“You good at Ping-Pong? You look like you’re good at Ping-Pong.”
I’m pretty good at Ping-Pong, but for the first time all day, Martellus Bennett has stopped talking and smiling, and now he wants to play me in the basement of his whimsical Long Grove home, and I’m imagining what it might feel like to get hit in the face by a ball the Chicago Bears tight end has put 265 pounds of muscled torque into. Bennett, who’s just finished a brutal three-hour workout with his personal trainer, is in even better shape than last season, when he earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. He recently sent a teammate a text that said, “Man, I’m gonna be scary as fuck.”
So, no. I really don’t want to play Ping-Pong.
But Martellus gets what Martellus wants, whether it’s gelato or one of his 287 tattoos, so pretty soon we’re playing, him in his usual off-field uniform of a hoodie and sweatpants, me cowering slightly, tape recorder resting on a giant ceramic Hello Kitty.
It’s a weekday morning in May, smack-dab in the middle of Bennett’s holdout: He’s staying home from the team’s ostensibly voluntary off-season minicamp and workouts, a small act of protest that has stirred rumors of his being put on the trading block. The 28-year-old is coming off arguably the best year ever for a Chicago tight end, one of the few bright spots in a miserable Bears season. He broke Mike Ditka’s single-year team record for receptions at that position and caught more passes than any other tight end in the NFL. Even so, he’s only the league’s 13th-highest-paid tight end. For Marty Bennett, a savvy businessman with not a sliver of self-doubt regarding his abilities, this will not do. Halfway through a four-year, $20.4 million contract, Bennett wants to renegotiate.
So while the rest of his teammates are meeting the Bears’ new head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator and practicing on a field in Lake Forest, he’s playing Ping-Pong against a middle-aged journalist in his basement. Though he’s taking some heat, particularly on social media, for the self-imposed exile, Bennett laughs the whole thing off. “Some guy told me, ‘I’ve lost so much respect for you,’ ” he says. “And I was like, Dude, I don’t know who you are. I didn’t know you respected me. So your respect doesn’t mean anything to me. I feel bad for you that you had to come tell me that.”
He’s definitely got the home-court advantage in this whole Ping-Pong thing. His basement, which looks like it was decorated by a Pixar character hopped up on juice boxes, includes an enormous ceramic frog, a yellow electric guitar, a framed poster of the Lorax, a plastic Cap’n Crunch doll, a two-year-old giant schnauzer named after the Oakland Raiders’ pugnacious kicker Sebastian Janikowski (“I just think it’s a cool name”), and the aforementioned Hello Kitty, which is roughly the size of Osaka. “Nobody else could live in this house,” says Siggi Bennett, his wife of four years. “They’d be like, What the fuck? Polka dot walls? Rainbow Popsicles? Zombie paintings?”
One conspicuously absent design element: There’s no Shrine of Martellus. No trophies. No jerseys. Nothing football related at all in the house. Not even a football. The only hint that someone is remotely interested in sports is the framed Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey of his older brother, defensive end Michael Bennett (who now plays for the Seattle Seahawks), and that’s hung in the garage.
As it turns out, Bennett has just learned to play Ping-Pong—he believes one of his eyes is slower than the other, so he took up the game to help his hand-eye coordination—and I beat him 15–10. He insists on a rematch. I beat him 15–12. His backhand may be a work in progress, but he’s quick and tenacious; rallies seem to go on forever. Usually a motor mouth, he stops talking entirely during games, except to announce the score. (When I later listen to this part of my recording, the only sounds are the endless ka-chip, ka-chop of the ball, the low grunt of the tally being reported, and the wheezing of a reporter.) By the end, I’m sweating. He’s not.
We retire to his “imagination lounge,” a small office where Bennett has outlined on a chalkboard wall the animated feature film he’s working on. He’s keeping the ambitious project under wraps, other than to say he’s aiming to get the movie into theaters “around the world.” Art books line the shelves, mixed in with volumes by Dr. Seuss and Tim Burton and a first-edition Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that Siggi bought him. This office is where Bennett dreamed up and edited Zoovie: A Warm and Fuzzy Tale, his earlier animated film, a 27-minute tale of a moviemaking penguin named Cosmo. (Cartoon Network turned down Bennett’s pitch for a series based on it, but he plans to release the short this fall on his still-unlaunched website.) It’s where he developed his children’s book series, Hey A.J.!, which features a character based on his 18-month-old daughter, Jett, and which he plans to self-publish in 2016, along with a handful of A.J. apps. (With both his books and films, Bennett comes up with the concepts and characters, then has someone create the final art.) Most of his dreams and schemes about Dinosaur Land, a Cretaceous-themed amusement park he hopes to build one day, happen here. “I understand about theme parks,” he says. “My mind is like a theme park, because it’s fun and there’s lots of cool stuff and you can take rides.”
