The San Francisco 49ers injury report this year has often read more like a Pro Bowl ballot.
Joe Staley, toe.
NaVorro Bowman, knee.
Glenn Dorsey, bicep.
Daniel Kilgore, leg.
The list goes on.
Yet through all of the instability surrounding him, one player has managed to keep a rather impressive streak alive.
Antoine Bethea, in his first year in San Francisco, is one of only four 49ers defenders to start every game this season. The others: Justin Smith, Michael Wilhoite and Eric Reid, who left the team's Week 16 game versus the San Diego Chargers with a concussion.
A nice stat for his teammates, the perfect attendance is especially meaningful for Bethea. The 30-year-old safety has not missed a start since the beginning of the 2007 season. That streak – 111 games – is the longest among active defensive backs and is tied for the eighth-longest overall.
"I always say it's a blessing to be able to go out there week in and week out," Bethea said. "As a player, you know that any given day or any given play, something can happen and it can be over in a flash."
Bethea's track record of durability played a part in the 49ers signing him to a four-year deal in March to replace the departed Donte Whitner.
After eight standout seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Bethea has lived up to his billing in his first go around with the 49ers. As the team's second-leading tackler, Bethea is a strong candidate to earn his third Pro Bowl selection.
"He has meant a lot to us," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "He took over an important position, replacing a guy that had been an important player here for us. And it's been seamless. He's earned the respect of all his teammates and his coaches, and we're very glad we have him."
Bethea's services, however, weren't always in high demand. Undersized in high school, Bethea didn't elicit much attention from big-time colleges. Only after an accolade-filled career at Howard University, a Football Championship Subdivision school in Washington D.C., did Bethea appear on the NFL's radar.
To become an iron man in the pros, he first had to relentlessly prove his worth at every step along the way.
To learn more about Bethea's unheralded path to the NFL, we spoke to his high school and college coaches and asked them how Bethea became the dependable leader and playmaker that he is today.
Tracy Harrod spent five years with Bethea at Denbigh High School in Newport News, Va.
The pair first worked together on the junior varsity football team when Bethea was only an eighth grader. Bethea, later a three-year letterman at Denbigh, also starred on the school's basketball team, which was coached by Harrod as well.
Even though a decade has passed since Bethea graduated high school, Harrod still refers to his former pupil as "'Toine." That's because the two have remained close, seeing each other a few times a year to catch up and reminisce.
When you hear Antoine Bethea's name all of these years later, what comes to mind?
Team photographer Terrell Lloyd captured the safety's Week 16 interception of Philip Rivers, which Bethea returned for a touchdown.
"Just what great of a person he is. He worked hard on his craft, but he also worked hard in the classroom. It was always, 'Yes sir.' You didn't have to ask him to do something twice. He comes from a great family. They are great people, and they did a great job raising him. Now when he comes to town, he makes sure he stays in touch with the people that took care of him growing up. I think that just speaks to the kind of guy 'Toine is."
Without a height or weight advantage, how did Bethea develop into such a physical player?
"People forget, but we actually played him at middle linebacker his senior year. He was probably 150 pounds and 5-foot-9, but he wanted to prove that he was tough enough. I think his football IQ carried him a long ways. He didn't feel handicapped by his size at all. He wasn't scared of anything. He was simply the best tackler we had on the team, and he had a great season there for us."
Do you have a favorite memory of Bethea in high school?
"We played Kecoughtan High School (in Hampton, Va.,) his senior year, and I think we won by a final score of 5-3. 'Toine had 22 tackles that game. I'll never forget that game because he was a small guy playing in there at inside linebacker. I had never seen anything like that."
Did Bethea's lack of recruitment motivate him to prove people wrong?
"I think so. 'Toine definitely felt that he could play football at the next level. When he was coming out of high school, he just needed someone to give him a chance. A lot of schools didn't take 'Toine. I told some people, 'This guy has a chance to go a long way.' Years later, I've had people tell me, 'Man, we sure missed the boat on Bethea.'"
By the time Bethea was a sophomore at Howard, coach Rayford Petty knew he had a special player on his hands.
Bethea tallied 109 tackles that season, but because he did so in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference – not in the SEC or the Pac-12 – Bethea didn't get the notoriety that Petty felt he deserved.
It wasn't until scouts began showing up to watch Howard's other star, cornerback Ron Bartell, that Bethea was able to turn himself into prospect. Bartell did too: He played nine NFL seasons for three teams.
By the end of Bethea's career at Howard – which included seven forced fumbles, seven interceptions and two touchdown returns – Bethea had proven enough for the Colts to select him in the sixth round of the 2006 draft.
What made you take a shot on Bethea coming out of high school?**
"He was a small, inside linebacker at that time, but he had great skills. I actually saw him play basketball a little bit, and that convinced me that he would be able to play in the secondary. When he came here, he was only on a partial scholarship. We didn't have a lot of scholarships remaining, so he spent his first year only on partial. But once he got into a starting role, he immediately became a playmaker for us."
Bethea is very proud of his streak of consecutive games started in the NFL; did he ever miss playing time at Howard?
"I don't recall him ever missing a game – or even a play for that matter. He plays the game the right way. He's great with form tackling, he's smart and he's always in the right position. A lot of players knew how to play the game fast and physical, but he knew how to do that while also taking care of his body."
Bethea has become a leader on the 49ers in his first season with the team; has he always shown those characteristics?
"He was a leader from the time he stepped on the field here – even as a freshman. He was the leader of that group and it just continued to build as he got older. More and more people became followers of him. Everything he did, he was doing it the correct way.
Bethea has hosted football camps for local youth at Howard; how often does he come back to the school? "Every break he gets, he comes back. He doesn't just come to hang out with all of his buddies, he comes to spends time with the players and work with the young kids. He wants those who came after him to get every opportunity he didn't get growing up."