Disciplined, down-to-earth Michael Bennett anchors Ohio State D-line
The first Monopoly Monday began with a trip to Target to buy the game and a $40 crockpot that no one ended up using. It continued with a 20-minute detour to Walmart to find the right Monopoly, the one with bank cards and digital money that Target didn’t have, because Michael Bennett has been rumored to sneak $500 bills off the pile or print his own fake currency in advance. Precautions were necessary.
While the Ohio State defensive tackle’s board game tactics may be occasionally counterfeit, his ruthlessness is unquestionably authentic. This week, against four competitors at his off-campus house, Bennett built an empire with deeds to Boardwalk and Park Place and four houses stationed on each. He boasted three other monopolies sporting hotels as well as all four railroads. At one point, Bennett’s girlfriend, Carolina, landed on his property and was short on cash. After assuring Carolina he'd let her off for a lesser amount, Bennett thought about and then turned to a roommate, Brandon Beam. I’m not going to let her off, he told his friend, which is how Michael Bennett bankrupted his girlfriend out of Monopoly Monday.
“I destroyed them in it,” Bennett says. “I’m a business shark in Monopoly. Wheeling and dealing.”
It was the sum of Bennett’s parts in one sitting: The disciplined son of two West Point graduates, the convivial college dude most at ease with four non-athlete roommates he’s known for years, the competitor who drives a Buckeyes defense expected to carry the freight this Saturday against Virginia Tech. He’s an anchor character in every way, an almost 300-pound All-Big Ten performer for Ohio State and the central personality for his friends’ fledgling Twitter account, @BennettRoomies, which documents football Saturdays, Monopoly Mondays, and soon Tinder Tuesdays and other assorted nonsense.
Bennett is complex, maybe more than most who do his job. He also might not be the force he is without all those disparate pieces aligning the way they do. “He’s got an inner spirit in him that, when it comes out, you go, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’” Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson says. “He goes to another level sometimes. He can be above you if he wants to, or he can be at your level if he wants to. That’s the neat thing about him. You sit and start talking, you can laugh, have fun, tell jokes. And then there’s a very serious side to him. You nod your head, like ‘Wow, he’s listening.’”
Bennett spent Week 1 fending off Navy’s cut blocks and double-teams en route to two tackles, with one in the backfield to tally 12.5 stops for a loss in Ohio State’s last 14 games. Now he eagerly anticipates the relief of going from racing the triple option to a relatively standard attack such as Virginia Tech’s.
Against the offenses on the schedule from here out, Bennett can live his game days as he lives most days: with some of that discipline, and then some coloring outside the lines.
“I like to do what I want to do, and I’m not always too worried about what people think,” Bennett says. “When I was younger, I was very impulsive, and my parents would have to keep me in line. As I got older I started buying into what they were saying. It’s what kids do: They start listening to their parents. But they never tried to change me. They let me grow up the way I was but at the same time trying to instill the right values about family and respect and education and working hard at what you do. They let me be me, with everything else.”
Connie and Mike Bennett both graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1987. For their three children -- Alexis, Michael and Camaryn -- they set some standards. “Every time I answer this, I’ll go back to my Mom,” Bennett says, “and she’ll tell me a story that’s even like more strict.” It was not all right, for instance, for a friend to telephone and say Can I talk to Alexis?. The correct introduction was Hello, this is so-and-so, may I please speak to Alexis?. The time his father lectured one of his older daughter’s friends about that is embedded in family lore.
Michael Bennett evidently absorbed at least some of the inculcation. When Bennett visited his friend Beam’s house, he removed his shoes and set them inside the front door…and then tucked the loose laces inside the shoes. Connie Bennett doesn’t know if she can claim responsibility for that, but she freely admits to an unflagging emphasis on personal accountability. One well-traveled anecdote involves Bennett earning straight As in sixth grade and then posting a B-plus on a seventh grade midterm. He was grounded until his next report card: school, sports and nothing else, all to underscore the importance of education.
On that next report card, Bennett also received a B-plus. He remained grounded. This pattern continued until his last midterm of eighth grade, which meant Bennett was grounded for the better part of two years.
“Who’s not going to make adjustments within two years of grounding?” Connie Bennett says. “He’s still that way.”
For a less dramatic example, Michael Bennett refers to the Taekwondo conflict before his freshman year at Centerville (Ohio) High School. Bennett earned a first-degree black belt when he was 8 years old. He begged his mother to let him pursue the second degree. She paid for the classes. Over time, Bennett got tired of it, and at age 14 he wanted to quit the pursuit. Connie Bennett then informed her son that he couldn’t play football unless he completed the second degree because that’s what he said he wanted, and the courses were “freaking expensive,” and he wasn’t going to do anything only part of the way.
So that summer, Bennett had to ride his bicycle three miles to football workouts, then another three miles to a gym for strength training, then three miles to the Taekwondo class, then five miles back home. Every day.
Since he complied, he could spend that fall with Beam, paired up at both freshman and varsity football practices, standing with each other on the sideline. Their friendship began when they were the two biggest kids at middle school wrestling and therefore worked against each other at practice. Sarcasm soldered the bond. “Mike and I are kind of the same person,” Beam says. “We like to make fun of people at their own expense.”
