BRONX — The 2011 NFL lockout had already dragged on for four and a half months, when, in late July, there was finally some hope: the owners had approved a proposal for a new collective bargaining agreement. Sensing the end was nearing, Roger Goodell spent the weekend hammering out the final details with the players in New York. Both sides worked late into Sunday night, and before Goodell left the city in the wee hours of Monday morning, the two sides reached a general agreement to end the work stoppage.
It was a triumphant moment for the NFL and for Goodell himself. As his car snaked through Manhattan and the Bronx, heading to his home in Westchester County, the commissioner had to tell someone right away.
So he called Benny from the Bronx.
To anyone who listens to sports talk radio in the New York City area, Benny needs no introduction. He’s a regular WFAN caller with a thick Bronx accent and an unrivaled enthusiasm for all things NFL, especially his beloved Packers. Goodell had recently been introduced to Benny by Peter King, the editor-in-chief of The MMQB.
Benny had read King’s stories in Sports Illustrated for years, dating back to when Benny spent nearly a decade in and out of psychiatric care for obsessive-compulsive disorder and bulimia. For a while, with no TV, reading King’s stories had been Benny’s only connection to the football world. Benny wrote King a letter one day out of the blue, telling him all this, and they formed a bond over football. King gave Goodell Benny’s number and urged him to call, because, he told commissioner, no one loves the NFL more than Benny from the Bronx.
Benny loved the NFL so much, in fact, that the lockout hit him very hard. For those four and a half months, he didn’t want to leave his house. He didn’t want to see anyone. He thought he’d never see his beloved NFL again. Suicidal thoughts crept back in.
Then, one day in July, Benny woke up to a late-night message on his answering machine from Roger Goodell, telling him the lockout was over and everything would be all right.
Benny dialed Peter King.
“He called,” Benny said, stammering and panting with excitement. “He called. HE CALLED!”
* * *
On a Sunday in mid-December, I show up at Benny’s house in the Bronx to watch a day of football with him. His hair rumpled, he greets me at the door wearing the attire he’d have on all day: a short-sleeved dress shirt, a pair of slippers, and pajama pants featuring various super heroes. On Sundays during the NFL season, Benny almost never has company over. He prefers to watch the games alone. He’s making an exception only because I am one of Peter King’s reporters.
Benny is very particular about his Sundays. He normally wakes up at 5 a.m. and puts on a 96 oz. pot of coffee to start his day. Then he surfs the web, monitoring his Packers’ fan page and studying the day’s matchups. Then, for his own amusement, he fires off an email with his game picks to Paul Hicks, the former NFL vice president of communications. Then he watches the pregame shows on ESPN, NFL Network, and FOX. As the 1 p.m. games kickoff, he turns off his computer, takes the phone off the hook, and officially cannot be disturbed.
His family stopped calling him on football Sundays long ago. They also know not to call him on Mondays following a Packers’ loss. His sister, Gianna, says that when she got engaged, Benny asked if the wedding was going to be on an NFL Sunday. If so, he wouldn’t be attending. He had the same reaction about the christening when Gianna named him her son’s godfather. (Neither event fell during the NFL season.)
I ask Benny why he loves the NFL so much. “It’s just my life,” he says, plainly. “There’s nothing better in life than pro football.”
“Nothing better in life,” he whispers.
Benny’s wife left him earlier this year. After they came back from a trip to Atlantic City to watch the Super Bowl, she packed and left. He’s 46 and lives alone. He says he qualifies as “disabled,” so he doesn’t work. The only day of the week he truly looks forward to is Sunday.
When the games finally kick off, Benny hunkers down in his living room, which is outfitted with a table for his computer, one plastic chair, and a set of shelves holding a small, boxed television set and a DirecTV receiver. Only the essentials. In the center of the room is a mattress, where he dozes off after the Sunday night game. The rest of the room is bare.
Benny spends upwards of 12 hours in this room every Sunday. Consuming that much football, he says, makes him the most informed NFL fan “on the planet.” He’s so knowledgeable, he says, that he talks to Roger Goodell like a peer. A few times a year, Benny will call up the league office and Goodell will invite him down for lunch in the NFL cafeteria. “I just call him up, tell him I’m coming and walk right in,” Benny says. Then Goodell and Benny will sit for about an hour and talk about the league. Benny says they talk about “whatever the topic du jour is at the time.” When they last met in October, they discussed the NFL’s lagging TV ratings.
