January 28, 2003
Ode to Elvin
by Bob Hulsey
Puzzling isn’t it? An offensive lineman, drafted in 1982, could be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame before a defensive lineman who went to eight Pro Bowls and retired in 1983.
Nobody begrudges the selection of Mike Munchak, but it does serve to illustrate how overdue the honor was in coming to Elvin Bethea, a Houston Oiler stalwart for 15 seasons who saw both the awful years of Bill Peterson and the salad days of Bum Phillips. He was in Houston long enough to see the Oilers go from good to horrible to very good to horrible again. For that alone, he deserves a purple heart.
None of that could have been predicted when Bethea was selected in the third round of the 1968 draft as an offensive lineman out of North Carolina A&T. To give you an idea of how long ago that was, the Oilers had yet to play a game in the Astrodome, they were still members of the American Football League and Mike Munchak was eight years old. Nobody had yet placed footsteps on the surface of the moon.
Munchak was honored for keeping people off the Moon, but Bethea was switched to defense and he showed he was deft at getting to the quarterback. Perhaps his schooling as a blocker helped prepare him for the tricks of NFL lineman. A bit undersized as a defensive end, Elvin used cat-like quickness to shoot past offensive tackles and commit mayhem in the backfield. Even in the dreary years of 1972 and 1973, when the Oilers endured back-to-back 1-13 seasons, Bethea garnered enough attention to make the Pro Bowl.
The gap-toothed defender earned the respect of offensive lineman around the league who got an up-close view of his ferocious nature whenever they stood between Elvin and the ballcarrier. Guys like Art Shell remember it to this day.
Bethea gave headaches to offensive coordinators too. Back in the early ’70s, when the Oilers basically stunk, teams could plan to stop the few guys Houston had that could make a difference. The Oilers lacked discipline, depth and resilience. It took someone with the determination of the late Sid Gillman to steer the team back to respectability.
Elvin’s job got harder when Bum Phillips introduced the 3-4 defense to Houston in 1974. He would now find himself responsible more for holding up the line on running plays and fighting off double-teams inside while the linebackers got more of the tackles. But both Bethea and linemate Curley Culp proved the big guys up front could still make plays.
Although Elvin took a beating, those were arguably the best years of his life, helping Houston to AFC title games in 1978 and 1979. He now had players around him like Jesse Baker, Gregg Bingham and Robert Brazile to share the load on defense.
Bethea credits his coach at North Carolina A&T for instilling toughness in him. But he also had pride in his work that he could only get from within. When you play defensive line in the 3-4, your sense of worth had better not be measured in numbers but in the size of your heart. It’s not a glamorous job.
Phillips remembers when the Oilers were being trounced in the AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh in damp and icy conditions, 34-5. He tried to take Bethea and Culp out of the ballgame but they refused. Elvin had waited too long for that moment to leave early.
He might get something of the same feeling next July when Bethea will be introduced by his old college coach and will tell of the many friends and family who stood by him through the lean years and never gave up believing he deserved a bust in Canton.
It’s a bit sad that the honor would finally come when the Houston Oilers no longer exist. As do many of the old Oilers, he just doesn’t seem to fit the image of the Tennessee Titans. He belongs in Columbia blue, as he did for 15 bittersweet seasons. And I hope that, when it comes time for the induction speeches, Elvin Bethea gets to go first. He’s waited long enough.
Bob Hulsey has a Bachelor of Journalism degree, briefly worked in radio, and now labors for a major telecommunications company. HoustonProFootball.com also showcases his previous work, Pro Log: From George To George, a look back at Houston’s storied football past.
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