Beam, meanwhile, had been friends or acquaintances with Cole Fickert, Nick Ruschmann and Austin Bucher since grade school. Ultimately, they all gravitated together but all especially grew tight after they graduated to Ohio State’s campus. As a freshman, Bennett grew exasperated by returning to dorms after football workouts and finding that everyone basically just talked about the next workout. He missed the camaraderie with friends from Centerville, too, so Bennett decided to move in with Beam and Co. for their sophomore years.
He sought balance and he achieved it. Bennett didn’t grow distant to football; he wasn’t “the weirdo on the team,” as he puts it. And he lived with a group who grounded him in a much different way than his parents ever did. If Bennett complained about a poor practice, his roommates nodded and said they had it bad, too, what with having to pay for college. In the midst of Ohio State’s coach-change chaos, from Jim Tressel to Luke Fickell to Urban Meyer, Bennett’s living quarters doubled as a safe house.
“They really helped me keep a level head and not get too worked up about everything that I was worried about with football,” Bennett says. “It is stressful. All that stuff can just start piling up on you. It was good to be around people that weren’t involved with it, that didn’t talk about it all the time, and just get my mind off it.”
Bennett endured to become a starter and a second-team All-Big Ten performer as a junior, and when Bennett’s friends saw his Twitter followers balloon as a result, they considered the possibilities.
They had Beam and his bottomless trove of sarcasm. They had Ruschmann, who picks a different rap lyric to shout out at random times every day. And they had a wild card in Bucher, labeled the group’s “mystery man” by Bennett. Bucher once ran away from Ruschmann while walking down a street, screamed about going on an “adventure” and then disappeared for two days. (No one knows what happened on those two days.)
This crew saw the account created by former Ohio State basketball player Aaron Craft’s roommates, @CRAFTRoomies. They saw the fun it was, the Taco Tuesdays, the nearly 30,000 followers and the good it did by promoting events like auctions for charity.
They decided they could do that, too. Just, you know, without the principle or value or common sense.
“It’s just to keep people entertained,” Beam says. “Not to give them information or anything. There could be no information given out on that account that is ever worth telling somebody.”
Thus @BennettRoomies came into existence on July 28. The avatar features all five roommates wearing hideous Christmas sweaters. It is but a tech start-up right now; as of Thursday morning, the account had 432 followers. On Aug. 29, the group posted the following message: “100 retweets and @mike63bennett will grow a mullet!” A mere 34 retweets followed.
Bennett was skeptical -- he views his friends as originals, and this was not a particularly original idea -- but everyone was excited and he figured why not let them have their moment.
“I haven’t seen all of their tweets,” Bennett says, “but I’m hoping they don’t do anything stupid.”
The roommates have endeavored to start their own theme days. Monopoly Monday is one. But so was Fight Night Friday, in which the Twitter feed would post highlights of fictional battles between roommates with contrived pictures of, say, one hitting another in the head with a chair. Beam says they nixed the idea, though, because it wasn’t lively enough. So perhaps Tinder Tuesday will do the trick: Beam and Bennett plan to access the popular dating app, set up profiles for Ruschmann and Fickert and arrange for dates. Then Beam and Bennett plan to join the dates and see how awkward they can make them.
“It’s probably going to be horrible for that unlucky woman,” Beam says.
“That one could be bad,” Bennett says.
Amid all this madness, Bennett has a restful answer when he’s asked about his favorite moments with his longtime pals. He says it’s lounging in the basement of their six-bedroom off-campus house, watching a movie. Or all of them walking to a local bar and sitting on a patio with a beer, just talking and relaxing for a couple hours.
“I get to understand more about the sacrifice that football is, but also the huge benefit that it is,” Bennett says. “Just the pros and cons you get to see from what they get to do and from what I get to do is incredible.”
He’ll be defined more by his on-field production than his off-field antics. Bennett says he changed his diet, loading up on meats and good carbs like rice, and added 15 pounds in the offseason while cutting his body fat from somewhere in the 20s to 18 percent. He is leaner but just as quick. Bennett also worked on footwork and what Johnson, his position coach, calls “flipping his hips” to get a better pass-rush angle. He worked to use his hands better, too, to help manage inevitable double-teams.
Bennett and defensive end Joey Bosa are primed to front a dominant defense in pursuit of a Big Ten title at minimum. “The whole group is so good,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer says of the Buckeyes defensive line. “If it was just one guy, you could kind of figure it out a little bit.”
It became even more imperative to be that good or better when quarterback and reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year Braxton Miller was lost for the season to a shoulder injury, and the team turned to redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett to direct an offense already in search of answers at other skill positions.
Only nothing really changed, at least from Bennett’s perspective. “What we tried to think coming into this year, even when Braxton was still playing -- no matter what happened, no matter what he situation was, we’ll be ready and we’ll be excited about it,” Bennett says. “Building that mentality over the eight months really helped us when Braxton went down. Because we were already ready to bear more of the weight until J.T. gets more into a rhythm.”
The season-opening victory over Navy indeed featured a momentum-changing defensive touchdown early in the second half, a 61-yard fumble return by linebacker Darron Lee after Bosa forced the miscue. More of the same might be required against Virginia Tech on Saturday and beyond, but Ohio State defenders figure more conventional offenses provide a better chance for them to wreak havoc anyway.
Johnson expects Bennett will be more dominant, too, without facing two blockers on nearly every single snap as he did against Navy. Everyone will see the real Michael Bennett now, the defensive line coach says.
“People are going to realize we’re the complete package,” Bennett says, expecting all the different pieces to line up just right.