself.

ESQ: With Dior, you use the term PTSD to describe what he’s going through with his panic attacks and relationship with his father. Was that something you’ve ever encountered before?

JB: I’ve seen so much of it in 40 years here in Oakland. You know how many funerals I’ve gone to for young men that I’ve coached, or they had to go through their brothers or their sisters? We had one young man, he had just graduated from Marshall. He showed up at Laney and he missed the second and third day of practice. He was all apologetic because he had to go bury his sister.

I think it’s something we don’t realize: PTSD was a term that came about because of war. But we see it every day in the inner city, because it is a war every day, right? There’s violence, there’s domestic violence at home—it’s not just a violent gang. It’s the mental anguish that occurs, that happens every day, so mental health is a huge issue for us. And any teacher is gonna see that, right? We’re constantly dealing with it. We’re not worried about teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic now—we have to worry about this whole other part of the human being that we have to help structure and develop. We have to be the safety net.

last chance u laney john beam in episode 1 of last chance u laney cr netflix © 2020

Netflix

ESQ: Last Chance U shows how strong of a motivator you are—hugging a player when he says he’s scared and hurt, but there’s also the time Dior drops two balls in a game and you tell him just to get out of his head. How do you know, in the moment, whether to comfort a player or to be tough with them?

JB: I think it’s something you learn over 40 years, right? One of the things is that I knew Dior [Walker-Scott’s] situation was a little bit more fragile because what was happening so I tried not to rip him as much, but I though RJ was a little stronger. Sometimes I was on RJ, so instead of me ripping the freshman kids that aren’t used to it—RJ’s been around me long enough. But then when I watched the film I kind of… Did I say anything nice to RJ? You know what I’m saying? Like I know I did [laughs], but that’s the part, you try to pick who’s strong enough and who may be strong enough at that time. Some people have different personalities you know, and so you can kind of get a read of that, right? And sometimes if you miss it, it can be devastating.

ESQ: There’s a really interesting moment in the show, when you bring an Oakland police officer to talk to the team. Even before the death of George Floyd, we saw so much police brutality in Oakland. What went into that decision to bring in that officer and show that perspective to your team?

JB: What they didn’t show is when I brought Fred in. I brought Fred in I and he described himself growing up—lost his father, playing football, going to Washington State, the whole Division I thing. Going to a Rose Bowl. And I asked him in front of everybody: “Well Fred, you’re not coaching now. So what do you do now?” And that’s when he said, “I’m a police officer.” You hear what I’m saying? So my whole deal is this: George Floyd is new to the world, but I’ve been seeing the George Floyds for 40 years here in Oakland. But what we needed to find out is that police are human beings and the uniform of the job is different from who the human being is inside that uniform. So I wanted them to see Fred like who he was. He was them, right? And when he told me [about his football career], they were all excited, but when he told them he was a police, they all got quiet all of the sudden, like they didn’t want to hear from him. Then he brought them back in, right?

We see people, we label them automatically without even knowing who they are. So police label young black men already, right? Thug, bad guy, whatever. This guy could be going to Stanford, Harvard, or whatever, just a father with two kids. I think for us, we label police: Oh bad, they’re these guys, right? Well hold on, maybe they’re not all bad. Maybe they are. We don’t know. But they start to figure out who the human being is, right? That was my whole deal. I’ve been doing this for a long time. Bringing in folks, police to talk so that young men can start to feel comfortable. And the sense of comfort and the sense of going to them when they need help. In our community, when you need help, you don’t go to the police. And that creates a whole bunch of other issues. So that was the whole goal.

‘George Floyd is new to the world, but I’ve been seeing the George Floyds for 40 years here in Oakland.’

ESQ: In the show, you say you care about winning in addition to everything you’re doing for your players. But I feel like Last Chance U, sometimes argues that sometimes there’s more to learn in losing. What do you think? How much does someone need to lose in order to win?

JB: You know, you’re going to run into setbacks your whole life. How you respond to the setback—that’s the learning we’re teaching. Trust me, so I left Skyline, I didn’t lose a game in the 90s. My first year at Laney in 2004, we were like 3-8. Oh my God, that was horrible. And I think myself and the staff coached our asses off. The next year, we won it all. And it’s like okay, so what’s the difference? But you’re still teaching life lessons. You gotta find the other wins and that’s what Cindi’s really good at. So when we take our walks, she always reminds me about that. Here’s these other wins that you’re getting. And I’m always joking, Yeah, but I want this win. I want a scoreboard win. But we can do both, I think that’s the key. You can do both.

ESQ: The show shows you doing this, but it doesn’t really explain it—you give these sports-movie level, off-the-cuff speeches.

JB: I don’t prepare anything, I’m not that guy—that’s not what my strength is. Maybe I’ve got a learning disability or something. I’m not a good writer, right? So I do it from the heart. I look in their eyes. My wife, my daughters are both, like Dad, you’re making notes, you’ve got your talking points for these interviews. I’m like, Not really. Even when I do—my daughter got married and I gave the speech. People were fired up and I’m like, Oh my God, what did I do? But I’m a coach, that’s what I do. I had the whole place clapping like I do at practice, you know, Give me two. I mean some of the kids have said that before, like they’re always saying at our exit meetings like, Coach, you give the best talks. Okay, thanks, that’s all you got from this?

ESQ: I’m telling you, from someone who writes for a living but cannot speak worth a damn, you know, I really respected it.

JB: Yeah, but you’re a great writer, you get it, so we all have our own strengths, right? So your written word is probably phenomenal, right? That’s why you’re a professional at it, right?

ESQ: I hope so.

JB: I think it’s just we all have our own strength, and that’s what my job is, right? Chief, educator, coach, right, is to help you find your strength, right, and help you accentuate that to the highest. And then we’ll worry about your deficit here. We’ll try to cover them up and give you the basics you can get by with.

last chance u laney dior walker scott in episode 5 of last chance u laney cr netflix © 2020

Netflix

ESQ: I think this season of Last Chance U speaks to you and your program—how vulnerable you guys were. The season is really great.

JB: We watched the first four together and we’re at home, and it’s like a loss to me. Oh man, I was that bad? And then my daughter said, “Dad, that’s you, don’t worry.” You know, I don’t hear myself. Half the time I don’t know what I say in the middle of a game to people. You know what I’m saying? Like Kevin has been with me since, he’s almost 50 and he played for me and coached with me since he was 14 years old. He goes, “Coach, you don’t know the stuff that you say. It comes out. “I go, “Really?” So you know, on film I go, Oh snap. I do have an education, so I do know how to use better words, but sometimes the words that came out, I wasn’t as creative as I thought I could’ve been.

ESQ: Is there anything you wished I had asked you?

JB: I just want to make sure everybody understood that when you go out and you look at—let’s take Dior, and his plight that the NCAA, or our case, the CCCAA, make it so that we can’t help ‘em. That the rules that we have, who are they made for—and again, I don’t want to get all political—but they’re made for kids that have families that have enough money to support them. We can’t help them, we can’t do the things that we want, we can’t feed ‘em. And the other thing is just that I hope when you watch this that you understood that there’s so much family in everything that I do… Those are the things I hope come through, that coaching is a lifetime commitment—not just the 2020 season, or ’19 season. It’s a commitment that we make to each other for a lifetime of supporting each other, one way or the other.

ESQ: Thank you, Coach Beam—good luck with everything going forward.

JB: Well, 2020 is a bye [laughs]. So I’ll coach 2021 maybe twice. Spring and fall. Year 41 is gonna be a bye year in my career.

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