Of the 1,027 men who have played for the Dallas Cowboys, only one has taken his own life. Larry Bethea was the team’s first-round selection in the 1978 NFL Draft, a defensive end from Michigan State, a National Honors Society student seemingly without limits to his potential.
The plan was simple, really. Spend a few seasons learning from All-Pro ends Harvey Martin and Ed “Too Tall” Jones, take one of their starting gigs and collect a few Super Bowl rings and Pro Bowl nods. The Cowboys way. How it was always done.
Bethea was different, though. Longtime Cowboys defensive line coach Ernie Stautner said on numerous occasions that during his 23 years coaching in Dallas, Bethea was the one person he could never figure out. For a multitude of reasons, the promise and optimism surrounding Bethea never materialized. He spent six seasons with the Cowboys, never cracking the starting lineup and rarely making much of an impact, before signing with the Michigan Panthers of the USFL for the 1984 campaign. Two years later, he would plead guilty to grand larceny for stealing his mother’s life savings.
And on April 23, 1987, with police searching for him in connection with two armed robberies earlier in the day, Bethea was found dead in the backyard of a boarding house in his hometown of Newport News, Va. There was a gunshot wound to his right temple and a .38 caliber pistol found next to his body. He was 30 years old.
There were many questions concerning the whys and hows of this tragedy. How the dream of playing for the Dallas Cowboys could turn into the worst of nightmares, and why Bethea wasn’t able to escape his own demons. And some of those questions remain today.
There is an answer, though. Perhaps not one that is omniscient, but alas, all too familiar.
Bethea was a drug addict.
“He always seemed to have a smile on his face, but what’s inside a person you never know,” former head coach Tom Landry said after Bethea’s death. “It might be a façade. It is hard to believe that a player who was as congenial and as happy as Larry seemed to be with the Cowboys would end his life in this manner. It’s really sad. It’s a shame to take your life when there’s so much to live for.”
After investigating Bethea’s death and ruling it a suicide, Newport News police chief Jay A. Carey Jr. said, “This man, who had so much going for him, lost everything, including his life. I believe that Larry Bethea would be alive today if he had been able to stay away from drugs.”
No one is sure when the drug use started. There were rumors it began while he was at Michigan State, but the Cowboys, perhaps more so than other teams, thoroughly investigated their draft selections at the time, especially first-round picks. They found and heard nothing. In 1983, his sixth season in Dallas, his name surfaced, along with several teammates, as part of a federal cocaine investigation. No charges were ever filed.
His fellow Cowboys players as well as the coaches never saw suspected drug use, either. Then again, they weren’t looking for it. This was another time and place. Bethea also seemed to be somewhat of a loner, and more than likely went out of his way to keep his demons private. He was well liked across the board, but only a few really knew him beyond the day-to-day chitchat within a locker room.
“One thing about him was, outwardly, he was always up and always in a good mood,” said tight end Doug Cosbie after Bethea’s death. “That was outwardly, in a group. But if you ever got him alone and talked to him, you could tell he had a lot of hurt inside.”
Part of the hurt came from his inability to succeed on the football field, at least beyond the level of having already reached the NFL. That wasn’t enough for Bethea. He was determined to become a starter, to become an elite pass-rushing defensive end, to become a household name.
He also felt the pressure of being a first-round pick of America’s Team, the league’s most popular franchise. In retrospect, perhaps being drafted in the second round by a small market team, say Green Bay or Seattle, would have suited Bethea better.
“As a Cowboy, you have all things coming at you,“ Bethea said at training camp in 1983. “There’s a whole lot going on. If you don’t have your perspective together, you can get swallowed up.
“I’ve got my personal perspective in life together. I met a psychic in Virginia who laid the groundwork for me to understand myself and the ways of the world. It’s far-reaching and far-fetched, I know. You might think I’m from outer space and was dropped off on this planet, if you get my drift. But I’m here and I’m together, and that’s all that concerns me.”
Later that season, though, he told a reporter, “My body is here, but part of me is missing.”
Growing up in Newport News, a town of 150,000 or so people at the time, Bethea excelled at excelling, be it athletics or in the classroom. At Ferguson High School, he was an All-America football player and graduated among the top of his class. His prep coach, Harlan Hott, said at the time of his death, “He was the type you thought would turn out to be a lawyer or doctor. He was a super student, a super athlete and a super person. Everyone liked him. He was the All-American kid you wanted your kids to emulate.”
At Michigan State, the success continued, as Bethea set the school record with 43 sacks and earned All-Big Ten honors. He was a hero back home in Newport News, and he never passed up an opportunity to speak with kids, volunteer at a football camp or donate a few bucks to charity after he turned pro. Some have described him as too generous, both with his time and money. Bethea was the guy still signing autographs at training camp after his teammates had showered. He liked to make people happy. One of his favorite sayings was, “Anything is possible.”
