Larry Bethea was a model student and an uber-talented athlete his whole life, but drugs changed him for the worse in the NFL. The intelligent, thoughtful man who always had a smile on his face turned into a violent, erratic figure seemingly overnight. Bethea was so controlled by his inner demons that he couldn’t fight them any longer. One day in 1986, he stole his mother’s entire life savings and assaulted his wife within a few hours of each other. Bethea took his own life a year later.
Larry Bethea was drafted in the first round by the Cowboys in 1978
Bethea was a stud prospect out of Michigan State coming into the 1978 NFL draft. He was also a National Honors Society student in college, so the Cowboys loved Bethea for his character as much as his talent.
Dallas selected Bethea with the 28th overall pick in the 1978 NFL draft. The Cowboys planned for Bethea to contribute as a backup while he learned all he could from Harvey Martin and Ed “Too Tall” Jones. He was groomed to replace them as the team’s star pass rusher.
At some point after Bethea got drafted, though, he lost his way. Bethea got into the world of drugs and quickly became an addict. He never used drugs around the team or let anyone see his pain, but it was there deep down.
Bethea lasted just six seasons in the NFL. He recorded only five sacks in 81 career games with the Cowboys. As disappointing as his NFL career was, however, it was nothing compared to what Bethea endured in retirement.
Bethea became a convicted criminal after leaving the NFL
After leaving the NFL in 1983, Bethea’s drug problem only got worse. It got so bad that one day the former Cowboy took it out on his family.
In August of 1986, Bethea was staying at his mother’s house in Newport News, Va. One day, he broke into his mom’s attic safe and stole her entire life savings — all $64,000 in cash. Afterward, he immediately flew to Dallas to find his estranged wife, Gloria.
Bethea found Gloria in Dallas and started following her in her car. When she stopped, Bethea jumped out and confronted her. He forced his way into the car and assaulted her before taking control of the vehicle.
He drove his wife to a hotel, but she was able to escape and contact the police through the hotel manager. When they arrived, Gloria had bruises and scratches on her body and a bloody lip. Police arrested Bethea soon after.
Bethea died by suicide a year after the arrest
Unfortunately, Bethea’s crimes weren’t the end of his story. In 1987, he stole a gun and used it to rob two convenience stores. Bethea used the gun to end his own life later that day. He was just 30 years old.
Bethea was said to have been using drugs heavily at the time. He should’ve been enjoying a fruitful NFL career, but drugs got in the way.
“This man, who had so much going for him, lost everything, including his life, Newport News police chief Jay A. Carey Jr. said. “I believe that Larry Bethea would be alive today if he had been able to stay away from drugs.”
The story of Larry Bethea is one of heartbreak and regret, but it serves as an important reminder to young athletes. Money and fame don’t make you invincible.