Bethea is Cards’ Man of the Year

The Arizona Republic - - Sports - Katherine Fitzger­ald

An­toine Bethea’s sched­ule has him all over the place.

On the field, the 13-year vet­eran safety leads the team in tack­les, with 98.

Away from it, he’s ex­tremely in­volved in com­mu­nity ser­vice, work­ing with a grow­ing num­ber of causes.

He’ll add some book sign­ings soon; His au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Bet on Your­self In­side the Mind of the Ul­ti­mate Un­der­dog, comes out Mon­day.

And on Thurs­day, Bethea stopped by one other spot: the Car­di­nals’ me­dia room for a spe­cial an­nounce­ment.

Bethea was named the Car­di­nals’

2018 Walter Pay­ton Man of the Year, an award which rec­og­nizes com­mu­nity ser­vice, in­volve­ment and phi­lan­thropy. The NFL an­nounced the nom­i­nees for each team Thurs­day morn­ing, and Car­di­nals Pres­i­dent Michael Bid­will pre­sented Bethea with his tro­phy Thurs­day af­ter prac­tice.

“It means a lot to me, just be­ing able to come out and lend a help­ing hand to the less for­tu­nate,” Bethea said. “Ob­vi­ously we’re in a great po­si­tion, we have a great plat­form where we can go out and do things that help peo­ple. It’s just an honor to be a re­cip­i­ent.”

A na­tive of New­port News, Vir­ginia, Bethea cred­its his par­ents for in­still­ing in him to al­ways give back af­ter hum­ble be­gin­nings. His fa­ther is a mil­i­tary vet­eran, his mom is a breast cancer sur­vivor, and both par­ents shaped his world­view.

“Be­ing able to get out and use my voice to hope­fully be able to turn some things around, that’s what I hope to do,” Bethea said.

One way Bethea uses his voice is on crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form. He el­e­vated the cause ear­lier this sea­son, go­ing with Bid­will and team­mates Tre Bos­ton and Corey Peters to meet with Gov. Doug Ducey to dis­cuss ways to re­duce re­cidi­vism and pro­vide sec­ond chances.

The Septem­ber meet­ing with Ducey was just a first step. Re­cently, Bethea, team­mates and Bid­will vis­ited Lewis state prison com­plex for a job fair, where they met with about 75 peo­ple who are in­car­cer­ated who were able to learn about job skills and job op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“An­toine and the other Car­di­nals that have been in­volved in this have been life chang­ing for so many of these in­mates that haven’t had any­one reach out to them in some­times decades,” Ducey said in a phone in­ter­view.

“For An­toine to show up, show that he cares, and to ac­tu­ally be work­ing on a plan so that they can have a sec­ond chance as they leave state prison, have a job, and have a fu­ture ahead of them, is some­thing that can make a huge dif­fer­ence, and some­thing that I’ve been very grate­ful that he’s wanted to take his ath­letic celebrity and use it in a way that can ben­e­fit oth­ers.”

With his tro­phy sit­ting to the side, Bethea ended the press con­fer­ence say­ing that the work he does is never done for an award. Any­one who works with him on so­cial jus­tice projects knows this to be true. Ducey points out that Bethea refuses to let any of his en­deav­ors sim­ply be­come a photo op. He’s sin­cere in his in­ter­est, he uti­lizes his time, and he ed­u­cates him­self on the is­sues.

“He asked a lot of ques­tions,” Ducey said. “He wanted to know what we had al­ready done, and what he planned to do. He wanted to be part of the so­lu­tion, and that’s why he’s been such an ef­fec­tive partner. And there’s more left to do, but what’s he done so far has re­ally put us in a po­si­tion to be suc­cess­ful for these peo­ple who re­ally need a help­ing hand and a lift up.”

Bethea has seen peo­ple close to him cy­cle through the prison sys­tem, which is part of what com­pelled him to get in­volved. He knows there’s no quick fix, but that doesn’t dis­cour­age him.

“These is­sues are is­sues that have been around for a long time, so we’re not go­ing to fix them overnight, but small things that we can do, con­tinue to talk, and bounce some more ideas off each other – whether they go through or not, be­ing able to have those con­ver­sa­tions, can go a long way,” Bethea told The Repub­lic in Oc­to­ber.

And there is mo­men­tum. The state leg­is­la­ture starts a new ses­sion next month.

“I would ex­pect some­time in the spring we will be work­ing and con­tin­u­ing to work on the di­a­logue around this sub­ject,” Bid­will said. “It’s in ev­ery­one’s in­ter­ests. These peo­ple have paid their debts to so­ci­ety, so let’s get them an op­por­tu­nity to get a job, get out there, and [re­duce re­cidi­vism.]”

No mat­ter when those next meet­ings hap­pen, Bethea has plenty to keep him busy. Around the hol­i­days, he foots the bill for 10 un­der­priv­i­leged fam­i­lies each year. Bethea runs sum­mer camps, fo­cus­ing both on phys­i­cal fit­ness and aca­demic suc­cess. He’s in­volved in the Car­di­nals’ lit­er­acy pro­mo­tion pro­grams and hos­pi­tal vis­its.

On top of all that, he started his non­profit, the Safe Cov­er­age Foun­da­tion, in 2010. The foun­da­tion serves stu­dents in his home­town. He also reg­u­larly do­nates and en­cour­ages oth­ers to do­nate to breast cancer re­search.

With all that in­volve­ment, it’s no sur­prise Bethea has been rec­og­nized be­fore. This is his sec­ond time re­ceiv­ing the award from a team. In 2013, he was the Colts’ re­cip­i­ent, in his eighth and fi­nal year with the team that drafted him. For the Car­di­nals, he’s made a name for him­self as a leader in just two sea­sons with the team.

“An­toine has done an amaz­ing job in the com­mu­nity – and not just this com­mu­nity, ev­ery com­mu­nity of teams he’s played in,” Bid­will said. “And he’s made a spe­cial im­pact in Ari­zona.”

In the last 10 years, two Car­di­nals play­ers have won the league-wide award: Kurt Warner in 2008 and Larry Fitzger­ald, a co-win­ner with Eli Man­ning, in 2016. Fitzger­ald was also a fi­nal­ist in 2012, so he knows what the award means and why Bethea de­serves it.

“I be­lieve he’s un­be­liev­ably de­serv­ing. He’s an un­be­liev­able team­mate, great am­bas­sador for what’s right about this league,” Fitzger­ald said. “You know he em­bod­ies what Mr. Pay­ton stood for. It’s an honor to have him rep­re­sent­ing our team as the Walter Pay­ton Man of the Year this year.”

Fitzger­ald voiced what team­mates across the locker room know to be true: Bethea is a leader on and off the field.

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