Justin Bethel’s improbable journey to the NFC Championship Game

Former Blythewood star and current Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel
Former Blythewood star and current Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel USA TODAY Sports

Justin Bethel has been on quite the journey after finishing his high school football career at Blythewood to playing for a spot in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

At one point, it seemed more likely that he would be cooking in a restaurant for fans watching the NFC Championship than playing in the game.

Bethel had no scholarship offers to play college football following his senior season and was deciding between attending Johnson & Wales or trying to walk on at South Carolina and taking part in their culinary program when his former high school coach, Jeff Scott, called from Presbyterian College.

Scott, who is now the co-offensive coordinator at Clemson, offered Bethel a scholarship. Even though Bethel had no other offers, he declined at first.

“His first response was thanks, but no thanks,” Scott said. “He was really excited because he was planning to go to culinary arts school.”

After an in-home visit, Scott convinced Bethel to give college football a shot. The decision worked out well for the Blue Hose, and Bethel as he went on to have three all-conference seasons in four years at PC.

“Coming out of high school, I really didn’t have any plans to play football. God worked it out that way where Coach Scott ended up getting the job at Presbyterian and then he recruited me. That was the only offer I had,” Bethel recalled. “It was either pay for school or take the full ride.”

Following a sensational college career, Bethel was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He spent much of his first three seasons in Arizona contributing on special teams before receiving an expanded role this season due partly to injuries.

He is widely considered to be one of the best special teams players in the league, and was recently named to a third straight Pro Bowl.

“It just shows that hard work pays off and the rest of the league sees it,” Bethel told The State. “Even though I’ve had to play more defense, I still have my role on special teams, and to still be able to play at a high level like that and make plays for the team is a great feeling.”

In his fourth season in the NFL, he has also made his presence felt on defense, recording the first two interceptions and the first nine passes defended of his career. Bethel also posted career highs in tackles with 46 and forced fumbles and fumble recoveries with two each.

“Coming into the year, I kind of knew my role would be a little more expanded,” he said. “With the injuries, I’ve had to play a lot more than I thought I was, but I’m definitely glad to get that experience and I only think it’s going to help me in the future.”

He was rewarded with a three-year contract extension in December.

“With the team signing me to a future contract and an extension, it just lets me know the belief they have in me and the faith they have in me and the things they see that I can do in the future to help win some ballgames,” Bethel said.

In Arizona’s Divisional Round playoff win against Green Bay, Bethel had an up-and-down game, making six tackles, but also allowing a 60-yard reception on fourth-and-20 late in the fourth quarter that kept the Packers’ hopes alive.

Green Bay ended up tying the game on a Hail Mary before the Cardinals won in overtime. Bethel said the game was the wildest he’s played in since his time at Blythewood, and he was relieved Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald and Arizona’s offense were able to pull out in OT.

“It’s always tough, especially at the end of the game like that, for the guy that you’re supposed to be covering to catch a big pass to still give them a chance to be in the game when the game could’ve been over,” he said.

“It was definitely a bad feeling, but once the offense got the ball in the overtime, now at this point it’s out of your hands and all you can do is hope the offense goes out there and makes the plays they’re capable of making... It was definitely a relief.”

After allowing that big play, Bethel would like nothing more than to come up big and help the Cardinals reach the Super Bowl with a win against the Panthers on Sunday.

The game will be played less than 100 miles from where he grew up, and he will have family in the stands watching as he tries to take his improbable football journey to the pinnacle of the sport.

“There are 32 teams, and they’re all looking for the same thing. They’re all trying to get to the Super Bowl and hoist that Lombardi Trophy. To be in the position that we’re in now is definitely a blessing,” Bethel said.

The coach who played a big role in Bethel reaching this point is proud of everything he has accomplished.

“His general manager and owner came to one of our games last year, and I told them to send the message back to Justin that he owes me a portion of that new signing bonus, because if we wouldn’t have made that call he would’ve been in a restaurant as a chef,” Scott joked. “Now he’s in a position where he can buy a restaurant and cook anytime he wants to. I just think it’s a great story.”

Justin Bethel bio

Team: Arizona Cardinals (4th season)

Position: Cornerback

Ht./Wt.: 6-0, 200

Born: June 17, 1990 in Sumter

High School: Blythewood

College: Presbyterian

Drafted: 6th round by Arizona in 2012