On April 24, 1987, former first round pick of the Dallas Cowboys, defensive end Larry Bethea, was found dead in the backyard of a friend's house in Newport News, Virginia. After being named as a suspect in two convenience store robberies early that night, Mr. Bethea retreated to the crime-ridden neighborhood he knew so well, put a .38-caliber automatic pistol to his right temple and pulled the trigger. He was a mere 30 years old.
The year following his last game as a professional football player was turbulent, to say the least. Larry plead guilty to starting three fires in Mount Rainer National Park in Paradise, Washington. He paid a small fine. Three months prior to his suicide, the former Cowboy was given a four-year suspended sentence and two years probation for assaulting his wife and stealing $64,000 from his mother.....Her life savings. On the day of his death, Bethea broke into a parked car and stole the pistol he would later use in the two robberies and to eventually take his own life. Again, he was only 30 years old.
It's incomprehensible to me how a person with Bethea's promise could allow his life to spiral into such self-destructive chaos. It would be easy to dump the blame on drugs. Personally, I think that's hogwash. Addictions are a symptom not a cause. There's always something rooted deeper that seeds the addictions. It may be as simple as wanting to fit in with the crowd. Or as complicated as glitch in the DNA....A trait passed through the family genes. Whatever the reasons, Bethea's dependency on cocaine started in his days at Michigan State and stalked him relentlessly until that Spring night when his finger squeezed the trigger.
I'm sure if Larry Bethea had been more than a career backup, if his star had shone more brightly on the field, a concerted effort would have been made to figure out where the wires got crossed. As it stands, he will forever be a semi-forgotten footnote.....Another lost soul in an endless parade of ex-professional athletes who succumbed to their inner demons before their time.
And that's a shame. Because to everyone that knew him, Larry Bethea was a good guy.
He was born July 21, 1956 in Florence, South Carolina. Bethea attended Ferguson High School in Newport News, Virginia where he excelled on the football field as both a tight end and defensive end, recieving the honor of being named a Parade All-American and a Group AAA All-State player in 1973. Harlan Hott, Larry's coach at Ferguson, had nothing but praise for his former player, saying "he was the kind of student and athlete you'd want every kid to be like...". Those sentiments were shared by many whose lives Bethea touched. Teachers, fellow students and his brothers on the field all felt the effects of being around the ever-smiling young man. His good will and high spirits were sorely missed around school and throughout Newport News when Bethea left to ply his trade at Michigan State University.
He left Virginia a wide-eyed, eager teenager, and returned years later as a troubled man. Somewhere in between, Larry lost sight of who he was and the values that shaped his childhood. What remained was a shell. He was never able to once again fan the fire that fueled his lust for life as a youth. At some point, somewhere in East Lansing, his desire to do so got buried under a dune of cocaine. And there's not even a marker honoring his lost innocence.
After spending his freshman year on the offensive side of the ball, Bethea moved from tight end to defensive end in his sophomore season. It became quickly apparent that he should have started there from the beginning. His quickness and aggressiveness to the ball made Larry one of the best defensive ends in the country. He continued to hone his skills throughout his time at Michigan State and ended his career as the Spartan's all-time leader in sacks with 33. A number that ranks first in school history to this day.
After his junior year, Bethea was named second-team Big Ten All-conference. That was but a taste of what was to come for the young man. Bethea's full potential was finally realized his senior season at Michigan State. He was the first defensive player since Dick Butkus to be honored as the Big Ten Conference MVP. Larry was also named first-team Big Ten All-conference and was invited to participate in the East-West Shrine Game. The 16 sacks he registered that season still remains a single-season record in East Lansing. Despite the introduction of cocaine into his life, Bethea managed to put together an incredible resume. His dominance on the field all but guaranteed a cozy spot on day one of the 1978 NFL Draft.
It just so happened, Dallas had their sights set on a DE in the draft to eventually replace Ed "Too Tall" Jones. Jones made it clear he would be leaving to pursue a career in boxing and the Cowboys were eager to fill his spot as quickly as possible. Bethea had the size and quickness Landry coveted for the position. And the coach was confident Larry would be able to pick up the intricacies of the flex defense with a year of tutelage under "Too Tall". So, with the final pick of the first round, #28, the Dallas Cowboys selected who they hoped would be the heir apparent to Ed Jones. Those lofty expectations were never fulfilled.
Whether it was Landry's complicated scheme, Bethea's growing drug habit or a combination of the two, the young man from Virginia never lived up to his draft position. In his defense, the Flex required a defensive lineman to forget everything he had ever been taught about the position and retrain his brain. Bethea had made his bones in high school and college with speed and aggressiveness, relying on instincts and superior physical ability. But in order for the Flex to be effective, the defensive front had to be patient and control a gap as opposed to attacking the ball. Bethea was never able to make the transition.
He lingered on the roster for six years, never being more than a relief hitter along the line. I'm sure it was frustrating as hell for someone with his skills and love of the game to be relegated to mop up duty and giving other players a breather. It's a safe bet that his frustration further fueled the dependency on drugs. It was a vicious cycle that ultimately led to his release after the 1983 season.
In 1984 he signed with the Michigan Panthers of the United States Football League. The following year, Bethea played with both the Oakland Invaders and the Houston Gamblers, also of the U.S.F.L.. Neither stint lasted until the end of the season. It would be Bethea's final days on a football field, playing the game he loved.
After his career was over, Larry Bethea sunk deeper into cocaine. Only this time, he didn't have football to act as a distraction. He spent every waking hour obsessing over his addiction. In short order, his money ran out.....his friends ran out.....his lust for life ran out. All that remained of any importance was his mother, Alice. And Bethea destroyed that relationship to pay for his dependency.
He died alone. By his own hand. It's sad to think he probably felt there was no other option. There are always alternative solutions. Especially to that. Unfortunately, the emotional pain he must have been in to decide on that particular course of action was too much. I would like to go back and tell him there were other ways. Explain to him that suicide was a coward's way out. But would I be justified in calling him a coward? After all, I couldn't fathom the pain he must have felt. Perhaps the fact he hung on as long as he did proved his courage.
I don't know. I couldn't possibly know. What I'm going to take away from the experience of researching this post, is that Larry Bethea was a kind soul who got lost. Plain and simple. And I'm better for getting to know him a little bit.