INDIANAPOLIS – Before the 2006 draft, Bill Polian and the scouting staff were looking for a cornerback.
Their elbow grease had uncovered Antoine Bethea at Howard University, but it was not certain if he would be better at safety or corner.
The Colts long had been an organization with great synergy between the coaching and personnel staffs, so Tony Dungy's opinion came into play.
"We took it to Tony and I said, 'You need to look at this tape. I don't know whether this young guy is better at safety or corner. I think he can do both, but you're the expert. You decide.' "
Dungy saw a player with talent, instincts and a future. Endorsing the notion to draft Bethea, Indianapolis did so and put Bethea at safety in a spring camp.
It was the position he played at Howard, and it soon became home for him with the Colts.
"In the morning practice, Antoine had an interception," Polian said. "In the second practice, he had two interceptions. After the second one, Tony walked over to me and said, 'I think we'll leave him at safety.' "
Bethea has been there ever since. He has totaled 805 tackles and 12 interceptions in seven seasons, playing in two Pro Bowls.
Bethea rings opponent's bells, never his own. While many in the league draw attention to themselves, Bethea refrains. He excels while being forceful and dignified.
"That's the type of person I am," said Bethea. "The way I am off the field kind of carries over to the way I am on it. At times, I can be vocal. Deep down inside, I'm quiet. When I see a teammate who needs some help and guidance if they come and ask, I'm willing to give any advice I have. On and off the field, that's the kind of guy I am."
"Antoine, he's not a vocal guy," said Chuck Pagano. "He's vocal in the sense that he'll run the show back there. His play speaks for itself. He's an active guy. He's an aggressive guy, smart, instinctive (and) can make plays."
Bethea never has opened fewer than 13 games in any season. When he joined the secondary, there were old hands like Nick Harper, Bob Sanders and Marlin Jackson around. Kelvin Hayden was emerging as Bethea made his early impact, too.
Fast forward a few years and Bethea now "old head" who has influenced many others.
"Antoine is more of a show-by-example type of leader," said former teammate Jerraud Powers. "If you're looking for somebody to follow, he's the perfect one. He's going to do everything the right way. That's the type of leader he is."
Said Pat Angerer, "Antoine has a great playing style. You look and he's running to the ball and making hits on players of all sizes. He hits backs by himself, just smoking people, and he's been doing it that way for years. He's so impressive in how he handles himself. He plays hard, he's smart. Antoine has it all."
Selecting Bethea as the top draft pick at safety during the club's Indianapolis era comes over two others who had significant careers, Jason Belser and Bob Sanders.
Belser started 126-of-141 games, predominantly at free safety. He started his last 102 games with the club and opened every game in seven different years. Belser topped 100 tackles seven times. He returned three of his 13 interceptions for touchdowns, while owning a career 22.3 average.
Sanders was one of the most eye-popping talents in franchise history, but appeared in 48 of a possible 112 games, starting 46. The 2005 and 2007 seasons were the only years Sanders played in 10 or more games. His NFL Defensive Player-of-the-Year honor in 2007 is the only such award in Colts history.
Picking Bethea over Sanders is an eyelash decision.
"You almost have to pick Antoine for coming in and starting as a rookie, for being the quarterback of the secondary, as a young player for going to the Super Bowl and then developing into a Pro Bowl player," said Dungy. "You could argue for Bob Sanders because he definitely was the key for us winning the Super Bowl. He impacted that Super Bowl team more than anybody. He was the Defensive Player-of-the-Year. You could argue both ways.
"Antoine, over a longer career, starting more games, coming in and playing as a rookie, he kind of solidified things at the end of the year when Bob was out. Antoine did a lot for the team."
Bethea started 18 games his rookie season, 14 in the regular season and all four playoff games alongside Sanders in the secondary.
"For a sixth-round pick, it's hard to believe that a guy picked that low could have that much impact and develop into a leader and a Pro Bowler," said Dungy. "From Day One, the first day he was here, you knew the NFL was not going to be too big. He was going to be able to play right away."
Bruce Arians found Bethea an anchor last year as the youthful Colts posted a nine-game jump and returned to the playoffs.
"His leadership is great and his heart and desire as a player is unmatched," said Arians. "He's as tough as they get."
Polian called Bethea a "true pro, respected by his peers" who never was out-worked by a teammate. He said Bethea clearly exceeded all expectations. One of the greatest Colts ever, Reggie Wayne, wants Bethea to remain intact for future seasons.
"He's a Pro Bowler. He's been under people's shadow for a long time. He's been answering the bell every week, being available to play each game. He's just an ultimate leader," said Wayne. "He's been doing this for a long time. He knows what it is to start from the bottom and have to crawl your way up. I'm just glad he's on my team, and I'm looking forward to him making more plays."
2006 (Sixth-round pick, No. 207 overall)
Played 2006-present, GAMES STARTED/PLAYED – 106/107
*Notes: *Ranks third in local era with 814 tackles (per coaches), behind only Jeff Herrod and Duane Bickett. Has missed only five career games and only six starts. Has topped 100 tackles in six seasons. Has 12 interceptions and 2.5 sacks, with 31 passes defensed, five fumbles forced and three recovered. Two-time Pro Bowler.