Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea's fight against breast cancer

Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea has seen breast cancer affect several people in his life, so he's taking advantage of his platform to fight back. Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Antoine Bethea knew right away something was wrong when his father, Larry, told him on the phone in March 2015 that his mother, Verina, was staying in the hospital overnight.

She had been seeing her doctor for routine checkups a couple of times a year since she had a brain aneurysm clamped in 2009, but they had typically been same-day appointments. Immediately, Bethea, now an Arizona Cardinals safety, wanted to know why his mother was staying overnight, but his father wouldn't tell him.

"I didn't want him worrying about me and all," Verina told ESPN.

When his mother finally called and told Bethea about the 4½-hour surgery she had undergone to remove a cancerous mass from her breast, he broke down. The first thing Bethea thought about was the worst possible outcome.

"I'm not ready to lose my mom," Bethea said.

He decided to turn proactive and help his mother and others beat cancer. In three years, Bethea has raised close to $50,000, in part through sales on his website of clothing emblazoned with the slogan "Tackle Breast Cancer." It's just one of the many reasons Bethea is the Cardinals' nomination for Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.

Bethea's goal is twofold: He wants to spread as much awareness and raise as much money as he can through his platform as an NFL player. All the proceeds from the apparel have been donated to different organizations that research cancer, he said. He also partnered with Stryker, a medical equipment company, to raise awareness for breast reconstruction surgery through a series of tweets.

"When we have this platform, we got to use it," Bethea said. "We have to use it, regardless for whatever it is. I think we have to use our platform."

While Bethea has set out to support all cancer research, he has been impacted by breast cancer the most.

Long before his mother was diagnosed, his wife Samantha's mother died from it when Samantha was a senior in high school. And two years after his mother beat breast cancer, Bethea's first cousin, Monica Lawton, was diagnosed with it in 2017.

Now both Lawton and Bethea's mother are healthy and cancer-free. But seeing the effect cancer can have on a person and a family has pushed Bethea to help more.

And he has long been a giving soul.

When he was only 4 or 5, his mother remembers, Bethea brought friends to his house so he could give them clothing or an extra jacket from his closet if they didn't have something they needed.

That's who Bethea is, she said. That's who he always has been.

On Friday in Tempe, Bethea was scheduled to host a holiday shopping spree for 10 families in need.

Bethea and his mother have always been close. When he was growing up in Newport News, Virginia, she rarely missed any of his games. In high school, she was late for a basketball game and Bethea kept his eyes affixed on the door until she got there. After the game, his coach asked if she could be on time so Bethea wouldn't be distracted.

His mother's battle with breast cancer took its toll on Bethea, who was across the country playing for the San Francisco 49ers at the time. He talks to his parents every day, and Verina -- a vibrant, energetic and talkative 58-year-old -- usually answers the phone at her Virginia home. But on days she went through chemo, Bethea's dad would answer. That was tough on Bethea. And if he and his mother talked on those days, it wasn't for long, she said.

Bethea tried to get back to Virginia as much as his schedule would allow. One of the hardest parts of his mother's battle with cancer for Bethea was when he saw her for the first time after she lost her hair. She had voluntarily shaved her head for her aneurysm surgery in 2009. This was different.

"That was, really, one of the toughest things," Bethea said. "My first time seeing that, man, it was a gut-wrenching feeling. It was like, ‘Damn, this is really happening.'"

Bethea tried to stay strong and positive for his mother. He would give her pep talks on the phone. They still can't talk about it without Bethea tearing him, his mother said. And after his father drove Bethea to the airport after one visit, Verina asked what their son had said in the car. It wasn't much -- just, "Take care of her."

"We're a strong-knit family," Bethea said. "We're a real tight-knight family, so we're always there for one another when anybody was going through something."

And it has gone beyond his family, as Bethea is still trying to help the millions of other women battling breast cancer.