Martellus Bennett is the world's most interesting Unicorn
The temperature was plummeting toward 20º F in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, Ill., but a VIP was scheduled to arrive any minute, so those who were assigned to greet him waited outdoors, shivering.
Chicago is a major city, but it does not have many national celebrities. Its comedians and community organizers -- and even Oprah -- tend to leave for the coasts, and the local bold-faced names tend to be drawn from the city's diamonds, rinks, courts and fields. One of them was coming to the Buffalo Wild Wings in Hoffman Estates on this night.
The chauffeured SUV finally pulled up, and its primary passenger stepped out and stretched his 6' 6", 265-pound body. He wore a zip-up blue hoodie and red Bulls shorts over slim-cut gray sweatpants, though at the last minute he had changed into sneakers from a pair of fluffy slippers.
"Right on time, baby," he said.
The man's greeters -- employees of Wild Wings and of sports radio station 670 The Score, which was broadcasting a show that he would help host -- were ready to give him the Oprah treatment. They solemnly formed a phalanx around him and rushed him through the doors and toward a stage that had been set up in the back, where his two -- cohosts were waiting. A couple of hundred heads whirled around and tracked every quick step of his progress. Soon everyone was cheering.
Martellus Bennett is just 12 games into his first year with the Bears, who are in second place in the NFC North, yet his 48 receptions already rank seventh on the team's alltime list of most catches by a tight end in one season. He is on pace for 64, which would beat the single-season total of every other Bears tight end except the exalted Mike Ditka. But Bennett's skills extend beyond his ability to make catches, according to his position coach, Andy Bischoff. "He's really one of the few three-way tight ends left in the league," Bischoff says -- meaning that Bennett excels at run-blocking and pass-blocking, too. "You look around at how teams use tight ends. They take 'em off the field for this, plug 'em in for that." Of the Bears' 742 offensive snaps heading into Week 13, Bennett had been on the field for 664.
If all Bennett did was play tight end, he would be well liked in his new hometown. But he is also -- as the rapt fans at Buffalo Wild Wings and other listeners across Chicagoland could have told you -- one of the most unusual people who has ever earned a living playing football. This has made him beloved even in a league in which it can be tricky to have a personality at all. The 26-year-old Bennett, who goes by the nickname Black Unicorn, is proof that you can be two things at once: a pro football player and yourself.
This is is like Howard Stern-slash-Tom Joyner-slash-Mickey Mouse Club right here, know what I'm saying?" Bennett exulted once he assumed his position at the microphone, a Shirley Temple -- his favorite drink -- at his side. For the next hour and a half, he steered the conversation to the topics that interest him, of which there are many. He talked about how to be a good husband: "If you want to know what not to do, watch Lifetime." He talked about his role models for fatherhood, which he will soon experience for the first time (his wife, Siggi, is expecting in March): Uncle Phil, Bill Cosby, Carl Winslow, Mr. Feeny. He talked about his role in the delivery room: "I ain't trying to play House and cut the umbilical cord. That's kind of creepy. I'll let the doctors be the doctors, and I'll just be Dad."
Bennett discerned that one of his cohosts was single and offered to put his profile up on Match.com or, better yet, be his wingman. "I'm like Chris Paul with my assists, [I'll] throw alley-oops to you," he said. He talked about his own self-esteem: "I'm a beautiful black stallion. You go to the track, there's ponies, donkeys, mules, then there's this stallion with these muscles. The kind you don't put down after he starts losing races. That's the kind I am."
Over the course of that hour and a half, Bennett also brought up Gandhi; the artist Jeff Koons; the former teen heartthrob Jonathan Taylor Thomas; Breaking Bad; the need to learn cursive to impress girls in the digital age; one of his many business ideas ("Buy famous athletes' website names, like JayCutler.com, and make it a Triple-X website so they'd have to buy it from me"); the movie The Water-boy; Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise ("All those cute white guys, I'm better looking than them"); and how he would respond if someone insulted a person he holds dear. "You say stuff about anybody in my family, you leave with a size 13 stuck up your rectum," Bennett said.