But after two years of coming off the bench for the Cowboys, the disappointment was starting to mount. And questions were rising among the media and fans about why the first-round pick wasn’t having more of an impact on the defense.
“Larry was eager, very energetic, but undisciplined,” longtime Cowboys radio play-by-play announcer Brad Sham said. “The thinking when they drafted him was that in time he would replace Harvey or Ed, passing the torch, which is always what the Cowboys did for that 20-year stretch of winning seasons with Tom Landry. They always had that next starter ready and waiting. Rookies were not expected to contribute and rarely did.
“However, by that third season, the expectation was that he should be ready and then there’s a lot of pressure, and he wasn’t ready. He also didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with the pressure, the stress.
“Larry had the talent to compete, but he was being held to that standard of Harvey and Ed, and that’s an extremely high standard.”
The mindset of coaches was different in that era, too. Not in a malicious way, in the least. They were just old school. Stautner and Landry coached everyone the same way and expected them to respond. Nowadays, someone like Bethea, who was going to take a little more time and seasoning and maybe needed some added attention, his situation might have been handled differently.
“He was an unusual young man. Not in a bad way, he just needed to be coached in a different way, maybe needed some extra coaching to learn the Flex defense, and that wasn’t how it was done then,” Sham said. “Ernie and Tom were not of the coaching mold to take the time and be patient. That wasn’t the NFL then. They weren’t going to baby anyone. I’m not saying Larry was doomed from the beginning, but today’s atmosphere, I think he would have been handled differently. I think they would have spotted his problems early on.”
The problems escalated tenfold when football was no longer a part of Bethea’s life. This was long before the NFL worked with players on what comes after their career. Following a season in the USFL, he ended up roaming the Pacific Northwest, even claiming to have lived on the streets of Seattle for a stretch. He also pleaded guilty to setting three fires in Mount Rainer Park in Paradise, Wash., and was ordered to pay $1,000 in fines.
There was tragedy in his recent past as well, the death of his sister in 1980 and not being able to have children with his wife, Gloria. Bethea was arrested in Dallas in 1986 after an altercation with his wife in which police found her bruised and with a bloody lip. They also found he was carrying $61,375 in cash.
The following day his mother told police that her life savings had been stolen from a safe in the attic of her home in Newport News. Her son pleaded guilty to taking the money and was given a four-year suspended sentence, saying, “I got a little confused in the big picture, and I hurt my family.”
“I thought he was getting help for his problems after that last incident with his mother,” Ed “Too Tall” Jones told The Dallas Morning News at the time of Bethea’s death. “I bumped into him last year when we played a charity basketball game against the Chicago Bears in Fort Worth. I had a chance to talk to him. I could tell that he had problems, a lot on his mind. I was able to detect it then because I was looking for it. I could see that he wasn’t straight.[embeddedad0]
“He would stare up at the sky at night when we’d come out of training camp meetings and say, ‘They’re coming, guys.’ We just laughed. We didn’t know who was coming. But he was always nice. Extremely nice. Always had something positive to say.”
In that last year of his life, Bethea’s wife filed for divorce, and he moved in with his mother in a house he bought for her during his playing days. He worked for a two-week stretch with a moving company, but otherwise his lone income was biweekly retirement checks from the league of $332. He would cash them at a local 7-Eleven store and immediately buy cigarettes and beer. The owner of the store, who Bethea became friendly with over time, said he would spend the remainder of the money on cocaine. He also said the town that once revered him as a hero no longer had interest in their fallen son.
“He came back to his hometown because he thought at least he’d get some attention and love here,” storeowner Johnny Yu said following Bethea’s death. “People just closed the door on him. Nobody cared. No businesses helped him. His wife let him down. His parents let him down. The only people who cared about him were the street people and winos.
“He lost the love he had here.”
The final 24 hours of his life were spent stealing a gun and robbing two convenience stores near his mother’s home, one for the paltry sum of $27. Shortly thereafter, he used the stolen gun to end his own life.
“It’s just a crime to see this kind of thing happening when you can take steps to stop it,” then-Cowboys president Tex Schramm said. “If there were drugs in his life when he played for the Cowboys, we were unaware of it. If we had been able to be aware of it, we would have been able to do something.
“If there were typical signs of drug abuse by Bethea, they were sure lost to those around him. We could have caught him earlier enough with a drug-testing program. We could have permitted Larry Bethea to have a full career and a full life.”
While everyone knew Bethea was struggling in those last years, the finality of death always comes as a shock.