After Bennett settles in amid the videos and notebooks, he starts by waking up his pens. “Come on, motherfuckers, we need to write something great right now,” he says. “The black and blue ones always get down to business, but my colored pens, they’re always looking for a good time. I have to separate them.”
By the time Bennett’s masseur comes to loosen up that enormous body of his two hours later, the theme park of his brain has really opened up. Roller coasters of conversation zoom, twist, and double back with insane 100-foot drops. Topics covered: childhood mischief (“I was banned from IHOP. Not all IHOPs, just the one on Highway 6 by my house where I grew up. I stole a lot of pancakes”); reading (“I only read the left-hand pages, so I finish books twice as fast”); the difference between New York and Los Angeles (“They’re pretty similar except the people in New York are actually doing shit with their lives”); dinosaurs (“They’re awesome. I think we can all agree on that”); Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (“People make fun of me for having a BlackBerry. He still has a flip phone”); and NFL players in general (“So many of them are assholes. Whenever someone tells me, ‘Oh, so-and-so is my favorite player,’ I think, Man, your favorite player’s an asshole”).
Calling this man a character is like calling Meryl Streep an actress. He transcends the term, rendering its old definition irrelevant. Is Martellus Bennett a funny, creative, and charismatic man? Yes, yes, and yes. He also happens to play a game that’s mostly played by men with all the personality of a Gatorade cooler, which only makes him appear funnier and more creative and more charismatic. “A lot of players act one way with teammates, one way with reporters, another way for fans, another for their friends,” says Bennett. “I’m just me all the time. I’m normal. Everyone else in the NFL is weird.”
Sometimes, he’ll wake Siggi up in the middle of the night, or call her at the gym, and just start talking, and it always starts the same way: Babe, I’ve got this great idea . . . So we’re flying over clouds, right . . .
A lot of these ideas end up in Bennett’s journal, a worn notebook stuffed with jottings, doodles, pictures he’s cut out, notions and charts and mind maps—basically, every weird, unfiltered thought poured out onto paper. The brainstorms often result in drawings—colorful, whimsical, and frequently food-centric. There’s Mr. Whiskers, who lives under Dinosaur Land; Space Dude, a nerd version of Bennett; a waffle-cone bridge spanning a river of hot fudge; zombies and thieves and some kind of anthropomorphic French toast. One could easily imagine his characters on Cartoon Network.
“Marty is a whirlwind of creativity,” says Shane Minshew, executive production director at Powerhouse Animation, a creative agency based in Austin, Texas, that collaborated with Bennett on Zoovie, A.J., a pilot for a cartoon series, and a host of other projects—none of which have been sold at this point. “He doesn’t just come up with ideas or stories. Marty comes up with entire worlds. And it’s endless, just one after the other. His style is like Dr. Seuss meets The Nightmare Before Christmas with a dash of ADHD and a twist of that shaking-with-joy sugary cereal rush that a kid would get watching Saturday morning cartoons.”
The weird thing is, no one knows where any of this came from—least of all Bennett. “Where do I get inspiration?” he asks. “Honestly, I could give you some type of line, but I’m probably just fucked up in the head.”
Born in 1987 on a naval base in San Diego where his father was stationed, Bennett grew up in Houston. His mother left the family when he was young. If he feels stung by this, he certainly won’t acknowledge it. “I’m not bitter about my birth mother not being there,” he insists. “Nor was it a tough thing to overcome.” That’s all he’ll say on the matter.
