From Blythewood to Big Time: Bethel Lives Out Pro Bowl Dream

Former Blythewood High School Bengal Justin Bethel (31), now a punt coverage specialist for the Arizona Cardinals, lines up during Sunday’s NFL Pro Bowl against New England’s Matthew Slater. (Photo/Warren Lee)

HONOLULU, HAWAII – As he stepped back from the platform and fell in line with his Pro-Bowl teammates, Justin Bethel felt for a brief moment that he was dreaming.

The final syllable of his name echoed through the salt-cured corridors of Aloha Stadium, drowning out the announcer’s steady-beat background music, and blending with the woos, whistles and rabid applause of the crowd. The rolling wave of sound and sensation climbed higher, above the last row of the nose-bleeds and up the sides of every royal green mountain that soldierly surrounds Honolulu, until it was absorbed by the sunken rain clouds suspended over the city from the tips of the mountains like a bed-sheet roof on a childhood fort. The moment was surreal.

But after a slap on the shoulder pads from Team Rice teammate and fellow Arizona Cardinal Larry Fitzgerald, and a deep, centering breath, Bethel acknowledged the sobering reality of his surroundings. No, he was not having a dream. He was fulfilling one.

To understand the transformation of Justin Bethel, the nine-year old church drummer from Blythewood, into Justin Bethel, 2014 NFL Pro-Bowl selection, look no further than Bethel himself. For whatever amount of praise bestowed upon him, Bethel has earned every bit of it.

“I’ve been a competitive, hard-working person my entire life,” said Bethel. “I try to make sure my best is better than everyone else’s best. If I can’t say that, then I’m not working hard enough.”

This hunger for improvement has proved well for Bethel, starting back in 2006 when he helped bring home Blythewood High School their first state championship.

“Blythewood will always be special to me, not only because I was lucky enough to be a part of the state championship team, but also because a lot of the coaches I know are still there and it’s always good to see them when I am home,” said Bethel. “It means a lot to me. I have some great memories there.”

In the business of making memories, Bethel has been swamped. After finishing his second season for the Arizona Cardinals as a special teams gunner with 21 tackles and an 82-yard fumble return for a touchdown, Bethel was selected as a special teams player for the 2014 NFL Pro Bowl.

“It has been an honor and a great experience, spending time with all of these great players, taking in the sights of Hawaii, and hanging out with some guys I don’t get to see very often,” said Bethel.

Bethel played a little football on Sunday as well.

On their first possession, Team Rice was held to a three-and-out, forcing a punt. Bethel trotted out onto the field and took his position as the right-side gunner. The ball was snapped and Johnny Hekker, punter from the St. Louis Rams, kicked the ball high into the air.

Just as the punt returner, Cordarelle Patterson, caught the ball, he was walloped by a flash of white and fluorescent orange. Again, Bethel’s name resonated around the stadium.

Team Rice went on to win the game 22-21 on a last minute touchdown drive capped off by the go-ahead 2-point conversion by DeMarco Murray.

Most of us in Bethel’s position might easily be tempted to rest on our laurels, having just turned in one of the more memorable individual performances in Pro Bowl history. It’s no surprise then, that Bethel has plans for quite the opposite this offseason.

“This offseason, I’m going to focus on cornerback drills, so I can play that position as well,” said Bethel. “I want to be on the field as much as I can, so I am going to keep working at it, working on my footwork, my eye discipline, finding the ball in the air . . . stuff like that.”