The crowd loved every minute of it. They laughed and applauded, and they rushed to the stage for autographs during every commercial break. They even loved Bennett's interpretation of his zodiac sign, Pisces, which is usually depicted as two interlocking fish. "There's two different types of Pisces," he said. "There's the downstream ones; they just go with the flow and everything that happens. They're just cool about it. Then there's the upstream ones, the ones who try to change the world and do things differently from the way they were done. They're not so easygoing. I'm an upstream one."
The NFL, of course, has always preferred the downstream ones, the conformers who humbly submit to the sport's behavioral norms. Yet Bennett, who began his career in the league with four unremarkable years in Dallas, found success, acceptance and happiness only when he freed the parts of himself that seem to have little to do with football.
"There's nothing that says all we have to do is play football and die," says Bennett, who signed a four-year, $20.4 million free-agent contract with the Bears last March. "I don't want someone to come to my funeral and say, 'Oh, that guy ran fast down the seam.' Or have somebody give me some great-ass Any Given Sunday eulogy. I want them to say, 'He helped people do this' or 'He created that.' I don't think humans are built to do one thing. You've got two of almost everything. Except tongues."
The key, for Bennett, was finding his life's proper balance. That took some time.
Many people drew their first impression of Martellus Bennett from the 2008 iter-ation of Hard Knocks, in which he appeared as a Dallas rookie second-round draft choice. His depiction was not, by and large, positive. The Cowboys were skeptical of his views -- he had more than once referred to the NFL combine and draft process as "a slave trade" -- and he spent most of his screen time being screamed at by tight ends coach John Garrett.
"Everyone thought I was crazy -- and I am kind of crazy -- but it was mostly because I was different," Bennett says. "They wanted me to be just like Jason Witten, who's a real cool dude, but we're different types of people." In his four years in Dallas as the backup to a future Hall of Famer who hasn't missed a game since 2003, Bennett averaged 21 receptions and 212 yards and did not catch a touchdown pass after his rookie season.
"People thought he was stupid, weird, a bust," says Siggi, who met Martellus on a Thanksgiving visit to Dallas in 2008, while she was a junior at Sarah Lawrence College, outside New York City. As it would turn out, he was only one of those three things.
When Bennett lies down to sleep these days, his whole body is encircled by one of the two pregnancy pillows that Siggi recently purchased. "It's like Jesus hugging you, bro," he says. Even so, he is not a restful sleeper. He might get five hours, sometimes only three. On his nightstand he keeps a laptop, a tablet, a sketchbook and a notebook in which he records the thoughts that never stop coming.
He thinks about new nicknames he might give himself: Besides Black Unicorn, there is Marty B, Martysaurus Rex, Orange Dinosaur, Joe Gryffindor, Black Einstein and Google. He thinks about new tattoos he might get. (He claims to have 287 of them, and though that figure is in dispute, Siggi says she is constantly discovering new ones, only to learn he's had them for years.) He thinks about events he might host. (He hopes to find a boy band that performs only tracks by Beyoncé.) He thinks about what he might do with his sewing skills, which he recently learned in an online course. "I'm a sew all kinds of s---," he says.
He thinks about a book of aphorisms he wants to publish called Martellus Bennett: Human Fortune Cookie. There will be 365 of them, ranging from the philosophical to the practical:
Many leaves but one tree. We are all connected. Every leaf is different, but the tree they share is exactly the same.
Be ready so you don't have to get ready. You never know when the world will need you to be a superhero.
We're all black when the lights are off.
Clean up the room before you take that selfie.