“I can’t remember anyone, I can’t fathom anyone seeing that coming. It was tragic, incredibly sad,” Sham said. “He was a likeable kid, just overmatched, more so emotionally than physically. It’s a cautionary tale.”
Sham recalls a revealing story about a plane flight after a road win. A veteran player with a prodigious appetite, the proverbial hollow leg, was enjoying a few beers after his meal. Not pounding or anything, just slowly knocking back beer after beer until he had consumed 10 or 11. Bethea, then a rookie and sitting nearby, seemingly trying to impress, was staying with his teammate beer for beer until he reached the point of being so drunk that he started screaming incoherently. The veteran player shook his head in disgust.
“The reason that story has stuck with me all these years and all these flights later is that it was prophetic,” Sham sad. “It demonstrated how badly he wanted to be equal to the older players in terms of being on their level, and I think that led to some of the issues later on.
“In terms of drug use, the late-1970s into the 1980s were a different time. A lot was changing. Before, it was beer and some players took greenies, which were an amphetamine used by a lot of athletes during games.
“Tom saw the foundation shift from under him, and he said himself multiple times that he could have handled the drug situation better. There was a society change, and recreational drugs and some stronger drugs were more the landscape than before. The team was still successful, and the players absolutely knew what was going on, trainers knew, but Landry distanced himself and no one told him about what was going on. Tom also didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know how to handle this problem.”
On the afternoon of his 60th birthday, Dennis Thurman is working. Weeks before the NFL Draft, there are no days off for defensive coordinators, or any coaches for that matter, so he’s immersed with tape and meetings. It’s April 13, and Thurman, the former Cowboys defensive back who ranks fourth in franchise history with 36 interceptions, is putting in a full day and then some at the Buffalo Bills’ team headquarters. He’d grab some dinner and some birthday cake with the family later that night.
When first approached about talking about his old friend, Thurman was curious as to the whys. Still, he agreed to an interview. Some 10 days after he spoke would be 29 years since that fateful day when Bethea pulled the trigger and ended his life.
“He was such a good guy, it brought me to my knees when I heard the news,” Thurman said. “I just didn’t see it, I just couldn’t believe it. It didn’t seem plausible that the Larry I knew could be this person who took his own life.
“To be that low, to have that kind of confusion or whatever it was, to reach that point, I’ll never be able to understand where he was. I’ve been guessing and thinking about it since.”
Coming off their victory in Super Bowl XII, anchored by the “Doomsday Defense” at its peak, the Cowboys weren’t in dire need at any position entering the 1978 NFL Draft. So the plan was more or less status quo – start to build for the future, take the best player available and let them learn the trade for a few seasons.
In terms of that plan being successful, Dallas produced one of its worst drafts in franchise history. Of the 12 selections, only five even played in the NFL and just two, Bethea and Thurman, who was taken in the 11th round, started a game for the Cowboys. The two immediately connected, though, rooming together at their first training camp and for years thereafter for road games during the regular season.
“He was a big man, good size, 6-foot-2, 250 pounds or so, outgoing, jovial personality, world-class smile, easy to make laugh. Almost playful socially, but he was all seriousness and locked in when playing football or watching film,” Thurman said. “Away from the game, I think we were pretty normal guys, not too serious about the world, just like most 22-year-old kids.
“Those first few years there was a group of us younger guys that hung out – Ron Springs, Steve Wilson, Aaron Mitchell, Larry and me – and those were some of the greatest times of my life. We were all searching our way through the NFL and kind of gravitated to each other.”
During that first training camp, at Lutheran College in Thousand Oaks, about 35 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, Bethea and Thurman snuck out of their room after curfew, borrowed a car and drove down to L.A.
“That’s one of those stories not a lot of people know. We certainly weren’t telling anyone back then, but I guess it’s safe to tell it now,” Thurman said laughing. “I guess we were curious as to how it worked, but we had a good time that night. The most important thing, though, is we took care of each other and stayed out of trouble with Coach Landry. I don’t recall the next morning being that much fun, but it was worth it.”
There arguably isn’t anyone more qualified to answer the question of why Bethea didn’t have more success with the Cowboys than Thurman. In six seasons, the first-round pick played 81 games, starting just two, and while sacks weren’t an official statistic until 1982, he wasn’t exactly taking down quarterbacks in bulk. He was credited with just five those last two years.
If nothing else, it’s worth noting that Bethea played his best games in the postseason. In the NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams during his rookie season, Bethea made a huge stop on fourth-and-1, tackling fullback Jim Jodat behind the line of scrimmage. He also started the legendary NFC title game against the San Francisco 49ers a few years later and was on the field for Joe Montana’s winning pass to Dwight Clark.
