INDIANAPOLIS – First impressions can be lasting impressions.
For safety Antoine Bethea that has been the case. His first impression in a Colts uniform made an impact on two veteran judges – evaluators who someday may have a residence in Canton, Ohio.
Tony Dungy and Bill Polian were on the field for a rookie camp that was being held one week after the 2006 draft. Bethea, a sixth-round pick from Howard University, was setting foot on the practice field with other new players with the premise that it could make them more job-ready when the veterans returned in a couple of weeks for a full squad mini-camp.
Polian, Dungy and the coaches wanted to give the new players a fighting chance. By the end of the first session, they knew they had found an impact talent in Bethea.
Their first impressions were sound. Bethea opened 14 games as a rookie, 18 when counting a four-game playoff run that ended with a World Championship with the club's Super Bowl XLI victory over Chicago. Among those getting drenched in the rain that night was Bethea as a rookie starter at strong safety.
Bethea has started 91 career appearances since the first impression. Sixteen came last season when he was the only full-time starter in an injury-ravaged secondary. Melvin Bullitt missed 14 games. Cornerback Jerraud Powers went on injured reserve late in the year. Jacob Lacey started, sat, then started again. Five players – Chris Rucker, Joe Lefeged, Terrence Johnson, David Caldwell and Kevin Thomas – all made first-time starts.
Indianapolis employed six different starting alignments in the secondary, none of which lasted longer than a five-game span. Bethea was the glue, ranking second on the squad with 139 tackles. It was the fifth time in six seasons he topped 100 tackles. He defensed seven passes, forced two fumbles and recovered one himself. While Bethea counseled young teammates, others noted his presence.
"Antoine is a very highly, highly instinctive and competitive player. He's been that way since the first day he walked on the field here," said one veteran observer. "He has a great feel and understanding for the game. He takes great angles to the ball. He is a solid tackler. He gets things set for the entire secondary, and he's an outstanding leader. He has a thorough knowledge of coverage concepts, and he has fit within the scheme.
"One thing about Antoine is he's dependable. Year after year, he has played as well as any safety in the league. He's been a multiple Pro Bowler. He should have a few more Pro Bowls in him. He's been able to will himself through injuries. He plays through them. He has had things that will keep guys from playing. He will tell you early in the week that it may not look good but that he will be better later in the week. On Sunday, he's there for his team and teammates. When the chips are down, he will make plays to help you win a ballgame."
Defensive tackle Antonio Johnson performs dirty work on the defensive interior to set up teammates to prosper. Johnson admires how Bethea performs well every time on the field.
"He's great. He's a pro. He plays the game with soul," said Johnson. "You can tell he's in his own world when he's out there playing. It's hard to put together a great game every, single week. It's the NFL, and you hit competition. Antoine always finds a way to make that one, big play or to come out on top.
"You can't build a football team with one person but if you could, Bethea's the guy. I love him as a person and as a player. He gets the job done every week."
Bethea endured a rough season along with his teammates. It was the first losing season of his career, the first where Indianapolis did not earn a playoff berth. Bethea never was unappreciative of successful season, never dismissive about having five straight seasons with at least 10 wins to start a career.
"Personally, I just learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about the other side of the spectrum, being on winning teams my first five years then having this season," said Bethea. "You just get a lot out of the season, not just football but what type of person you are when things aren't going your way. Things like that. There are things you can get in a football sense and outside of football how to approach things. I never took winning for granted. I most definitely won't do it now."
A good amount of his effort last season was tutoring young talent. It was something Bethea had not had to do before when playing with veterans like Bob Sanders, Kelvin Hayden, Marlin Jackson and Bullitt. It made him look inward.
"At times you can easily look and reflect on a season if you have three six-year veterans back there (with you)," said Bethea. "You really don't have to do much (instruction) because they've been in the fire and know the ins and outs. When you have young guys out there, you look in the mirror and ask, 'Are you helping these young guys improve? Are you helping these guys get better from one week to another?' As far as leadership, you kind of see where your leadership skills are."
No one questions Bethea's credentials as he heads into his seventh season, especially linebacker Pat Angerer, who topped Bethea in tackles in 2011.
"Antoine is a backbone for us. You know you can count on him," said Angerer. "He spent a lot of time last year directing others while keeping his level of play where it always is. He is a guy we all admire. He is an example during the week and on Sundays for us to follow. Antoine is glue for what we do."
Powers started 12 games before an elbow injury ended his season. He had 51 tackles, two interceptions (one for a touchdown) and six passes defensed. Lacey started 10 games and had 70 tackles and one interception. Caldwell had 62 stops and four passes defensed in opening 13 games at strong safety after Bullitt was hurt. Rucker (32 tackles, four starts), Lefeged (31, 16 appearances), Thomas (33, five starts) and Johnson (33, 10 appearances) saw significant action.
Bullitt was released after the season, while Lacey and Steve Brown have left the club. Jermale Hines saw action in five games, while Brandon King played in four outings. Mike Holmes and Mike Newton have joined the team since the end of last season.
Indianapolis added safety Tom Zbikowski as an unrestricted free agent from Baltimore. Zbikowski, 5-11, 200, is a fifth-year veteran who joined the Ravens in 2008. He has started 14 of 53 career games and has 49 tackles, two interceptions, one sack, five passes defensed and 58 special teams stops. He also has 14 kickoff returns for a 21.8 average and 16 punt returns for a 6.3 average.