Elvin Bethea was arguably the greatest third-round selection in Houston Oilers’ franchise history.
In the bigger scheme of things, Bethea, the 77th overall selection of the 1968 AFL/NFL Draft, became one of the best pass rushers who ever donned the Oilers’ colors of Columbia blue, scarlet red, and white.
Bethea played in 135 consecutive games for the Oilers from 1968 to 1977. He recorded double-digit numbers in sacks six times during that impressive ten-year span.
Bethea’s strength and athleticism commanded double teams from offensive linemen. Eventual Hall of Famers, Art Shell and Gene Upshaw, always thought Bethea was a handful whenever their teams squared off on the gridiron.
Bethea, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, helped the Oilers become a force in the mid-to-late 1970s under the leadership of the great Bum Phillips.
Bethea eventually entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH in the summer of 2003.
This is Elvin Bethea’s inspiring football story.
Elvin Lamont Bethea was born to parents James and Henrietta in Trenton, NJ on March 1, 1946. Elvin was part of a large family. He was the oldest of nine siblings growing up in the Bethea household.
According to Elvin’s 2005 autobiography, Smash-Mouth: My Football Journey from Trenton to Canton, his mother was from Maryland while his father was from South Carolina.
They met when Henrietta was a student at Apex College in Trenton, NJ. At the time, James Bethea was a factory worker in the southern part of New Jersey. He previously served as a military policeman in World War II.
The couple wasn’t married yet when Elvin entered the world in the spring of 1946. Consequently, he carried his mother’s surname and was known as “Elvin Carey” until the state made changes to his birth certificate in 1959.
Elvin’s father, who stood 6’3″ and weighed between 270 and 280 pounds, was a simple man who lived to work and not the other way around. His only hobbies were chewing tobacco and listening to The Amos N’ Andy Show on Sunday evenings.
On the other hand, he described his mother as a laid-back and religious woman who rarely blew a fuse. Henrietta Bethea was also a woman who never hesitated to help anybody in need.
One valuable lesson Elvin and his siblings learned from her was authenticity. Her motto was to “just be yourself,” per her son’s 2005 book.
As the Bethea family grew bigger, James and Henrietta laid down the law whenever Elvin or any of his brothers or sisters tested their authority. Their mom or dad “whipped them good” whenever they disobeyed.
When any of the children forgot to mop the floor or do any of the chores their parents assigned them, their mom or dad would beat them with an electric iron cord or belt.
One night, Elvin went to bed but forgot to do a chore his dad had asked him to do. Elvin was sound asleep when James whipped him with the cord.
Happy birthday to former #Oilers DE and Pro Football Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea, who turns 76 today
🏥 Trenton, NJ
🎓 North Carolina A&T
♦️ Drafted in 1968 (3-77)
📊 16 FR, TD; 105 sacks; 2 safeties
📹Big E's 38-yard FR TD at Cincy (1974)
— 𝕃𝕦𝕧 𝕐𝕒 𝔹𝕝𝕦𝕖 (@BudsOilers) March 1, 2022
In his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 2003, Bethea mentioned that he’d grown up playing soccer in the Garden State. He played the game until he was in the ninth grade.
Elvin Bethea attended Trenton Central High School in his hometown. He suited up for Trenton Central Tornadoes head football coach “Coach Clements.”
When Bethea was a ninth grader, he did not know much about gridiron football. He had always been enamored with soccer until that point in his life.
One day, Bethea and his friend tried out for the Tornadoes’ junior varsity squad. It was a roll of the dice for the two boys.
Coach Clements, who was diminutive in stature, told Bethea he made the varsity squad roster the following day. The coach said he liked Elvin’s scrappy nature and athleticism on the high school gridiron.
Elvin Bethea’s evolution from Trenton high school football player to Pro Football Hall of Famer had officially begun.
Bethea also excelled in track for the Trenton Central Tornadoes. His shot put throw in his senior year in 1964 traveled a distance of 66’5″ and set a New Jersey state record that stood for the next thirty-three years.