His father, Michael Bennett Sr., raised the couple’s two sons, who were born 16 months apart. An information technology professional, he eventually married Pennie Brumfield, a middle school educator, who acted as the disciplinarian in the house. “She was the strict one,” Bennett says. “My dad was like, ‘Let’s play burritos!’ ”
From an early age, Bennett showed his knack for innovative thinking. When he was 12, he started a lawn-mowing company, only rather than cut grass himself, he got neighborhood kids to do it by plying them with Big Macs and fries. He took the profits to Sam’s Club to buy bulk candy, which he then sold, at a markup, at school, sometimes to the same kids who had mowed the lawns. Pennie and Martellus’s dad had a daughter, and when Martellus wanted to earn extra money, he straightened his little sister’s tangled collection of hair ribbons. “It would take him more than an hour to sit and untangle her bows,” recalls Pennie, whom Martellus refers to as his mom, not stepmom. “But he would do it with such patience. And Martellus could clean a house better than most females.”
Already 6-foot-6 (his current height) and 240 pounds by the age of 18, Bennett played football and basketball in high school, making all-district in both. He also pulled a 3.5 GPA, played the trombone, trumpet, and clarinet, and had a toy poodle named Fluffy. “I never hung out with the football team,” he says. “We just didn’t have that much in common besides football. I always hung out more with artists.”
After declaring for the NBA draft out of high school (back when such a thing was allowed), Bennett withdrew when told he likely would not be picked in the first round. Instead, he followed his best friend—his brother, Michael—to Texas A&M, where they played football and lived together. Bennett also played (sparingly) on the basketball team his first two years before deciding to focus on football. In 2006, after his sophomore season, he was a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top collegiate tight end. Still, the team’s run-first offense frustrated him. (The rap song he wrote at the time, “Throw Me the Ball, Coach,” has since been removed from YouTube.) He skipped his senior season to take a shot at the NFL.
Bennett’s combination of size, strength, and quickness made him a prototypical tight end with a huge upside. But after the Dallas Cowboys drafted him late in the second round in 2008, Bennett found himself playing behind the legendarily tough Jason Witten. “One game, he’s got, like, two broken ankles and a broken finger and his spleen is, like, hanging out,” says Bennett. “And I’m thinking, Yeah, I’m finally gonna start. But sure enough, at game time he runs out of the tunnel.” Worse, Bennett got pegged his rookie season as unmotivated and arrogant after HBO’s Hard Knocks caught him rolling his eyes at a coach and mugging for the camera.
He made more news off the field with a barrage of colorful quotes (after his second touchdown, he said, “The first one was like kissing Oprah. This one was like kissing Halle Berry”) and questionable YouTube videos (including Black Olympics, in which he and his brother compete to see who can consume fried chicken, watermelon, and Kool-Aid more quickly). He appeared in a Papa John’s commercial dressed as a female cheerleader. The Cowboys fined him $22,000 for a freestyle rap insensitive to gays and blacks. Nude photos popped up online, courtesy of a jilted lover. Bennett was so miserable in Dallas that he almost retired after his third season, with no serious plans for his future. “I didn’t really know who I was at the time,” he says. “I just knew who I wanted to be. And I didn’t like who I was becoming.”
It was around that time that he and Siggi got married. They had met his rookie season when Siggi, a native of Oakland, California, was visiting her mother in Dallas. Then a junior at Sarah Lawrence College, Siggi was initially hesitant about Bennett. She had never dated a football player, but she found herself drawn to Bennett’s childlike personality. “He was hilarious,” she says. “He watched cartoons every morning, ate cereal from a huge mixing bowl with a serving spoon.” The first time he met her family, he surprised them by ordering every item on the brunch menu.
By 2012, after four seasons in Dallas, Bennett knew he had to get out. So he opted to sign a one-year contract with the New York Giants, where he believed he could better showcase his skills. He was right. In addition to catching 55 passes that season, he charmed the New York media with endless sound bites and memorable moments. After one game, he caught a fan who’d fallen over the front railing, and he immortalized the moment in a surreal and hilarious animated video for the website Vice Sports. Everyone started calling him the Black Unicorn after he used the term to describe how he felt while running down the field. And he and his wife, drawn to the cosmopolitan weirdness of Manhattan, became regulars at art shows and galleries.
