Gold Jacket Spotlight: Elvin Bethea's Career a Smash Hit in Houston

Gold Jacket Spotlight Published on : 2/20/2022
When a football player’s autobiography is titled “Smash Mouth,” it creates a clear picture of his style on the field.

For Elvin Bethea, who this week steps into the Gold Jacket Spotlight, the book title might understate the ferocity with which he played his 16 professional seasons as a defensive end for the Houston Oilers.

Elvin appeared in 210 games overall with the Oilers, including the first 135 in a row from his rookie-season debut in 1968 in the American Football League until midway through the 1977 season, when a broken arm ended the streak. He came back in 1978 and returned to Pro Bowl caliber as the Oilers ended an 11-year playoff drought by reaching the first of consecutive AFC Championship Games against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The 1978 AFC title game was not competitive, but the Oilers were within one score in the fourth quarter of the 1979 game before the Steelers punched in a late touchdown to seal their 27-13 win.

“The road to the Super Bowl passed through Pittsburgh,” Elvin told an interviewer about the two seasons he came closest to reaching the sport’s biggest stage. “One time Terry Bradshaw said, ‘The Super Bowl was played last week,’” (against the Oilers).

For many years in Houston, Elvin’s smash-mouth play was among the team’s few highlights.

Playing nearly all of his career before the sack was an official statistic, Elvin is credited with 105 with six seasons in double digits. He led the Oilers in sacks six times, including a career-high 16 – still the franchise record – in an otherwise dismal 1973 season that saw the Oilers post the second of back-to-back 1-13 records.

“They were the longest years of my career,” Elvin said in his Hall of Fame Enshrinement speech in 2003. “But I fought through them. I kept my attitude, I kept my poise and I kept focused. And that got me here today.”

Elvin’s best single-game performance as a pass rusher came in San Diego in 1976. He sacked Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts four times and recovered a fumble. The Oilers lost a late lead, however, triggering a downward spiral that turned a promising 4-1 season start into a 5-9 final record.

Elvin totaled 14.5 sacks in both the 1976 and 1969 seasons, the latter earning him the first of his eight Pro Bowl invitations.

“I never followed stats; I just went out and played the game,” he said in a 2012 interview. “After I saw the stats, I was impressed with my own self. I said, ‘Boy, I must have been really good.’”

He was good enough for the Oilers to retire his jersey No. 65 in 1983. He also has been inducted into the North Carolina A&T Athletic Hall of Fame (1980) and Texas Sports Hall of Fame (2003).

After his playing days ended in 1983, Elvin enjoyed a long second career with Anheuser-Busch in various management, marketing and government affairs roles. He also has been highly active in advocating for NFL retirees’ pension and health care benefits.

The man who played with a “smash mouth” style became a leading voice for change.

“No one gets to the Hall of Fame by ourselves,” Elvin told a reporter a few years ago. “We all played with guys and against guys who helped us. They pushed us. They made us better. And they all deserve to be treated better.”