GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When Justin Bethel needs to unwind from the cornerback competition that’s consumed his life for the past two years, he turns off football.
He might cook, call his father, play the drums or talk to a group of old friends. All have helped take his mind away from work. Six years into his NFL career, Bethel has learned he needs that type of diversified distraction to keep his life balanced.
But most of the time, Bethel will turn on cartoons.
The 27-year-old, a sixth-round draft pick in 2012, has been a cartoon connoisseur since he was a child growing up in Sumter, South Carolina. His older brother introduced him to cartoons, and Bethel's palate has developed ever since. He has his staples such as "Family Guy," "SpongeBob SquarePants" and "The Fairly OddParents." He’s been watching more anime lately and spends his downtime during training camp perusing Netflix and Hulu and whatever is on Cartoon Network.
The animated shows keep Bethel happy and his mind off football.
“You have to remember, football is not who you are, it’s what you do,” Bethel told ESPN. “It’s your job and you got to treat it as a job and make sure you focus on what you need to focus on but also have a life outside football.”
That was difficult for Bethel early in his Arizona Cardinals career, when, coming out of small Presbyterian College, he felt the need to make a name for himself. He wanted to impress two different coaching staffs in his first two seasons -- after former coach Ken Whisenhunt was replaced by Bruce Arians in 2013 -- with his work ethic. Though he’s made three Pro Bowls and signed a three-year extension worth $15 million in 2015, Bethel saw the need to find a balance to football.
It’s been particularly helpful the past two years, as he’s been engulfed in a cornerback battle he’s trying to win while battling injuries that have prevented him from doing so. Until now.
Bethel played the 2015 season with a fractured left foot; he underwent surgery early in 2016 with the idea that he'd be ready for training camp. But he suffered a setback three weeks before he was due to report, which left him sidelined for part of camp and with a sore foot throughout the season. He rallied to finish 2016 with back-to-back starts at corner and returned an interception for a touchdown in the finale to set the stage for this offseason’s competition with Brandon Williams.
Now, finally, he’s healthy and ready to win a job he was supposed to inherit last year.
“It’s definitely been a journey,” Bethel said. “But throughout every journey you learn to grow and you learn more about yourself and who you are as a person and realize that, at the end of the day, you have to understand and believe in yourself and believe in what you can do, and if you have a strong support system, you can pretty much get through anything.”
Knowing he can rely on friends, family and cartoons to keep him sane, Bethel set off this offseason to claim what he’s felt has been his for years. He spent time working on his technique at corner, readying his mind and body not just to win the job but to keep it.
“I feel like I’m prepared,” Bethel said. “Now the only thing left to do is to go out there and prove it and just do it.”
On the field, he has been doing it, turning in productive practices through the first week of training camp. It’s the product of years of slowly working toward this moment. His defensive stats have increased from 2013, Arians’ first season in Arizona, when Bethel played zero defensive snaps. That number increased to 93 in 2014 and 419 in 2015 before falling to 257 last season. Bethel hasn’t been shy about his lack of experience at cornerback throughout his football career. He played corner at Blythewood High School, then assumed the same role during his freshman year at Presbyterian. But he was moved to safety as a sophomore and not reintroduced to cornerback until 2015, his fourth NFL season. It was in the final weeks of that season and again in the playoffs that Bethel was picked on by Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers like a little brother.
“At this point, the bits and pieces that I’ve gotten chances to do over the years is collectively starting to come together,” Bethel said. “Then I’ve been with a lot of different guys and lot of different DBs that have imparted things on me that I can use now.
“You start learning more. You learn how to be a professional, studying, realizing what people want to try to do to you, route combinations, down and distances, all those different things. I think at this point, I’ve learned those things to where if I’m in a situation, I know how to play it.”
Years of education at corner paired with his natural athleticism have helped Bethel appear to start pulling away from Williams, despite Arians calling the battle “wide open.” Bethel has been working primarily with the first-team defense and, for what it’s worth, was listed as the first-team right cornerback on the Cardinals’ first preseason depth chart.
But more than the physical aspects of playing corner, Bethel has begun to adopt the mental strength, perhaps the most important trait to being a starting corner in the NFL.
“He’s had good days every day,” Arians said. “The best thing with him, when he gives up a play, he just comes back and goes to the next one.
“That used to bother him, and now it doesn’t. He’s learning to get amnesia.”
Bethel’s peers in the secondary are embracing the competition between him and Williams, perhaps more so because they have a ringside seat rather than having to be involved themselves.
Peterson, who worked out with Williams often this offseason, has taken notice of Bethel’s camp thus far.
“Justin is still playing at a high level right now,” Peterson said.
Bethel will need to keep that up not only to take and hold the starting job opposite Peterson but also to set himself up for next season.
Arizona asked him during the offseason to restructure his three-year extension. His salary was reduced from $4.5 million to $2 million and he was given the opportunity to be an unrestricted free agent in 2018. When Bethel signed the extension in 2015, he saw it as a reward for his play to that point, primarily as a special-teams ace, and as a sign from the Cardinals that they were ready for him to take the next step.
Now, in essence, he’s entering a prove-it season. But first, he needs to prove he can have a prove-it year. He’s healthy. He’s improved. He’s ready. All signs, so far, point to it happening.
“I would’ve had the same mindset coming into the season whether we didn’t restructure or not,” Bethel said. “I came in thinking I want to be a starter and I’m healthy, and I think I have the tools and capability to do that.
“For me, it was like, at the end of the day, I’ll be able to go out there and play and get to the point where I know I can make all the money I need to back. I’m excited about the season and excited to see what happens.”