Still, when the Bears offered Bennett a lucrative four-year deal in 2013, he jumped. Though Chicago went 8–8 that season under new head coach Marc Trestman and missed the playoffs for the third straight year, Bennett repaid the team’s faith with 65 receptions, 759 yards, and five touchdowns—all career highs at the time. He and Siggi found a house they loved in the forests of northwest suburban Long Grove and had Jett in March 2014. Bennett began really enjoying life again, and not in a strippers-and-shots kind of way, but in an I-only-sleep-five-hours-a-night-and-jump-out-of-bed-excited-every-morning way. “New York was great, but I don’t think it would’ve been the best fit for the long run,” Siggi says. “Chicago is more of a happy medium between our personalities: lots of culture and a great city, but a more manageable pace for Marty.”
The next season, Bennett arrived at training camp in August 2014 prepared. He took meticulous notes (“Use my hands more in second-level releases . . . Two-point stance could be better . . . Don’t have to drop my weight . . . Brian McCaskey prefers to be called Brian”) and asked endless questions. “At first the coaches thought that I was a pain in the ass,” Bennett says. “But when they saw the way I went about my work, they knew I wasn’t just a know-it-all. I’m really curious.” On one page of his notebook, he scrawled two goals: “Top TE in NFL. Super Bowl.”
“The biggest misconception is that he doesn’t take football seriously,” says Bears safety Ryan Mundy. “Sure, he’s got things he’s interested in outside the game, but when it’s football season, he’s all about football, just like anyone else.”
But in the NFL, training camp is a funny thing. Some rules get enforced, others don’t. Bears players were told not to tackle each other on the practice field in Bourbonnais, 60 miles south of Chicago, but for two days Bennett got hit over and over. “I felt like guys were taking shots at me,” he says. Toward the end of the second day, after rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller pulled Bennett to the ground, the tight end jumped up and body-slammed him. Bennett was suspended and fined an undisclosed amount, which he called “a ridiculous overreaction.” No one came to his defense—but no one would question his motivation and competitiveness again, either. “It wasn’t Fuller I was mad at,” Bennett says. “He just happened to be the last guy that day that did something. I told him, ‘Man, I could be punching you in the face right now, but I’m not.’ ”
The Bears did not carry that kind of passion into the season, of course, and went 5–11, including two historically bad back-to-back blowout losses midyear. “We had lots of mellow guys,” says Bennett, who nonetheless set new career highs in receptions (90), yards (916), and touchdowns (six). “You didn’t see a lot of guys running to the pile, helping their teammates up, or having each other’s back. We weren’t a bad team. A bad team is a team that doesn’t have the talent to win. We did. We just sucked. Everybody sucked. Coaches, players, everybody.”
When the Bears fired Trestman and general manager Phil Emery, Bennett understood the moves. “Trestman was a cool dude, but he lost the guys,” says Bennett. “He tried to play both sides of the fence. Other people did a lot of shit, and I was the only one who got disciplined all year.”
Jay Cutler took his share of blame, too, but Bennett doesn’t think it was all deserved. “Why does everyone always assume the quarterback is the leader?” Bennett asks. “Leading the offense and leading the team are two different things. Sometimes I like Cutty, and sometimes I don’t. When I think of a leader, I think, ‘If he started a company, would guys come to work for him?’ There’s a lot of guys on our team who, if they started a business, it’d be, ‘Fuck you, I’m gonna go work at McDonald’s.’ ”
So would Bennett work at Cutler Corp.? “There are veterans that people follow,” he says after a long pause, “and then you’ve got guys that lead the offense, get everyone lined up, get to your spot, do what you need to do, let’s do our plays.” Take that as you will.
Watching an NFL player work out, even one as dynamic as Martellus Bennett, is not generally exciting. His routine at Fit Speed Athletic Performance, ex-Bear Brandon Marshall’s private off-season training facility in Northbrook, while impressive and strenuous, is somehow a letdown. Any expectations that he’ll bust into some freestyle over the hip-hop blasting in the background or start comparing himself to a Pokémon character are put to rest as he methodically runs routes, over and over, in a giant AstroTurf field house with his trainer, Aris Atoa.
“Hey, look!” Bennett hollers sarcastically. “I take football seriously! It’s 8 a.m. on a Tuesday in May, and I’m in here working out.” He shoots a look at Atoa. “What the fuck? I’m giving you all my summer vacation money.”