As Bethea’s high school football career wound down, he remembered his mother choosing North Carolina A&T University—a historically black college in Greensboro, NC—for him.
She packed his clothes for him, purchased a white shirt worth $2, accompanied him to a football coach’s car, and bade him goodbye.
A crucial position switch during Elvin Bethea’s sophomore season with the North Carolina A&T Aggies in 1965 set the tone for his eventual Hall of Fame career with the NFL’s Houston Oilers.
College Days with the North Carolina A&T Aggies
Elvin Bethea attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, NC from 1964 to 1967.
When Bethea entered the college football ranks in the mid-1960s, he crossed paths with North Carolina A&T Aggies assistant football coach Hornsby Howell.
Bethea compared Howell to a trainer when he played his first college down. As time went by, Howell became more of a coach—somebody who used football as a platform to mold his players into upstanding young men.
Bethea still remembered Howell’s sayings and quotes when he entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH in the summer of 2003.
One particular quote that stood out for Bethea was, “Either good or be gone because I’m not leaving.”
During his true freshman season in 1964, Bethea told Howell he was the most outstanding offensive lineman he would ever coach, something the coach would remember years later.
Behind Bethea’s exploits on the Aggies’ offensive line, North Carolina A&T won its fifth CIAA title that year.
The turning point in Elvin Bethea’s gridiron career came the following year.
In 1965, Bethea went toe-to-toe with Tennessee State Tigers defensive lineman Claude Humphrey, an eventual Hall of Famer who played eleven seasons for the Atlanta Falcons.
Humphrey was so good, Howell wrote him a letter after the game thanking him for his competitiveness.
A special thank you to North Carolina A&T’s one and only NFL Pro Football Hall of Famer, Elvin Bethea for coming by practice and sharing words of wisdom to our student-athletes! #GHOE#AggiePride | #LOA | #OneHeartbeat pic.twitter.com/2RfkjYiqf6
— Aggie Pride (@NCATFootball) October 28, 2022
Howell decided to convert Elvin Bethea into a defensive end from that point onward. The rest, as they say, was history.
Howell always remembered Bethea for his integrity on and off the football field during his college days at North Carolina A&T.
“Even though no one was watching, you could always find him doing the little extra, trying to improve his craft, constantly trying to make himself better, making the sacrifices for the team,” Howell said in 2003. “These are the things that I’ve found in Elvin over the years.”
Bethea eventually settled in at defensive end for the Aggies and became one of the most unheralded pass rushers in the nation in the late 1960s.
With that, Elvin Bethea became arguably the best third-round selection in Houston Oilers franchise history in the next phase of his gridiron journey.
Pro Football Career
The Houston Oilers made Elvin Bethea the 77th overall selection of the 1968 AFL/NFL Draft.
Bethea was part of a 1968 NFL Draft class that produced three other future Hall of Famers: Larry Csonka, Art Shell, and Ron Yary.
Elvin, who had no idea who the Oilers were, went on to spend his entire 16-year pro football career in Houston.
In the spring of 2013, Bethea told the Tennessee Titans’ official website he and his contemporaries earned roughly $15,000 annually during their time.
Even though it wasn’t much, Bethea considered it a fortune because of his humble beginnings on the gridiron.
“We were paid what, a thousand dollars a game?” Bethea said. “But you’re so happy, and honored and so gracious that you left college, and especially me, I went to a small college and went to (pro football). I thought it was the greatest thing since cotton candy.”
Elvin Bethea was a DE out of North Carolina A&T drafted in the 3rd round, pick 77 of the 1968 draft by @Titans then the Houston Oilers. During a majority of Bethea’s career, sacks and FF were not recorded stats so therefore we do not have official stats for that. pic.twitter.com/2BiBMO4ohV
— Random Oilers and Titans Players⚔️ (@OilersandTitans) June 4, 2021
Bethea played for seven head coaches during that 16-year period: Wally Lemm, Ed Hughes, Bill Peterson, Sid Gillman, Bum Phillips, Ed Biles, and Chuck Studley.
