Just a little over two years ago, no one would have blamed NFL players for not knowing much about Antoine Bethea, a safety out of Howard University who was selected by the Colts in the sixth round of the 2006 NFL Draft.
But while working side-by-side with Bob Sanders as a starter in the Colts secondary for the past two years, Bethea earned respect around the league quickly -- along with a Super Bowl ring.
"Coming from Howard, it was unexpected," Bethea told Scout.com during an exclusive interview. "The first year, winning that Super Bowl, and then this last year going to the Pro Bowl, it's just a blessing. I hope good things continue to happen for me."
That isn't to say that success has come easily for the soft-spoken safety. He not only learned on the job as a starting free safety beginning in Week 1 of his rookie season, he had to work his way back into playing shape before the playoffs last season after suffering a knee injury that sidelined him for nearly a month.
"It was just friendly fire. We were running to the ball in the Baltimore game and one of my teammates rolled up on my leg," he explained. "I got it some good rest and good rehab and then I was back at it. Now it's all healed up and I'm ready to get back out there one hundred percent."
With 111 tackles to his credit during his first two years, Bethea has shown great skill as an open-field tackler. And last year the 5-foot-11, 203-pound defender topped his three-interception rookie season, tying middle linebacker Gary Brackett for the team lead in interceptions with four.
He credits the improvement to becoming more patient as a defender.
"When the plays come to you, you make the plays. You're not going out there and trying to force them," he said. "I made sure to study all week long, so I really knew what was going on, what to expect out there. It was good to go out there and just play without thinking.
"I became a better player, learned a lot of things, and I'm looking forward to getting back out there this year."
Bethea will be paired up with Sanders again, a man who has become both his mentor and a friend. The hard-hitting veteran was scheduled to become a free agent in 2008, but Indianapolis locked him up with a new contract well before teams could even flirt with the idea of luring him away.
Antoine Bethea makes an interception on a pass intended for Patriots WR Donte' Stallworth in September, 2007.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Throughout the 2007 season, Bethea wasn't the least bit concerned that Sanders would be wearing anything but the horseshoe again in 2008. And he was happy about his teammate's good fortune on both a professional and personal level.
"I knew they wouldn't let Bob get out of there," he said. "Bob is a skilled player and we're really happy for him that he got a great deal. When you do so much together, it's sort of like your second family. He's a vet and a person I look up to and try to play similar to.
"Off the field, we hang out, we chill, we go out to eat, we have fun. That's the best thing, when you can be friends off the field, because then when you get on the field it's easy to work together."
While Bethea and Sanders will anchor the safety spots for the Colts, fourth-year cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden — the team's top two picks in the 2005 NFL Draft — return as the starters at cornerback.
Bethea believes that NFL fans will see big things from the foursome this season.
"We all have one year under our belt as starters together, so we just want to continue what we did last year," he said. "We're all physical, so that's one thing we really want to hop on, just staying physical out there, punishing receivers and running backs."
One of the reasons the Colts secondary continues to improve is due to the quality of receivers they have to cover every day in practice, such as Reggie Wayne, who caught 104 passes for 1,510 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
"Reggie's another player I look up to, what he brings to the game, what he brings to the team. His work ethic really makes him special," Bethea said. "He leaves it out on the field every game and every play. He comes out to practice everyday, he works out hard everyday. He just knows how to get it done."
As the Colts prepare for their 2008 season, Bethea is now one of the young veterans who this year's draft class is looking to for leadership and insight. And while he's ready to help them any way that he can, he's really pumped up about the prospects for the team's defense since they are returning all eleven starters.
"We all have to work together, but I think we got a lot of good things done last year as a group," he said. "I'm really excited to get back out there and see what we can do."
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can contact him by email through this link.