FAIR LAWN, N.J. — It has been a long time since Mekhi Becton has anticipated the start of a football season this much.
In fact, it has been a lifetime.
“This is the most excited I’ve ever been going into training camp,” the Jets’ 24-year-old tackle told Newsday during a break in his training regimen at the Parisi Speed School.
Yes, much of it has to do with the arrival of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who came to the Jets in an April trade with the Packers and solidifies a team that is stocked with quality young players on a roster constructed by general manager Joe Douglas.
“I don’t want to look too far ahead, but I definitely feel way more confident than I’ve felt these past three years,” Becton said. “I feel like we’re going to win a lot of games, have a lot of fun, and just the energy and vibe with the players at the facility is uplifting.”
But there is more to Becton’s enthusiasm and optimism. Though it is a huge year for a Jets team that is being mentioned in the conversation about potential Super Bowl champions, Becton’s personal journey is at a major crossroads. And what he does in the coming months will go a long way toward determining whether there is a long-term future for him in the NFL, or whether the criticism that he hasn’t lived up to his reputation as a first-round pick in 2020 is justified.
After a promising rookie season in which he started 13 games at left tackle and appeared to be a potential foundational player at the all-important position, injuries have kept him out of all but one game the past two years. He suffered a right knee injury in the first game of the 2021 season after an opposing player fell on him, an injury that was expected to keep him out four to six weeks but cost him the rest of the season. And barely a week into training camp last year, he required knee surgery after the same knee buckled during a practice.
“These last two years have been really hard,” Becton said. “I was definitely beaten down. I almost was at the top, and then once I got hurt for something that wasn’t my fault, it was like, everybody kind of threw me to the side like I was nothing. It was definitely a dark place for me.”
After last season, Becton knew he needed to make a change. The first step was consulting with his close friend Cameron Clark, a former Jets offensive lineman who trained with Becton before the 2020 draft but suffered a career-ending neck injury as a rookie. Clark suggested that Becton work with his agent, Alan Herman, a Long Island-based agent and founder of SportStars whom Clark calls “a second father to me.”
Becton eventually met with Herman and Parisi Speed School owner Rich Sadiv to map out an offseason regimen that not only would help Becton more fully recover from his knee injury but would reduce his weight.
When Becton was drafted, he was 6-7 and close to 370 pounds; by last offseason, when he chose to work out on his own in Texas, in part because he wanted to be home for the birth of his son, he was closer to 400 pounds.
The choice was his
Sadiv knew all about Becton’s career as he prepared to meet with him in his office in February. He’d heard about the criticism that Becton can’t stay on the field, heard the whispers about his lack of motivation, and knew he’d be in for a challenge.
And when Sadiv sat down with the player, he saw someone who needed a kind hand.
“Everyone is motivated by different things,” Sadiv said. “Some people need to be encouraged. Some people need a push. Everybody needs different stimuli. Once I figured out what he needed the most, I was able to apply it in a one-on-one setting.”
Sadiv explained his vision to Becton.
“He needed someone to say to him, ‘You can do this. You’re an elite athlete. You’ll always be an elite athlete, and I’m going to show you how to be an elite athlete.’ He just needed reinforcement of who he really is. He’s not, ‘Oh, you’re going to eat yourself out of the league. You’re a 400-pound bust.’ He didn’t need to hear that. What he needed to hear was the truth.”
And what was it?
“You just maybe lost yourself along the way,” Sadiv told him. “I’m going to show you how to get back on the path, using some different [training] modalities. I have a lot of experience in the realm of weight management. I certainly know how to make people stronger. I know how to make myself stronger. So it was a perfect combination for me.”
As Becton listened to Sadiv, the message hit home.
“He was just telling me he was excited and he’s going to put in as much work as I put in, and my leg was actually shaking,” Becton said. “I was ready to work out at that moment in his office. Just excited to do this.”
The next step: Stand on the scale at the back of the room.
“The InBody 270,” Sadiv said, referring to the scale model. “I call it the lie detector.”
Becton stepped onto it. The digital readout: 394 pounds.
Sadiv told Becton he’d need to change his eating habits, reduce his caloric intake and work out with him five days a week for an hour and 15 minutes per session.
Becton said he was ready for the challenge.
Sadiv, who has worked with dozens of NFL players and whose client list includes Super Bowl champion Chris Long, Dominique Foxworth, Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch, Pro Bowl linebacker Demario Davis and Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman, wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Becton. Especially at the beginning, when it was a slog for the overweight lineman who once was dubbed “Big Ticket” during his college career at Louisville.
But Sadiv knew he’d made a breakthrough when Becton was having trouble during an exercise session.
“Very early on, he’s pushing a heavy sled, and he’s struggling because he was very de-conditioned,” Sadiv said. “He’s pushing and pushing and pushing, and he says, ‘Hey, Coach, I got a question for you.’ I said, ‘Sure, what is it?’ I thought he was going to ask how much the sled weighed, or how much longer would this go on.”
Becton stopped and said, “What’s the toughest part about being a father?”
“That’s when I knew I had made the connection, because I can be a lot of things to a lot of people, but the one thing I’m really good at is being an adult. And I don’t know if he’s had a lot of good adults in his life.”
Sadiv, 59, drawing from his own experiences as a parent, told Becton: “You’ll never know if you’re doing the right thing until the day when you’re going for a walk with your adult daughter and her dog, and she says to you, ‘Thank you.’ You don’t know when they’re 5, 6, 7, 8, you really don’t. You think you’re doing the right thing, but there’s no exam every quarter, there’s no report card. You just hope you’re doing the right thing.”