Benny says he isn’t afraid to tell Goodell what he thinks, and that means they sometimes clash. True to his talk-radio roots, Benny has an opinion on pretty much everything.
• Take Benny from the Bronx on concussions: “They knew what you were getting into in the first place. And don’t tell me you didn’t know if you got hit in the head it could cause brain damage. It’s like me saying, if I go to Las Vegas, I need someone to tell me I could go broke. Or if I’m a fireman, and I need to be told that I could be burned in a fire? I mean, really?”
• Or Benny from the Bronx on fantasy football: “I hate fantasy football. If you’re a fan of a team, why would you root for players on other teams to score touchdowns? Especially when they’re playing your team? One lady posted on my Facebook page, ‘I don’t care if the Packers lost, I just want to win my fantasy team.’ I blocked her.”
• Or Benny from the Bronx on gambling: “Goodell told me not to bet football. You’ve got to be an idiot to bet football. Those are people that don’t know the sport. They’re doing it because they want some sort of financial gain from it. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t want any financial gain from the NFL. It’s pure love.”
* * *
As the Week 15 Packers-Bears game gets underway, Benny starts pacing. In between plays, he paces out of his living room, up and down the hallway, into the kitchen and bedroom. He clutches his right arm with his left hand or holds the back of his head with both hands or just hangs his head and paces, silently, in and out of rooms, until the next play is about to begin—and then Benny will stand close to the TV, clutching his hands in front of his face, as if he were praying.
Every 20 minutes or so, Benny lights a Marlboro Red cigarette that leaves a trail of smoke as he paces. He normally smokes at least one pack every NFL Sunday. During the 2011 Packers-Eagles wild-card game, he smoked an entire pack in about three hours.
How did someone born and raised in the Bronx become a Packers fan? Benny says it’s because he grew up in a strict Italian family and because Vince Lombardi attended Fordham University in the Bronx, two miles from the house he grew up in, the same house he lives in now. Benny’s been living and dying with the Pack ever since.
After the Packers lost in the divisional round in 2012, wasting a 15-1 regular season, Benny ended up back in the hospital, and Goodell and Mark Murphy, the president of the Packers, called to check in on him. Murphy had met Benny through Goodell, and ever since that hospitalization, Murphy and Benny have been close. Benny says he speaks to Murphy a few times a month. He describes him as a father figure. When I arranged to visit Benny and watch football with him, he asked if I he could tell Murphy that I was coming over.
The Packers take a commanding 27-10 lead, but they start to slowly collapse. Matt Barkley leads three straight scoring drives of 75-plus yards and the Bears tie the game … and now Benny is pacing faster, holding his hands tighter, pleading for the Packers to come through.
It’s third-and-long, less than a minute left, the clock ticking. Benny is contemplating playoff scenarios when Aaron Rodgers launches a prayer of his own to Jordy Nelson for 60 yards. Two plays later, Mason Crosby kicks the game-winning field goal. Benny raises his arms, pumps his fist, hugs me and races around the house, smiling ear to ear.
A few minutes later, Benny calls Murphy. He gets his voicemail.
“UNBELIEVABLE, MARK! UNBELIEVABLE! And it’s amazing because my buddy is here from, Peter King, I told you… IT ONLY HAD TO BE A GAME LIKE THAT TODAY, RIGHT MARK? ONLY FITTING! Only fitting that I would get nervous and everything … and it was amazing, because in the back of my mind I said, The Lions lost, we’re not going to be eliminated. I said, But, you know, we won’t have to worry about next week if we can win this, because the Vikings got killed. So we won’t have to worry, you know, about being eliminated, with the Lions losing, because we’ve got the tiebreaker on them. And then Aaron and Jordy rescue us like they always do. Unbelievable … Unbelievable … IT HAD TO BE LIKE THIS TODAY, MARK! You knew it wasn’t going to be easy. … Oh my God. Oh my God …”
He takes a breath.
“I love you, Mark. I’ll talk to you this week. … I might need 500 years to recover from this game. Five hundred years … Bye, bye.”
About 45 minutes later, Benny’s phone rings. His face lights up.
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