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Antoine Bethea's Uncommon Path to NFL Stardom

His mailbox wasn't flooded with letters.

College football coaches weren't lining up at his front door, ready to roll out the red carpet and coax him to ink his name on a four-year commitment.

Antoine Bethea, an eventual three-time Pro Bowler player in the NFL, had no offers. Not one.

At the time, however, that wasn't much of a surprise. Few Division I college football programs were in the market for a 5-foot-10, 170-pound middle linebacker. That's the position a slender Bethea called home at Newport News High School in Newport News, Va.

"When recruiters were coming in, they'd say, 'This guy isn't a college linebacker,'" Bethea said.

The dual-sport athlete had no shortage of natural ability despite his undersized frame. Bethea was a tackling machine on the football field, heralded for his on-field instincts.

But that's not how Rayford Petty first noticed Bethea. Petty, the defensive coordinator for Norfolk State University at the time, happened to be attending a Newport News basketball game when he began scouting Bethea.

"His athleticism and aggression on the basketball court I thought was really impressive," Petty said.

Petty, who also had a friendship with the Newport News head football coach, then put on Bethea's football tape. The coach noticed that the linebacker's physicality was exceptional for a player of his size.

During Bethea's senior season in 2001, Petty was hired as the head coach at Howard University. It became a natural fit for Bethea, the Newport News star, to follow Petty to the nation's capital and became a Bison.

Since it was late in the recruiting process, Petty could only offer Bethea a partial scholarship.

Not even Bethea himself could have anticipated the success that would follow.

"I wasn't leaving high school saying, 'I'm going to the NFL,'" Bethea said. "Of course, as a kid, that's your dream, to play a professional sport, but my thing was to go to college, play four more years, get an education and get out of my comfort zone."

Bethea began his transition to safety during his freshman year under the direction of Howard's secondary coach, Ron Bolton.

Bolton, maybe even more so than Petty, knew he had something special in Bethea.

"I figured if he could tackle at linebacker then he could tackle at free safety and run the alley for us," Bolton said. "He did a great job. He worked hard.

"We already had an All-American safety, and I felt that when he got to Howard, he was as good or better than the All-American. No one really believed me when I said that."

And so "Deuce," as Bethea became known in his No. 2 jersey, bided his time as a backup.

The linebacker-turned-safety still managed to earn a full scholarship even as a second-stringer entering his sophomore season. 

In Howard's first game of the season, the team's starting strong safety went down with an injury just before halftime. 

"They told me at halftime, 'Antoine, you're going in,'" Bethea said. "I ended up finishing the game with 10 tackles."

Bethea never looked back. His time as a linebacker made him more physical than most safeties and far better against the run. Bethea's skills in coverage only improved as he continued to settle into his new position. 

Later that season against Hampton University, Howard's rival and the school closest to Bethea's hometown, the safety experienced his true coming out party.

In the game, Bethea recorded 12 tackles, recovered three fumbles and returned one for a touchdown.

"Those were the games where my coaches said, 'That's when "Deuce" arrived,'" Bethea said.

By his junior year, Bethea was a staple on Howard's defense. In addition to "playing at a different speed" and "trying to get the ball on every play," Bolton said that Bethea's football IQ was unlike any player he'd come across.

"He had a special knack," Bolton said. "He's cerebral. He's able to move and think and understand the defense. He had a grasp of our defense as well as any of the coaches. He was like a quarterback on the field."

Bethea, who twice led Howard in tackles, went on to win MEAC first-team All-Conference honors three straight years. During that stretch, Bethea was also a Black College All-American. Just this year in 2015, Bethea was inducted into the MEAC Hall of Fame.

When the decorated collegiate career that Bethea called, "The best four years of my life," neared its end, the safety had a decision to make.

Bethea was one semester away from finishing his degree in criminal justice but also had the opportunity to train full-time for the 2006 NFL Scouting Combine.

"In my mind and my dad's mind, that was my one opportunity, and so I put all my eggs in that basket to see what happened," Bethea said.

After months of hard work in Duluth, Ga., and a successful showing at the combine, the Indianapolis Colts selected Bethea in the sixth round (207th overall) of the 2006 NFL Draft.

Bethea won't ever forget the phone call from Tony Dungy.

"It's one of those moments that you live for," Bethea said. "It was actually a crazy day for me. … When Coach Dungy called and asked if I wanted to be a Colt, it was confirmation that all my hard work paid off. I never thought I'd be in that position."

To put the safety's odds of making it to the NFL into perspective, Bethea is one of only seven players and the most recent to get drafted from Howard.

Bethea became a starter for the Colts as a rookie and helped the team win Super Bowl XLI against the Chicago Bears.

In 2007, the safety made his first Pro Bowl, becoming the only player from Howard to ever accomplish that feat.

Starting in 2008, Bethea began a streak of what is now 117 consecutive starts. That stands as the seventh-longest active streak in the NFL.

In 2014, his first season with the San Francisco 49ers, Bethea made his third Pro Bowl and was named the team's MVP.

The laundry list of NFL accolades makes it hard to remember the 5-foot-10 linebacker that almost never played a down of college football. Bethea's continued success speaks volumes about his character and drive.

His mother, Verina Bethea, can be thanked for that.

Bethea has been called "too small." He fell to the sixth round of the draft, even though his coaches thought he had the talent to be a second-rounder.

Many athletes embrace the "chip on your shoulder" mentality and use perceived slights as their primary source of motivation. Not Bethea.

"I always taught him, 'Keep shoulders level. Don't ever get that chip on your shoulder that you're better than anyone,'" Miss Bethea said.

So Bethea replaces that chip with an appreciation for where he came from.

Now, through his Safe Coverage Foundation established in 2010, Bethea is paying it forward to high school students in Newport News.

Created to provide access and resources for students to achieve their dreams of a higher education, the foundation organizes college tours for students at George Mason and Howard University. 

Students can also apply to receive laptops and iPads for use at a two- or four-year college program.

"Without education, you're not going to go anywhere," Bethea said. "That's just plain and simple. For me, I feel as though getting in those books and getting an education, our youth will have a brighter future."

Bethea talked the talk, but in the spring of 2010, he took his own advice. During the NFL lockout, the safety took the opportunity to return to Howard and complete his final semester.

While he awaited word on a deal between the player's union and the NFL, Bethea was living the college life again. He spent every day in class, taking the exams and all.

When it came time to put on the cap and gown, Miss Bethea sat in the crowd, proud of her son's latest triumph.

"She was excited," Bethea said. "It was a promise I gave to her, that I was going to go back and I was going to finish my education. I told her that she'd be able to watch me walk across that stage."

And for all the success, both on the field and off, Bethea's greatest accomplishment came a few years later.

In 2013, Bethea and his wife Samantha gave birth to a daughter, Siani. 

"Knowing someone else is dependent on you," Bethea said. "When I walk in the house and I hear those little feet running up to me, by far being a father is my greatest accomplishment. And being a good father at that."

Bethea credits his entire family for keeping him grounded throughout his decade-long NFL career. The safety said he's well aware that not everyone is lucky enough to be given the support and the means to be successful.

That's why when Bethea visits Howard every year, Petty said he's still the same person that he first recruited out of Newport News High School. Petty called Bethea the best player he's ever coached, but he made it clear that's not what makes the safety such a rarity.

"I'm just happy for he and his family," Petty said. "I'm proud of him as a human being more than a football player."

Miss Bethea would agree. And while a proud mom can come up with an endless list of adjectives to describe her son, Miss Bethea only needed one.

"He's super," she said. "Antoine is a super son."

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