FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – In South Carolina, there still exists a handwritten document attesting to Justin Bethel's childhood desire to become a National Football League player.
"Not too long ago, my mom found a little thing that I wrote … in like, fifth grade or something. And it said, 'I want to play football in the NFL.' I don't even remember writing that," the 31-year-old Patriots special teams star admits with a laugh. "I guess that's every little kid's dream that plays sports. So, apparently that's what I wanted to do, but as time went on, there were a lot of things I thought I wanted to do."
What he remembers more clearly is how he began playing football on a whim during the sixth grade. "One of my friends played quarterback on a Pop Warner team," Bethel continues, "and he was like, 'Hey, man, we used to play in the backyard all the time. Come join and I'll throw you the ball all the time.' And I thought, 'Yeah, that sounds cool. Let me do that.'"
Such is how Bethel, a man of many interests, seems to have approached life throughout his first three decades, allowing the changing tides of destiny to carry him toward whatever suits his fancy at any given time.
As a youngster in The Palmetto State, Justin found several unrelated activities that caught his attention. At various points during his upbringing, he considered pursuing careers in engineering, math, and music – the latter being the primary source of income earned by his father, a traveling pianist and vocalist.
Whenever Justin got home from a long day of school and youth football practice, he'd tuck into a nice meal prepared, more often than not, by his dad, who deriving exceeding amounts of joy from the cooking process. "My mom," Bethel adds, "would cook some things every now and then, but for the most part, all the cooking was done by my dad. Even to this day, he cooks, and it'll be 11 o'clock at night and he'll whip up a midnight snack. Eight-ounce steak, sweet potatoes, or some lobster."
The apple, if you'll pardon the food metaphor, didn't fall far from the tree. When Justin learned that the curriculum at South Blythewood High School offered culinary classes, he signed up without giving it too much thought. "I took it the period right before lunch," he recalls, "so I could make my own food, not eat the school lunch. I started learning so many things and found I had a little talent and enjoyed it."
The same description could be applied to his football career at that stage. While Justin and his Blythewood teammates were good enough in 2006 to win a Class 3A state championship, college programs didn't seem to take notice of the young defensive back who felt as comfortable behind a griddle as on the gridiron.
A year later, with graduation fast approaching, Justin had narrowed his college choices down to two: the Charlotte, North Carolina campus of Johnson & Wales University, Providence, Rhode Island's world-renowned culinary arts institution (which doesn't have a football team), and the University of South Carolina (which very much does, as well as a cooking school).
"I didn't have a lot of offers for football," Bethel explains, "so, I was thinking maybe I could walk on to South Carolina's program, try and get a scholarship, and take their culinary program."
Here again, though, fate intervened on Justin's behalf. One of his Blythewood coaches from the state championship team had since moved up to Presbyterian College, an FCS football school (Division I-AA) about an hour from Justin's hometown that didn't offer cooking but did offer him a scholarship to play.
"I'd get time playing as a starter, full ride, and I was like, 'Yeah, you got me!' I had never lived outside the state of South Carolina. I love being around family. I wasn't one of those kids that needed to go to a college across the country. I didn't put as much effort into choosing a college as I should've. But the Lord put me where I needed to be."
Having chosen his college based largely on monetary considerations, Justin now had to pick a new classroom concentration. With so many interests from which to choose, he once again tossed his future to the winds.
One of the few aspects of school Justin didn't like much was writing, particularly when he had to pen long papers. Consequently, he searched for a major that didn't require much of that. "Lo and behold," he confesses with an almost embarrassed laugh, "it was business management. But I really enjoyed it. It helped me understand certain aspects of business that I still use today, like contracts, legal stuff. I know the basis of a lot of it. You get that broad learning about everything. It worked out for me."
Despite having once written down that he wanted to play NFL football one day, a college-bound Justin harbored no illusions that he would eventually fulfill that prophecy. "Oh, no, no," he emphasizes. "My first year of college, even my second year, it wasn't something in my head. I was like, 'I'm going to get this [business] degree and then I'll figure it out.'"
A LOT ON HIS PLATE
In September 2011, the start of Justin's senior season at Presbyterian, he boarded a plane for the first time. Headed for San Francisco, he and his Presbyterian teammates would later be devoured 63-12 by the FBS-level (Division I) California Golden Bears at the waterfront ballpark where baseball's San Francisco Giants play their home games.
However, during the second quarter, Justin scored all of Presbyterian's points when he blocked and returned a punt 17 yards for a score, then intercepted and returned a pass for a 29-yard touchdown four minutes later. Both of the ensuing PAT/two-point attempts failed.
Having already attracted a modicum of attention from NFL scouts the previous season, Justin feels that this game opened more of their eyes to his pro potential. "We lost," he observes, "but I played well. That helped me show I can play against bigger competition. I scored all the points on our team, had some tackles, had a pick, blocked a kick – this is against a good team."
Even after being invited to the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine, the now 6-foot, 200-pound defensive back believed he'd become an undrafted rookie free agent, at best. The Arizona Cardinals surprised him by selecting him in Round 6. "Ten years down the road, I'm still here, still kicking it," he laughs.
An interesting and perhaps deliberate choice of words, as the kicking game would be how Justin Bethel made his name in the NFL. From 2013-15, he earned three consecutive Pro Bowl honors as a special teams contributor. After six seasons with the Cardinals, Justin joined Atlanta in 2018, then signed with Baltimore in 2019, but after just seven games, the Ravens released him. New England wasted no time adding him to the roster two days later and bolstering an already strong Patriots special teams depth chart. This past offseason, the Patriots re-signed Bethel to a three-year, $6 million contract.
Here in Foxborough, while predominantly a special teams stalwart, Bethel has at times filled in at defensive back. This past October versus Dallas, for instance, he took over for Jonathan Jones at cornerback when the latter suffered an injury and almost immediately contributed with a deflected pass in the end zone that resulted in a Kyle Dugger interception.
When he's not playing football, Bethel finds fulfillment off the field. Throughout his tenure with the Patriots, Bethel has continued to play the drums, as he's done since his youth, and also developed a new interest, when time allows. A friend suggested he give modeling a try a few years back and wound up on the runway during New York Fashion Week in early 2020, prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the meantime, now that he and his wife, Breanna, have an infant daughter, Amiyah (who'll turn four months old on Christmas Eve), Justin enjoys following his father's example in the kitchen. "In general, I like baking, making desserts. I don't have a favorite dish. My wife and I like to make risotto. I like trying new things. I follow a whole bunch of food pages on Instagram. If I see something that looks interesting, I try to make it. I have a whole album full of desserts I try to make.
"Definitely have more energy [to cook] in the offseason, but if I have a day during the season, sometimes I whip something up. I do most of the cooking. And I enjoy when the family enjoys it."
"When I first got in the league," Bethel divulges, "I thought, if I could go seven years, that's a super long time. I couldn't imagine playing longer than that. Then I got to seven and felt pretty good, like I could do this a little longer. The time just flies now.
"I feel like this Patriots team is home … It's a little cold here for my taste," he jokes, "but I love the organization, the people I work with. It's a great atmosphere to play football in. This organization has a recipe for success, and it's always good to be part of a place that knows how to work hard and have fun."
In cooking, as in football, it's usually imperative to follow to recipe – or the game plan, if you will. But as Justin Bethel's life can attest, sometimes a little improvising and going off-script can yield surprisingly delicious results.