More than anything, Thurman believes that Bethea wasn’t able to grasp Landry’s complex 4-3 Flex defense. There’s no reason to break down the intricacies here and now, outside of this: Bethea was by no means alone in not thriving in the system. Randy White was lost during his first two seasons playing linebacker before moving to defensive tackle, just to cite one example.
In the Flex, each of the front four were responsible for a single gap, and the tackles and ends were supposed to remain in those gaps, only attempting to make a play on the ball carrier when he came through. For natural playmakers, this wasn’t an easy transition.
“It’s a hard question to answer, except for this: The reason Larry didn’t succeed wasn’t because of a lack of talent. This guy possessed all the talent to be a big-time player in the NFL,” Thurman said. “The Flex for those front positions involved a lot of rules and concepts that Larry just didn’t grasp. For the secondary guys, the Flex was just like any other defense, so I didn’t really understand the nuances myself. Coverage is coverage.
“Larry would lay on his bed, sit in the chair, looking at that playbook for hours. At times, you could see his frustration. He wanted to be great so badly, he wanted to succeed. He’d say, almost to himself more than me, ‘I was one of the best. I was one of the best.’ And I’d tell him he still was, and he’s just say, ‘It’s not happening for me.’”
Thurman, however, was thriving. For an almost-afterthought of a draft pick, the 306th overall (even with more teams and compensatory picks only 253 players were selected in 2016), the USC product was making plays all over the field. As a nickel corner during his rookie season, Thurman forced six turnovers, and by 1981, he was among the game’s best, finishing with nine interceptions returned for 187 yards. Those numbers have not been surpassed by a Cowboys player in a season since. His ball-hawking talent also led to him being featured on the iconic “Thurman Thieves” poster.
Through this success, Bethea and he remained tight, but the reality of the situation was only adding to the former’s frustration. One was the first-round pick, the other had been a long shot to make the team.
“Even our rookie season I was playing before he was, and he was so frustrated, almost despondent at his lack of playing time. It’s tough when you have never been on the sidelines before when the game is taking place. He wasn’t used to that. Larry was always the star,” Thurman said. “He was incredibly happy for me, though. Larry never said a negative word about my success. He was always there to give me a high-five or a hug.
“Our second year, when Too Tall Jones went to box, that was his big opportunity to start, and it just didn’t happen. The job went to Larry Cole. And that’s when his frustration went to another level. He felt like he wasn’t living up to the standard of being a first-round pick. That was difficult on him. We all internally deal with success and failure differently.”
As for the drug use, which would eventually play such a significant role in Bethea’s downward spiral, Thurman was adamant that he never, ever suspected or was privy to that darker side of his friend’s life.
“I didn’t pay attention to that stuff, probably because I wasn’t doing it myself,” Thurman said. “I never saw Larry use drugs. My God, I just can’t believe that was taking place when he was playing for the Cowboys. That thought never entered my mind for a moment back then. I never saw any sign, and I don’t recall anyone else ever saying they did, either.”
Thurman remembers the last time he spoke with Bethea, after he had been released by the Houston Gamblers of the USFL in 1985. They were in Dallas, and there was nothing particularly memorable about the discussion outside of the fact that they were never to talk again.
“It was low-key, just regular stuff, like what he was going to do for a job,” Thurman said. “I mean, you are never thinking when you are talking to anyone that it’s the last time, especially when you’re both 29 years old.”
Within a year of his playing career ending, Thurman joined the Phoenix Cardinals as their defensive backs coach in 1988. Since then, he has enjoyed a stellar second act, culminating in him serving first as defensive coordinator for the New York Jets and then the Buffalo Bills over the last four years.
“I’ve always had a sense of heightened awareness as a coach because of Larry, because you just never know in this job how the stress is affecting people,” Thurman said. “For so many of them, it’s everything, economically, socially, and to not achieve their goals, to not have that sense of accomplishment if they aren’t successful, you can never assume how that’s going to affect them. I never want to experience losing someone like we did Larry.”
After talking about Bethea for almost 30 minutes, Thurman is asked one final question before going back to his tape and scouting reports. Does he ever find himself thinking about his old friend?
“Oh yeah, absolutely. Larry flashes through my mind all the time, and yet all this time later, I still can’t wrap my head around what happened,” he said. “There are quiet moments. I’ll be sitting in my office or watching film, and I’ll just start wondering why. I’ll stare at the wall for two or three minutes and just want some kind of answer that I know is never going to come. I just wish there was a way I could have helped, that I understood what was happening with him.”
Even nearly three decades removed from his death, there are more questions than answers. The only known certainty is that the end came way too soon for Larry Bethea.