It was important advice for Becton, whose soon-to-be 1-year-old son means the world to him. “If it wasn’t for my son,” Becton said, “I don’t know where I’d be.”
Sadiv started sharing motivational messages he has collected over the years, drawing from the words of Zig Ziglar, former U.S. bobsledder-turned-coach Martin Rooney, and Dale Carnegie, whose book, “How To Win Friends and Influence People,” published in 1936, continues to influence people.
Even a young NFL player struggling to revive his career. Becton would text Sadiv in the evening, asking if he’d share another of Carnegie’s messages.
“The most important thing to a person is their name, so any time you want to address someone or get another person’s attention or have buy-in, you use their name as often as possible,” Sadiv said, referencing a Carnegie technique.
Another: “One of the greatest triumphs in life is when everybody says no, you have the ability to come up with a yes. You figure out how to push everything to the side.”
This one resonated, too. “Talk to yourself the same way you talk to someone you love,” Sadiv said. “Don’t beat yourself up, because guess what. The line is pretty long on that. Don’t get in that line.”
Day by day, Becton grew stronger. And grew more confident.
And the weight came off. Slowly at first, as the “lie detector” scale indicated. But the improvement continued.
His most recent weigh-in: 342 pounds.
“What Rich has been able to do with Mekhi in three months borders on the remarkable,” said Herman, who also credits the training of Long Island-based Jamie LaBelle, a former Sayville High football standout. “How do you take a guy who walks in here at 394 pounds and three months later, he’s 342. That’s a testament to the work that Mekhi has put in. He now has the chance to put all that negativity that has surrounded him over the past two years and become what he showed as a rookie. He’s in the best shape of his life, and his attitude is great going into the season.”
“There were people around me before who felt I was a naturally big person that would never get that low,” Becton said. “Just the change of scenery, I changed people that sit at my metaphoric table, I shuffled the deck a little bit, and it’s worked out. [Herman] and [Sadiv] changed my whole life around. They’ve helped me and guided me the right way. I feel like my life did a complete 180.”
‘I. AM. A. LEFT. TACKLE!!!’
Becton, who has been at the Jets’ offseason program and works out mostly on the side, choosing to do the bulk of his conditioning at Parisi, created a bit of a stir two weeks ago when he put a message on his Instagram account that read, “I. AM. A. LEFT. TACKLE!!!”
Although he later deleted the post, it caught the attention of Jets coach Robert Saleh, who was asked about it by reporters.
“Go earn the left tackle,” Saleh said. “The expectation for [Becton] is no different than anybody else. You wake up and find a way to get better and that’s who you are every single day. That’s the expectation. If it leads to starting, if it leads to a left tackle position, it doesn’t matter. If you go to bed satisfied with the way you approach each day and the way you attack it, odds are, it is going to work out in your favor. If it doesn’t, at least you go to bed knowing you tried your best.”
In Becton’s mind, there’s no question about where he wants — and needs — to play.
“I was just saying [on Instagram] what I know I am,” Becton said. “I got drafted as a left tackle. I dominated as a left tackle my rookie year, and I was going to dominate my second year, and that unfortunate injury happened. I’m a natural left tackle. I’m not a right tackle. I don’t care what people say. I know I’m going to go out there and prove it. People know what I can do. They’ve seen what I can do as a rookie, and I’m better now than I was then.”
Becton believes it was a mistake when the Jets put him at right tackle going into last year’s training camp, and not simply because he felt he was playing out of position. Because his right knee was injured, playing on the right side added further stress to the knee. He was told as much by orthopedic surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed the reconstructive surgery on Becton’s right knee last year.
“It made no sense to put me at right tackle,” he said. “I hurt my right knee. That’s going to be the knee that I put the most pressure on [while backpedaling in pass protection]. I explained it [to the coaches], but no one cared.”
Becton said his knee didn’t feel right in training camp last year on the day he was injured, and the end result was another lost season.
“I got forced to play a position I don’t play, and then I was pretty much telling them I wasn’t feeling good the whole time throughout camp, and I was told I shouldn’t be complaining,” he said. “Go out there and do it. I was limping throughout the whole practice, and I just took a step and my knee buckled and I got hurt again and had to get reconstructive surgery.”
The Jets declined to comment on Becton’s opinion that it was a mistake to play him at right tackle heading into training camp in 2022.
Asked about his relationship with the coaching staff now, Becton said: “They’re OK. I mean, it is what it is.”
The Jets have since hired a new offensive coordinator in Nathaniel Hackett and a new offensive line coach in former Titans assistant Keith Carter.
Becton is confident that he will regain his spot as the starting left tackle entrusted with protecting Rodgers’ blind side.
“They’ve been putting me on the depth chart as their third-string tackle because I’ve got to earn it,” he said, “but I know within a week, I’m going to be starting on that left side.”
Asked about Saleh’s reaction to the Instagram post, Becton said: “He didn’t do anything except wake another beast up. It was already awakened, but he didn’t do anything except poke it more. I’m ready.”
Becton added: “I’m striving to be the best tackle in the league.”
The Jets have their questions about how Becton will respond, and it was instructive that they chose not to sign Becton to a fifth-year option, meaning that he will become an unrestricted free agent after the season unless the Jets sign him to a new deal or apply the franchise tag on him in 2024.
“Just another chip on my shoulder,” Becton said of not being signed to the option. “I’ve really got a million of them. It’ll be a million and one. It’s all good. I’ve been doubted my whole life. It just makes me go harder. Just keep doubting me. Just that whenever I do what I know I’m going to do, don’t try to come back to this side. That’s all I’ve got to say.”