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Cardinals’ Antoine Bethea bet on himself — and it paid off

An underdog who is now a Super Bowl champion tells his story in new autobiography

It comes as little surprise that Antoine Bethea saw a play developing way before anyone else.

It was during the 2014 season: Earlier that year, Colin Kaepernick had inked a six-year contract extension with the San Francisco 49ers worth up to $126 million, including $54 million in potential guarantees and $13 million fully guaranteed. Bethea had just signed with the 49ers himself after eight seasons in Indianapolis, where he missed only three games and had 569 solo tackles. The three-time Pro Bowl safety saw something brewing in his new team’s quarterback that would eventually make international headlines.

“Growing up in Newport News, we all wanted to be Allen Iverson. And then, as you grow up, you see some guys falling off to the wayside, getting lost in the streets.”

“You did see that shift,” Bethea said of Kaepernick, who started kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” in August 2016 to protest racial inequality and police brutality toward African-Americans. “Slowly but surely we saw that shift, and I think it was something good for him, good for the league and I think good for his peers. He forced a lot of his peers to start to speak up. Guys playing in the league, you know you have that platform and we have to use that platform, and guys are starting to do that in a major way, regardless if people like it or not. That’s part of our job. [We’re] not only going out there and playing football, it’s also to help make a difference — speaking up and using your voice. That’s part of making a difference.”

Now a safety for the Arizona Cardinals, Bethea, 34, who is in his 13th NFL season, is using his public platform to tell his story in his autobiography Bet On Yourself: Inside the Mind of the Ultimate Underdog, out Dec. 10. Like Kaepernick and his decision to take a public stance for social justice, Bethea felt a calling to do it.

“It was actually a couple of years ago,” explained Bethea. “I would go back home and speak to some student-athletes, just telling my story, and after I would speak, [people] would come up to me and tell me that I have a good story and that I should tell it more often. And last year, I felt in my heart, ‘You should put it on paper. Tell your story.’ I was able to do that, and here we are.”

What resonated most with Bethea’s audiences is the relatability of his story — how he’s managed to achieve so much despite always being an undersized underdog.

“I speak on it in the book,” said Bethea, who was born in Savannah, Georgia, and raised in Newport News, Virginia. “Seeing my mom going through a lot of medical scares, having a brain tumor, having a brain aneurysm, beating breast cancer, my brother getting shot, my uncle getting killed. Obviously, character goes a long way on and off the field. Growing up in Newport News, Virginia, being able to grow up in those types of environments, helped to build the person that I am today: someone who succeeded off the field as well as on it.”

A star athlete at Denbigh High School, where he was a three-year letterman in football and basketball, Bethea was hardly a can’t-miss prospect in the eyes of Division I schools. Not a single school, in any division, offered the 5-foot-11 athlete a scholarship despite his all-area and all-conference accolades in two sports. In a way, Bethea understood why.

“Really, it’s the type of background I come from: small in stature, not really getting recruited coming out of high school. My options were few. Growing up in Newport News, we all wanted to be [Hampton, Virginia, native] Allen Iverson, and so everyone talked about wanting to be professional athletes. And then, as you grow up, you see some guys falling off to the wayside, getting lost in the streets. The three things that we always talk about is that even getting out of Newport News, you were either going to the military or you were the one getting lost in the streets.”

The streets didn’t get Bethea, but Howard University did.

“I ended up going to an HBCU [historically black college or university], Howard University, a school not really known for athletics, and then from there just keep continuing to strive to end up as a sixth-round draft pick, starting my rookie year, winning a Super Bowl my rookie year, and now 13 years later I’m still in the league. I always tell the kids, ‘You gotta write your own narrative. You can’t tell people where you’re gonna be, how you’re gonna do it,’ ” said Bethea, whose tenure in San Francisco lasted three seasons, the last coming in 2016, when he was the team’s leading tackler with 110 takedowns.

“Everybody wants to go to Ohio State and Alabama, but at the end of the day, everybody can go down a different path and it’s up to you, at the end of the day, to write your story.”

His coaches believed in him

Bethea’s high school football coach, A.C. Cauthorn, was convinced of his potential, and the man who would eventually be his college coach, Ray Petty, became a believer as well. “I went to a couple of his high school football and basketball games,” said Petty, who had two stints as Howard’s head coach, from 2002 to 2006 and again for a single campaign in 2013. “He really was impressive in basketball: really explosive, had good speed and good timing. But as a football player, he was relatively small at that time, maybe 165 or 170 pounds, and so a lot of people didn’t go pursue him hard as a Division I-type defensive back.”

“But I’m glad A.C. convinced me,” added Petty, who would later bring Cauthorn onto to his staff as offensive coordinator.

Bethea bet on himself and joined the team as a walk-on before eventually landing a full scholarship. An administration of justice major, Bethea would see action in five games as a backup in the secondary (collecting 13 total tackles) his freshman year. His sophomore year, he posted a career-best 109 stops while starting in 10 of 11 games.

“The budget didn’t allow for us to give him a full scholarship his first year, but he was a full-scholarship person after that first year — because he earned it,” the coach said. “There was no stopping him after that.”

Bethea would start 31 of 37 games at safety for the Bison, earning All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference honors and selection to the American Urban Radio Network Sheridan Broadcasting Network Black College All-American Team, joining the likes of HBCU greats Steve McNair and Shannon Sharpe.

The secret to Bethea’s success, Petty says, was his knack for the fundamentals, something that’s sustained him in the NFL. “The one thing about him was he is very smart, especially being little bit smaller, smart enough to know when to go in [on a tackle] face in and when to get on the guy and just get him down.”

For Bethea, who plans to play two more seasons, his story is hardly limited to just athletes. He aims to reach people who want to achieve more for themselves and their communities.

“I needed to tell this story because I know there are so many other young men, women, even young professionals, who are where I was,” said Bethea.

In 2010, he hosted his inaugural college tour for youths from Newport News to Howard and George Mason universities with his Safe Coverage College Foundation, which aims to connect inner-city high school students and universities by exposing the students to campus life.

“They’re being told, ‘No, you’re not going to be able to do this,’ ” said Bethea, who has two kids — Siani, 5, and Asaiah, 2 — with his wife, Samantha, a fellow Bison. “Even if it’s a situation where you know you don’t have the resources, everybody’s been an underdog at some point time in their lives. When I tell people about the book, that’s what I want them to get out of it. I still consider myself an underdog, but you have to use those experiences that you go through to help you overcome.”

As for his former teammate, Kaepernick, Bethea has kept a watchful eye — but he fears that the 31-year-old’s social activism will continue to keep him from gaining employment in the league.

“Do I think it’s right? No, but I just feel as though if it hasn’t happened now, I don’t see it happening,” Bethea said. “Even though we watch some quarterback play [around the league] where he definitely should be on somebody’s roster. But we all know it’s a bigger issue than just football.”

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.