- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

Last January, Howard safety Antoine Bethea wondered whether he would be drafted.

Bethea had become one of just four players to be named a Black College All-American three times. Two of those players, Shannon Sharpe and Steve McNair, went on to become stars in the NFL. The third such player, linebacker Tracy White of Howard, wasn’t drafted and had to fight to make Seattle’s roster in 2003.

Bethea might not be at the level of Sharpe or McNair yet, but he certainly isn’t struggling to stay in the league, either. When Indianapolis plays host to New England in Sunday’s AFC Championship game, Bethea will start at strong safety for the Colts.

“I was just hoping to get on a team, and from there who knows what could happen?” said Bethea, whom the Colts took in the sixth round. “I’m happy to be making an impact.”

Bethea started three years for Howard, but the Bison posted sub-.500 records each season. Still, Bethea had been noticed by NFL scouts who had watched cornerback Ron Bartell, St. Louis’ second-round choice in 2005. And Bethea was one of a select group of Division I-AA players invited to the scouting combine last February at the RCA Dome, where he will play Sunday for a spot in the Super Bowl.

“At Howard, they pretty much put Antoine in center field and just let him go to the ball,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “He was always around the ball, and that really attracted us to him.”

The 22-year-old Bethea didn’t figure to be in this position nine months ago, but he impressed the Colts throughout minicamps and training camp. When veteran safety Mike Doss injured his knee in August, Bethea took over and has started all but two games.

“Antoine was one of the most instinctive young guys we had had,” said Dungy, himself a former safety. “He seemed to pick things up really well. He didn’t get overwhelmed by anything. With Mike and [free safety Bob Sanders] both being out early on, Antoine got a lot more time in camp and played more in preseason, but he was impressive from day one. The biggest surprise has probably been his poise. If Antoine makes a mistake out there, he’s able to explain what he saw, and you can make corrections. Antoine doesn’t make the same mistake twice.”

Bethea ranked third on the Colts’ defense with 90 tackles, and he picked off Trent Green’s Hail Mary late in the 23-8 wild-card victory over Kansas City, equaling his interception total from the season. However, Bethea’s interception of McNair’s pass at the 1-yard line midway through the second quarter of last week’s divisional playoff game probably was his biggest play. It preserved a lead the Colts never again came close to losing as they upset the host Baltimore Ravens 15-6.

“That’s really understanding the other team’s offense and not being afraid to go make a play,” Dungy said. “It’s leaving your zone a little bit, getting a jump on the ball and knowing that [tight end Todd Heap] is the guy they like to go to in those situations. Antoine understands the game and puts himself in the right spot.”

Bethea didn’t expect to be in that spot coming out of Newport News, Va. He wasn’t recruited by any big-time schools and was considering Hampton and Norfolk State before following his high school coach to Howard. A middle linebacker and tight end in high school, Bethea was moved to safety as a freshman by defensive backs coach Ron Bolton, a former cornerback for the Patriots and Cleveland Browns. A year later, Bethea was an All-American with a career-high 109 tackles.

“Anything to get me on the field,” said Bethea, who inherited his hard-nosed attitude from his father, Larry, a career Army man. “When you’re playing little league, everyone wants to be the quarterback or running back, but my older brother, Alexon, played linebacker, so I wanted to do that, too. I like to hit.”

The 5-foot-11, 203-pound Bethea has been a big enough hit as a rookie that he might be tough for Doss to dislodge next season.

“When you get a starter on the second day of the draft, you’re excited,” Dungy said. “Antoine is a good tackler because he gets great position, but he probably has to get a little stronger. He doesn’t have a big body. Antoine’s very quiet. He’s humble and business-like. He listens. He’s everything you’d want in a young guy.”

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