Mostly, though, Bennett thinks about things he plans to create. He is inspired by the work of Tim Burton, Dr. Seuss, Dreamworks and Pixar. One of his projects is to self-publish a coffee-table book of Dadaesque short stories called Books That Make No Sense in the Place of Make-Believe: Dinosaurs, Astronauts and Cupcakes. Another is a theme park called Dinosaurland, whose Mickey Mouse-like icon is named McGuire -- after Bennett's agent, Kennard McGuire -- and appears in ever-changing costumes. "We all wear masks in real life, whether it's with the clothes we wear, the cars we drive," Bennett explains. "He takes it literally."
Another project is a cartoon called Space Dude, centered on a disgraced astronaut who has an intellectually challenged black unicorn named Casper. Yet another is an animated online pop-up book for children about a family of bees called the Wannabees. The main character is named Marty Bee.
Bennett's mind has always worked like this. As a kid in Alief, Texas, outside of Houston, "I was a f-----' weirdo, bro," he says. His older brother, Michael, who is tied for the Seahawks' lead in sacks, remembers that their mother, Pennie, a teacher, used to discipline them by making them write stories. "My stories were plain, and his were just different," Michael says. "In fact, everything he always did was just different."
When you are enormous and fast and live in Texas, different isn't much allowed once you reach high school. "In Texas, sports is king," Martellus says. He played the trombone in his middle school marching band, and at Alief Taylor High he considered marching at halftime of his football games. His coaches talked him out of it. "They pressured me into thinking I couldn't do both," he says.
Bennett's talent at both football and basketball made him a cog in the Texas sports machine -- and stifled him. School came easily to him (he says he ranked in the top 7% of his high school class), but he longed to express his creativity in ways he could not in a classroom. "I didn't really see his imagination [when we were] kids, because you've got summer ball, football seven-on-seven leagues, all that stuff," says Fendi Onobun, a friend and basketball teammate of Martellus's at Alief Taylor and now a practice-squad tight end with the Bears. After Martellus, the nation's top tight end prospect and a highly rated small forward, followed Michael to Texas A&M, Martellus began to dabble in T-shirt design and rap music videos, but still, he says, "I was very, very moody. I don't have any friends from college. No one that calls me."
It was only after the Giants offered him a one-year, $2.5 million free-agent contract before the 2012 season, allowing him to move away from his home state for the first time, that Bennett blossomed, both personally and professionally. "I think getting out of Texas was the best thing that ever happened to him," says Michael.
Martellus puts it in different terms: "In Texas you can be a horse, but in New York you can be a unicorn. New York was the first place I've been that I felt like I belonged. The people, the conversations we had in restaurants, the way people dressed. . . . I felt like I could fly. I felt like I wasn't crazy -- that, O.K., other people think like this too. Other people have these dreams."
Soon his Giants teammates were calling him "the most interesting man in football" and were valuing him as much for what he did off the field -- he spent Hurricane Sandy at the house of offensive lineman Kevin Boothe, painting with Boothe's two-year-old son, Dante -- as for his career-high 55 catches, 626 yards and five touchdowns last season. "I think he would have fit in perfectly at Cornell," says Boothe, a graduate of that university. "He is a very intelligent man. People hear his jokes and his great sound bites, but behind all that he's very intellectual."
Bennett has become even more expansive in Chicago, to which he was drawn not just because the Bears offered him a good contract but also because the city is so cosmopolitan. He concedes that his persona is, in some measure, calculated. "When I was growing up, I was a huge fan of Shaq and Muhammad Ali," he says. "Ali, he was a poet, which I thought was awesome. He got his point across, but he made it into a song." At the same time, Bennett -insists -- and his wife agrees -- that this persona is a genuine expression of what is inside him. "I ain't make up no fictitious character or anything like that," he says. "This is just who I am. Most great athletes, they're defined by their athletic ability: making that jump shot, running fast. A lot of times it consumes them. They become what the world defines them as, instead of defining themselves within the world. A lot of times athletes don't have identities. They don't know nothing about themselves besides, This is what I do, football is who I am."
