Rookie Justin Bethel blocks a punt Friday night against the Raiders. Bethel picked the ball up and ran it in for a touchdown on the play in a 31-27 victory.
By time Justin Bethel made his way out of the Cardinals' locker room Friday night, everyone else was gone.
The quarterbacks who didn't know if they'd be starting against the Seahawks Week 1 had left. The stingy defense that showed glimpses of its impressive second half of last season went home. The rookies who were fighting for one of the coveted 53 spots on the Cardinals' opening-day roster filed out together.
Before Bethel could find the back door and the team bus waiting on the other side, the sixth-round draft pick couldn't hide his smile. Earlier, during the Cardinals' 31-27 win over the Oakland Raiders, he a blocked punt, recovered it and then scored, and he blocked an extra point.
"It was a great game, especially for me on special teams," Bethel said.
That was an understatement.
By Saturday, coach Ken Whisenhunt made official what everybody already knew, given Bethel had blocked three kicks by the third preseason game.
"I'd say it's a pretty safe bet he's made the team," Whisenhunt said, a smile creeping over his face. "Pretty good bet."
HINDSIGHT IS 20/20
Before the blocked kicks in the NFL, before his YouTube video, before the school and conference records, Bethel was used to blocking kicks in high-pressured situations.
As a junior at Blythewood High School in South Carolina, Bethel blocked a field goal in the state semifinals that propelled his school to the state championship. A year later he had three blocked kicks, yet schools weren't knocking down his door with scholarship offers.
Just two schools offered Bethel by the end of his senior year: Charleston Southern offered half a
scholarship. Presbyterian College, a small liberal arts school in Clinton, S.C. with 1,200 students, called with a full ride at the urging of Bethel's high school coach Jeff Scott, who joined Presbyterian's staff while Bethel was still in high school.
Not long after Bethel arrived on campus he was being tutored by his teammates on the art of blocking kicks. There they taught Bethel to study the tendencies of kickers and lines. He began watching for signs, small as they may be, that could tip him off to a snap count or the slightest opening within which he might slip.
Bethel graduated from Presbyterian with nine career blocked kicks, which set the career record in the Big South Conference.
"It didn't take me long to realize he had a knack for getting off on the snaps," said Presbyterian College coach Harold Nichols, who inherited Bethel when he took over the squad in 2009. "He's very explosive He can get from 0 to 60 in no time."
ALREADY A SENSATION
Most of the football world doesn't know Bethel's name, but many have seen his YouTube video.
During a strength night last season at Presbyterian, Bethel was working his way through the weight room when the girls volleyball team came in to watch. His reputation for being an athletic phenomenon already preceded Bethel, who would train by leaping onto stacked boxes while wearing a weighted vest as heavy as 50 pounds.
At the urging of the girls – and without the vest – Bethel jumped atop a stack of boxes five-feet high. And, unbeknownst to him, somebody recorded it and posted it to YouTube. It went viral and hit a national audience during the NFL Draft in April.
As of Sunday, the video had 906,470 views.
"I don't really even think about it too much," Bethel said. "I kinda forget about it every now and then. I don't really pay any attention. Trying to move on and do my NFL career."
But that doesn't mean his teammates have forgotten about it.
Linebacker Reggie Walker first saw the video on ESPN.
"That was crazy," he said. "It's another athlete to add to our repertoire that we already have. I know a lot of people were pretty excited."
After it came out, Bethel's father was showing all his friends, but a year later, the rookie only watches it when somebody asks him to pull it up on his phone or computer.
"I don't really feel any different," Bethel said shyly.
Bethel didn't have the type of college experience most of his Cardinals' teammates did. At Presbyterian, Bethel's largest class was 20 people. He wasn't able to sit in the back of the class and blend in with the many faces in a large lecture hall. And he certainly didn't get the perks of being a football player.
All the teachers knew his name and all the teachers knew if he was in class.
"If you miss a class they know and they stress it because academics are really strong," said Bethel, who majored in business administration. "They aren't going to just pass you or let you off a little bit because you're a football player. You don't get any of that treatment at all. The degree you get, you work for it."
As rigorous as the academics were, the Presbyterian playbook was not.
Nichols believed in using a base defense and didn't levy a complex dictionary of terminology on his players. Bethel, who was the first Presbyterian player drafted since the NFL went to a seven-round format, mostly used his athleticism to make up for not digesting the playbook. He's learning quickly he can't do that in the NFL.
"I never really had to get into the playbook like that because I was so athletic I could just beat people to where they were supposed to be or cover anybody I wanted to," Bethel said. "Now everybody is super athletic."
So now he's back to studying.
Special teams coach Kevin Spencer observed Bethel's defensive background as "raw" but said the Cardinals saw ability in the player who had all 32 teams send scouts to Presbyterian.
"Probably the demands intellectually placed upon him at that level as opposed to our safeties here is a quantum leap," Spencer said. "I think it's just going to take time for him and I think he's showing he can be a devastating special-teams player."
A few weeks into camp and Bethel's grasp of the playbook can be considered a quantum leap. He's been spending time watching formations with Spencer, who will give Bethel a call before the safety has to call in the check. Bethel saw the fruit of his studying pay off Friday, despite the Cardinals not game planning for opponents yet.
"I felt real good out there," Bethel said. "I knew all my calls. I knew where I was supposed to align. I knew where I was fitting. I think it's coming along really good."
Bethel's emergence from the sixth round has been an added perk for the Cardinals. Spencer admitted there were questions about how Bethel's ability would translate from the FCS to the NFL, but the rookie has put those doubts to bed.
"He's got a long ways to go defensively but he's working on that," Whisenhunt said. "It's a pretty good situation. I'm really excited about Justin and the way he works, the way he's made some plays for us in the games.
"Obviously, that's a pretty good pick."