In Elvin Bethea’s opinion, two of them stood out: Gillman and Phillips.
The Oilers were a mediocre football team in their last two years in the American Football League (AFL) from 1968 to 1969.
They never won more than seven games during that two-year time frame. Houston lost to John Madden’s Oakland Raiders in the 1969 Divisional Round in embarrassing fashion, 56-7.
Still Struggling in a New League
Houston became the NFL’s laughingstock when the team entered the league in 1970.
The Oilers averaged just two wins per season from 1970 to 1973. Houston’s pitiful performance prompted owner Bud Adams to hire former Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers head coach Sid Gillman prior to the 1974 NFL campaign.
Gillman was a tough, no-nonsense coach who did not mince words. Although many of the Oilers did not like Gillman, Bethea was one of the exceptions. He not only considered Gillman a coach, but also a friend.
Despite Gillman’s past track record, the Oilers won just seven games in the 1974 NFL season. They extended their NFL postseason drought to five seasons.
After Gillman left the Oilers organization prior to the 1975 NFL season, Phillips, his defensive coordinator, replaced him.
When Bethea saw Phillips—a Texas guy to the core—wear his traditional cowboy hat and boots on the sideline, he thought he meant business, per ProFootballHOF.com.
To Bethea’s astonishment, Phillips was the polar opposite of Gillman. The former was more laid back when he coached the Oilers from 1975 to 1980.
When Phillips ran training camp, Bethea compared them to country clubs. The Oilers also had “Pizza and Pickin’ Night” every Thursday night. They ate pizza and drank beer while a country band played music.
Bethea also noticed Phillips had a soft spot for Houston’s veteran players.
“He took care of the old players,” Bethea said in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 2003. “The older you were, the better he liked you.”
A New Era
Phillips noticed Bethea was a quiet and reserved player in the Oilers’ locker room. However, he morphed into a mouthy defensive menace once he took the field.
Phillips also admired Bethea’s conditioning.
“He was always in top condition,” Phillips told The Associated Press (via ESPN) in the summer of 2003. “Elvin could play a whole ballgame defensively; and in the fourth quarter, he was still fresh.”
Surprisingly, Phillips’s laid-back approach worked like a charm for Bethea and company. He was the right coach at the right time for the Oilers.
Under Phillips’s leadership, Houston won an average of nine games per year from 1975 to 1980.
Elvin Bethea, Hall of Famer and 8x Pro Bowler, shared this funny #ThrowbackThursday memory about Coach Andrew "Bum" Phillips and his time as a Houston Oiler during his 2003 enshrinement speech. 🍕🤠 pic.twitter.com/8Vi7lCGLG4
— PFRPA (@ThePFRPA) September 26, 2019
Phillips also led the Oilers to three consecutive postseason appearances in his last three years at the helm from 1978 to 1980. Houston reached the AFC Championship Game twice during that memorable three-year stretch.
As the 1970s decade wound down, Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers tormented them in the AFC title game and repeatedly broke their hearts.
“The road to the Super Bowl passed through Pittsburgh,” Bethea said (via ProFootballHOF.com).
Despite the heartbreaking losses to the Steelers, Elvin Bethea never forgot the unbelievable support from Houston Oilers fans.
They filled the Astrodome to capacity after the losses to Pittsburgh in 1978 and 1979. The fans rallied behind the Oilers in spite of how their two seasons ended.
“The thing that stood out was the fans,” Bethea told The Associated Press (via ESPN) some twenty-five years later. “Coming back, and those 50,000 fans in the dome after we got beat. Those were two great nights I’ll never forget.”
Hitting Their Stride
When the Oilers hit their stride in the mid-to-late 1970s, they thrived in Phillips’s 3-4 defensive scheme. However, Bethea was not too crazy about it.
Eventual Oakland Raiders Hall of Fame left tackle Art Shell, who was in the same NFL Draft class as Bethea in 1968, thought Elvin could have excelled in a 4-3 scheme with three linebackers playing behind four defensive linemen.