Bennett has quickly become revered in the Bears' locker room. There are two reasons for this. One is that he is very entertaining. "He has the mental capacity of a genius," says rookie offensive lineman Kyle Long, son of Howie. "The definition of Martellus Bennett never stops. There's no period." Few other NFL players, for example, could come up with this off-the-cuff analysis of the 1982 movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial:
"People don't even understand what E.T. is about. It's about a kid who can't understand how other people feel. Soon as the movie starts, first thing his big brother says is, Put yourself in others' shoes for a minute. The kid finds this creature, he wants to keep it, he's so selfish. But the more they bonded, the more he started to feel the pain E.T. felt. He was put into E.T.'s shoes. When E.T. got sick, he got sick. You know? Yes. It's about learning empathy. It's not really about getting E.T. home. It's about sacrificing what he wanted because it would be better for someone else. 'Cause he's a little selfish s---ball."
The other reason Bennett is so well liked is that he is exceedingly tough. He has less sympathy than you might think for the Dolphins' Jonathan Martin, another eccentric by NFL standards, who says he was so relentlessly bullied by linemate Richie Incognito that he had to leave the team. "If I was Jonathan Martin, and [Incognito] f----- with me every day, I wouldn't have left -- I would have beat everybody's ass," Bennett says. "They'd have to kick me out of the building, I'd have beaten up so many people." You can be quirky and play in the NFL, but you must also have the potential to be brutal.
"At the end of the day, in football, what you're doing is trying to dominate another man," Bennett says. "That's a tough thing to do. Nobody wants to be dominated. There's a lot of anger all the time. It takes a certain type of person to be able to do that."
As Long puts it, "Yes, Martellus is the guy I want at an art show. If I want to impress a girl, I need Martellus to pick out what I'm going to buy. But he's also the guy I want with me in the dark alley behind the art gallery."
During the last half hour of Bennett's radio show at Buffalo Wild Wings, his cohosts finally succeeded in turning the conversation to football. They talked about Bennett's drive, which is exemplified by his commitment to playing through injuries. He separated his right shoulder while making a leaping one-handed grab at the back of the end zone in Week 2 (it might have been the catch of the year if he had landed inbounds), and he is often unable to lift his right arm. There is also his determination to break tackles. Even though Bennett ranked tied for 41st in the league in receptions, he had forced more missed tackles -- 17, according to Pro Football Focus -- than any other wide receiver or tight end and even some lead tailbacks, such as Chris Johnson and Frank Gore.
If it seems contradictory for a man who defines himself as more than a football player to be so committed to football, to Bennett it makes sense. "That s--- comes back to, Hey, if you want to do all these other things -- and make money to fund them -- you have to go out there and play well," he says. "This is going to help you achieve your other dreams in life. Football, I don't think it's my calling, but it's something I was gifted in and I love to do." Bennett is particularly driven to play well for the Bears' first-year coach, Marc Trestman, whom Bennett deems "an innovator" and has referred to as Willy Wonka. "He's open to all ideas," Bennett says of the cerebral Trestman, who is a member of the Florida bar and once sold municipal bonds. Trestman has admitted that his own unusual interests prevented him from becoming an NFL head coach until he was 57. "S---, just because something was done a certain way for a long time doesn't mean that's the way it has to be done," Bennett says.
The coach has an equally high opinion of his tight end. "We know he's got a lot going on, but when he's here, he's all in," Trestman says. "What we see . . . is a guy who is extremely focused on his job when he's in the building."
Even at the Bears' Lake Forest facility, though, Bennett's creative energies don't go to waste. When the coaches needed two-minute-drill hand signals for their new offense, the job of creating them fell to Bennett. He came up with 120. "There's nobody in our offensive meeting that's any more football-intelligent than him," says Bischoff. "[Abraham] Maslow's higher level of thinking -- he's got that quality to him."
