PULLMAN – For two or three hours every day last fall, Bryce Beekman endeared himself to Washington State teammates with an irresistible smile and unmistakable laugh.
Some, like Easop Winston Jr., were fortunate to get both in larger doses.
Because of how their academic schedules aligned, Winston, a top wide receiver for the Cougars in 2019, and Beekman, a junior college transfer who wound up starting at free safety, shared two classes together: criminal justice on one side of Washington State’s sprawling campus and, with just a 5-minute break, human development on the other.
They were normally easy to spot traversing through campus, not just as fairly recognizable members of WSU’s football team, but because Beekman seldom left home without the portable speaker he’d attach to his backpack and seldom walked to class without playing his music at a volume loud enough for anyone within a 20-yard radius to hear.
“Bryce would just be laughing and shaking his dreads,” Winston recalled, three days after Pullman police responded to a phone call claiming Beekman experienced “breathing problems” before the 22-year-old football player was found dead in his apartment. “Like, ‘This is my music, I’m going to play it how I want to.’ … People would just be looking at him. But Bryce, he was just a happy, fun-loving dude. He didn’t really care what anybody else thought. He was going to do him. … He probably turned his music up higher when people started looking at him.”
It would’ve been hard to fault the two for showing up late to their next class, given the ground they had to cover in 5 short minutes, but Beekman was determined to be in his seat by the bell. He was a student-athlete who took the first part of the label as seriously as the second.
“Once I got caught up to him, he’d start speed-walking again,” Winston said. “You could tell he really wanted to be in class.”
While there’s still uncertainty about what caused Beekman to die on the horizon of his redshirt senior season – one in which he would’ve been counted on as a primary playmaker for WSU’s defense under first-year coach Nick Rolovich – individual accounts from teammates leave little ambiguity as to the character of the person behind the No. 26 jersey.
“As long as I knew him,” Winston said, “he never had a sad day.”
“He was always laughing, always smiling,” defensive lineman Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei said. “Whenever you seen him, he was always just straight fooling.”
“You could be having the worst day ever, you could be having the best day ever, but when he got near you, you were going to have a smile on your face. You couldn’t help it,” added Karson Block, another D-lineman on WSU’s 2019 football team. “… Everyone he came in contact with, you were a better person for knowing him.”
Winston, Aiolupotea-Pei and Block all connected with Beekman through shared experiences in junior college football – affectionately known as the “juco struggle.”
“Every time he would see me he would be like, ‘What’s up, my juco brother?’ ” Aiolupotea-Pei said. “I would always ask him like, ‘Bro, how come you don’t have the Louisiana accent?’ Because a lot of other guys that come across from Louisiana, they talk real different. And he’s like, ‘Man, when I’m with my people it comes on.’ ”
Beekman, who was raised in Milwaukee and moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before his senior year of high school, told Winston he originally planned to attend a historically black college solely for academics before family members nudged him to pursue football at Arizona Western.
“He believed in himself,” Winston said, “but sometimes it helps when you see others see your dream as much as you do.”
Block and Beekman bonded over their JC roots, as well as their appreciation for Louisiana. Block took a more circuitous route to Pullman, playing at Louisiana-Lafayette before transferring to California’s Saddleback Junior College and WSU. Beekman initially signed at Southern University, a HBCU in Louisiana, but never played there and logged two seasons at Arizona Western before enrolling early on the Palouse in 2019.
It was common for Block to call Beekman by a nickname, “Big-time Beek,” and for Beekman to return the compliment by referring to his teammate as “Big-time Block.”
“We had this running joke where it would be like, if I saw him before he saw me, it would be like, ‘Hey Big-time Beek, when are you going to let me get your autograph? You’re big-time, man,’ ” Block said. “He’s like, ‘Nah, Big-time Block that’s you. I’ve got to get your autograph first.’ ”
Since his college career ended, Block has accepted a position coaching the defensive line at Division II Southwest Minnesota State. The coronavirus shutdown prompted Block to return to California earlier this week, and he was traveling home when most of his ex-teammates learned of Beekman’s death. Block didn’t check social media Tuesday night and didn’t learn of the news until two teammates shared it the following morning.
“That was a rough one for me,” Block said. “I wish I would’ve got his autograph.”
Building a football career while maintaining his academic status and forging a social life thousands of miles from home surely kept Beekman busy enough, but it didn’t curb his generosity or the help he offered others.
William Overstreet, a redshirt sophomore walk-on cornerback who became close with Beekman, said the safety would regularly check up on his nonscholarship teammate to “ask if I need money or groceries,” Overstreet wrote in an Instagram tribute to Beekman.
“He would always give his monthly stipend to his family and friends if they were in need of it,” Overstreet wrote.
Jalen Thompson, the former All-Pac-12 WSU safety who’s now playing for the Arizona Cardinals, practiced alongside Beekman for nearly a month during the Cougars’ 2019 spring camp. Thompson left for the NFL’s Supplemental Draft when his final season of eligibility was stripped and never played with Beekman in a game setting, but the short time they spent together gave Thompson a good sense of Beekman’s character.
“All I can say is he was a very humble young kid,” Thompson said in a Twitter message. “Kinda reminded me of myself in a way. Stayed to himself and got the work done. Loved his passion for the game because he came from juco and knew adversity was against him. He was a great person and a great role model I would say.”
It wasn’t unusual for Beekman to roam the Cougars’ locker room and greet 10-20 players before returning to his own locker, which sat diagonally across from Winston’s.
“He literally had a relationship with everyone on the team,” the receiver said. “I’m like, ‘Bryce, where are you going?’ ‘I’ve got to say wassup to Renard (Bell) real quick,’ or, ‘I’ve got to say wassup to Gordo (Anthony Gordon) real quick.’ … He was real active and people just loved him for his personality, and was just that guy you wanted to be around when things weren’t going right.”
A receiver and a safety, Winston and Beekman were natural opponents on the practice field. Beekman did his best to shadow Winston and the outside receiver always tried to think one step ahead, plotting different ways to dupe the tall, perceptive safety. Sharpening each other on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, Winston and Beekman knew, would allow the Cougars to put forth a better product when they wore the same jersey on Saturdays.
During one practice, Winston was supposed to perform a blindside block on Beekman so running back Max Borghi could slingshot to the sideline for a big gain. Winston crept toward the safety but not before the instinctive Beekman could diagnose what was coming. Beekman defeated the block then turned his attention to Borghi to make a tackle in the open field.
“His IQ on the field was crazy,” Winston said. “He was like, ‘Sup bro, don’t give me no tip you’re coming to crack back me. I seen that coming, bro.’ … Even then I started laughing. Like, this man, I can’t be serious with him because he’s always laughing having so much fun.
“… It was hard sometimes to block him and hit him because he was always smiling at you.”
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