“If he’s played in a four-man front all his career, a lot of people would be chasing him for the all-time sack lead,” Shell told The Associated Press (via ESPN) in 2002. “People don’t realize that the guy was so quick and strong.”
Bethea’s strength commanded double and triple teams from offensive linemen. The Raiders resorted to that tactic repeatedly against him. Sometimes, another eventual Hall of Fame offensive lineman, Gene Upshaw, helped hold off Bethea.
For his part, Elvin Bethea became one of the pillars of the Oilers’ defensive line over the years. He was a durable defensive end who did not miss a game until he fractured his arm in a game against the Oakland Raiders in the fall of 1977.
Standing Up for the Players
Bethea’s streak of 135 consecutive appearances from 1968 to 1977 set a new Oilers franchise record.
Elvin Bethea racked up double-digit figures in sacks during that memorable ten-year time frame.
He had a career-best 16.0 sacks in 1973. He also recorded 14.5 sacks in 1969 and 1976.
Bethea’s best game in the NFL was against the San Diego Chargers in 1976. He sacked Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts four times and also recorded one fumble recovery in Houston’s 30-27 loss to San Diego on October 17, 1976.
Bethea quickly emerged as one of the league’s most feared pass rushers. He earned six of his eight career Pro Bowls and one of his two career Second-Team All-Pro selections during his ironman years from 1968 to 1977.
Houston regressed considerably after Oilers owner Bud Adams fired Bum Phillips before the start of the 1981 NFL season.
The Oilers averaged just three wins per year in Elvin Bethea’s last three pro football seasons from 1981 to 1983. They won just one game in the strike-shortened 1982 NFL season.
Bethea served as the Oilers’ player representative and member of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) executive committee as his NFL career wound down.
He stepped down as a member of the executive committee in the fall of 1982 because he was dissatisfied with the tentative agreement between the owners and players association, per The Associated Press (via The New York Times).
Bethea, who felt the new agreement did not meet his fellow players’ needs, lost approximately half of his $240,000 yearly salary because of the strike.
Time to Hang It Up
Elvin Bethea retired following the 1983 NFL season. He had initially considered retiring the previous year. However, he postponed it at the request of Oilers management.
Bethea, a relatively unknown third-round selection in 1968, eventually became one of the best pass rushers in Houston Oilers franchise history.
Bethea’s 105.0 career sacks ranked first among Houston’s pass rushers after he hung up his cleats.
At the time of Bethea’s retirement, he became the Oilers’ franchise leader in seasons played (16), games played (210), single-season sack total (16.0), and Pro Bowl selections (eight), per ProFootballHOF.com.
Elvin Bethea and his wife, Pat, have two sons, Lamont and Damon, and a daughter, Brittany.
The Houston Oilers retired Bethea’s No. 65 jersey at the end of the 1983 NFL campaign.
Bethea found employment with the popular beer and brewery company Anheuser-Busch in his tenth pro football season in 1977.
Bethea worked his way up and eventually earned a promotion to the company’s director of government affairs and special projects. He worked for Anheuser-Busch for twenty-eight years until 2005.
Elvin Bethea became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 2003. Former North Carolina A&T head football coach Hornsby Howell was his presenter.
Part of Bethea’s enshrinement speech reads:
“All I can say is that I finally made it and it feels good. It feels great—even greater when you stand before all the past and present Hall of Famers who have been through here. I’ve said this is the greatest day for me ever.”
Bethea and Howell continued talking to each other over the phone two or three times a month in the years leading up to the latter’s death in the fall of 2017.
Elvin Bethea is also a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, the Black College Football Hall of Fame, and the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans Ring of Honor.
Bethea has had neck issues, a back operation, and knee replacement surgery after he hung up his cleats following the 1983 NFL season.
Bethea also told Reid he’s fortunate Anheuser-Busch, the brewery company he served for twenty-eight years, shouldered the expenses for his surgeries.
Elvin Bethea, a member of the nonprofit organization Fairness for Athletes in Retirement (FAIR), receives an annual pension of $27,000.