During the team's weekly meeting to install plays, Bennett has often suggested variations to Bischoff before many of his teammates have learned the originals. "I probably draw 20 a week, and three or four make it into the playbook," Bennett says. "It feels good when they make it."
The radio show was over, and the phalanx reformed to rush Martellus and Siggi Bennett back into the frozen night. During the drive to their house, a gleaming glass cube that is filled with modernist furniture and devoid of the usual game balls and framed jerseys, Martellus talked about how he is able to star in the NFL and also pursue so much more without becoming a dilettante. "I think anything you do in life, if you want to be great at it, discipline is one of the No. 1 things you've got to have," he said. "I'm a very self-disciplined individual."
A visit to Bennett's large basement home office confirms that he does more than conjure fantastical ideas as he lies sleepless in bed. He acts on them. The walls are covered with his own paintings. His desk overflows with professional-grade renderings of Dinosaurland, which he has produced with a network of collaborators -- digital artists, computer -programmers -- that extends across the country. Here is McGuire, dressed in all sorts of costumes: T-Rex, shark, chicken. Here is McGuire's sidekick, Frenchie, an anthropomorphized piece of French toast whose weapon is a hot syrup gun. Here is what the ice pops that will be sold at Dinosaurland will look like. Here is the theme park's centerpiece, Ice Cream Sundae Mountain.
Bennett turns on one of his many computers, and soon tinkling music is playing. It is the music that accompanies the first book in his Wannabees series -- The Wannabees and the Big Move -- which is perhaps the most realized of Bennett's many visions. It looks like something children would very much enjoy. A mouse click allows them to turn the pages and continue reading as a new, fully animated scene pops up on the screen. They can change the background, change the music and assemble a virtual jigsaw puzzle. "What happens to most people is you get stuck with all these ideas and it's hard to execute them," Bennett says. "Everyone hears about my ideas, but they don't know they're completed, because I haven't shared them. This is almost ready to go." It will be free online or available to download inexpensively to a tablet.
Bennett has not decided exactly what he will do after he is finished with the NFL. "I don't think I am what I'm supposed to be yet," he says, unworried. "It's all a work in progress." He might form his own creative studio, a mini-Pixar. He is more concerned about others who yield to the pressure to define themselves solely as football players and then find themselves at loose ends, prone to personal troubles and depression, when the cheering stops. "You talk about breaking down barriers for athletes to try to do different things," he says. "That's what I'm trying to do. For a lot of guys, life goes so fast while they're in their careers, they don't get to know their wives or kids. That's why a lot of guys end up with divorces. Now they got all this time with a person they really don't know, besides the fact that she's hot."
He is even more concerned, though, with inspiring children, especially those who have had their inventive impulses suppressed, as his once were. He loves to talk at schools, and he loves it when teammates text him photos of artwork he has inspired their kids to make. "The first thing we take out of schools are arts, crafts, all the creative stuff," he says. "But the creative ones are the ones that are going to find a different way to do things to help us out in the future. There are going to be some kids that are mathematicians that are going to help to develop the flying car. But it's that one kid with imagination who is going to come up with the concept. Grown-ups with imaginations are the ones that still have the little kid in them."
At the moment Bennett is primarily focused on one child: the baby girl who is due in a few months. "I'm excited about it, because I'll have somebody else to share my ideas with," he says. "She'll grow up with all the toys, all the ideas and all the creativity and love." He is growing out his facial hair for her. "Baby's going to play in my beard," he says. "Then I can tickle her feet with it." He has already designed a clothing line for her, tiny onesies and polo shirts emblazoned with her own logo: minisaurus rex.
Before the Bennetts found out their baby's gender, people asked Siggi if they would name a boy Martellus Jr. "I was like, Another Martellus in the world?" Siggi says. "Are you serious?"
If there can be no other Martellus Bennett, we might still learn a few things from his example. That you can be a big weirdo and also a successful NFL player. And that you can be a successful NFL player, or anything really, and still dream of being something more.