Elvin Lamont Bethea
Elvin Lamont Bethea’s journey to football immortality required a strength of character at least equal to the physical strength he brought to the playing field.
The star defensive end of the old Houston Oilers is the only alumnus of North Carolina A&T University (NCA&T) enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But the road to Canton, Ohio, was marked by segregation.
Born in Trenton, New Jersey, Bethea always excelled at sports, playing football and participating in track at Trenton Central High School. In 1964, he set the New Jersey state record in shot put and then was offered a track and football scholarship at NCA&T.
With the Vietnam War escalating, Bethea chose to continue his education.
“I didn’t think I would get a scholarship, but I had worked hard for it,” he said. “So, I headed South”.
Arriving on campus with dreams of becoming a physical education teacher, Bethea was quickly confronted with segregation. Things that he would normally do up North, such as going to the grocery store or shopping, were completely different down South. As a black man in 1965, he says, “in the South you knew your place.”
Segregation affected team travel as well as everyday activities. African-American players could not stay in most hotels because they were for whites only, so the team had to stay in university dorms.
“It definitely was an experience,” Bethea remembers.
He thrived as a football player and, in 1968, postponed his dream of teaching when he was drafted by the Oilers, now known as the Tennessee Titans.
Even at the professional level, segregation still stalked African-American players, which made the career “really tough,” Bethea said. At times, African-American players stayed at different hotels from white players and even rode different buses. Certain positions on teams were given only to white players, because many believed African-Americans weren’t smart enough.
Regardless of being a standout on a professional, integrated team, black team members, including Bethea, felt resented for being African American. Bethea decided he wasn’t going to “take anything from anyone.” His performance on the field proved his point.
Over the next 16 seasons Bethea was selected to the pro Bowl 8 times, led the team in tackles six times and never missed a game until he broke his arm against the Oakland Raiders in 1977. When he retired in 1983, he was the holder of three team records: most seasons played, most career regular season games played (210) and most consecutive regular season games played (135).
Bethea still lives in Houston, where he enjoys golfing with other retired NFL players. But his favorite pastime is speaking to young people from his experience, encouraging them to set realistic goals and to stay motivated.
“I tell them to make up their mind to where they want to go and you’ll get there,” he said.