The trainer laughs briefly, and they launch into ladder drills, an old-school exercise that improves agility and footwork. Then they do lunges, Romanian dead lifts, glute-ham raises, and core work. The session seems to last forever, and Bennett’s obviously going full tilt. “He’s working out harder and smarter,” says Atoa. “He knows his body and how to approach his off-season training better than ever.”
“I’m a tight end consultant,” Bennett adds. “We’re all products. I’ve got to come back every year as a better product. You know, like the iPhone 7.”
Right now, if any tight end in the league is an iPhone 7, it’s Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots. Bennett is more of a Samsung Galaxy. When Gronkowski racked up 149 yards and three touchdowns against the Bears in a game last season, Bennett took it as a personal affront. How am I going to outplay this maniac? He’s rarely mentioned alongside Gronk or even Jimmy Graham, the new Seahawks tight end, a fact that obviously rankles him. Behind the goofy swagger, Bennett desperately wants to be acknowledged for his talents on the field. “They always talk about these other guys all around the league, so it’s kind of like a chip on my shoulder when I go out there and play because they never really mention me,” he told ESPN’s Web site last September after scoring two touchdowns in a 27–19 win over the New York Jets. “But that’s how it is sometimes. A lot of people who are geniuses, they really didn’t realize it until they were dead.”
Then again, a genius probably wouldn’t throw down the gauntlet with the Soldier Field faithful by saying that the Philadelphia Eagles have the best fans in the NFL (“Those motherfuckers are crazy,” he tells me) or that Bears followers tend to be more interested in the past. “It’s ‘ ’85 Bears’ this and ‘ ’85 Bears’ that,” says Bennett. “ ‘Oh, if you had just done this or that like the ’85 Bears.’ Same with the organization. They stress the team’s history instead of the present.”
Even if true, these are not the kinds of things you say publicly in the NFL. So why does Bennett say them? Because he sees football in a progressive way that few players do: as an experience that will last only a few years and therefore cannot be the most important thing in life. He has the temerity to say football’s not everything because the game is just one more thing he happens to do extremely well.
It’s no coincidence that he looks happiest with Jett on his lap, her scribbling in a journal of her own, which he has her do every day so she’ll get familiar with writing. His legacy will not be the records he breaks or the fans who wear his jersey, he says. It’ll be his daughter. “Plenty of guys don’t have interests outside of the game,” says teammate Mundy. “People want football to be the end-all, be-all of everything. Marty understands that it’s not.”
In the NFL, where fans prefer their players to be of the uncomplicated, smashmouth variety, such a statement qualifies as heresy. “Fans want athletes to be athletes,” says Bennett’s brother, Michael. “They don’t want them to be people. But Marty’s got more in his head. And being in the NFL is a platform for him to be exactly who he wants to be.”
Bennett’s plan is to play three to five more years, then retire with enough money and connections to make animated films for the rest of his life. That’s the dream. He sees Pixar as his rival as much as he does Gronkowski. But he’s still trying to break in. “He has all the ingredients to be successful in this business,” says Minshew of Powerhouse Animation. “He has attacked these endeavors with the same drive and ferocity that you would expect a football player to use on the field.”
Which leads to an interesting conundrum. Basically, Bennett will need his hands and his brain in his next chosen career, and those happen to be two of the body parts most likely to be damaged in his current one. His fingers hurt constantly, as do his ribs, back, shoulders, and legs. But his brain, he claims, is secure. “I’m fortunate,” he says. “I don’t take a lot of hits to the upper body because I’m tall. But honestly, you have to consider retirement every year. I’m an essentialist. I only do the things that are essential to my life. And one day, football won’t be anymore.”
It’s easy to believe Bennett when he says he doesn’t have many friends. While he’s undeniably magnetic, there’s a hint of the loner in him. One might assume Bennett’s teammates don’t know what to make of a guy who routinely tweets about Harry Potter and puts copies of The Power of Now and Creative Confidence in their lockers. But he’s become a sort of unhinged guru in the locker room. “He’s definitely a leader,” says Mundy. “He just doesn’t lead in the usual way. You have to expand your idea about what a leader is. Marty is a leader because he’s not afraid to be himself. To me, that’s more courageous than anything.”
How that brand of leadership will meld with the team’s new regime is anyone’s guess. The early word is that John Fox, the straightforward new head coach, has brought a wave of energy and optimism that the cerebral Trestman couldn’t muster, which might dovetail nicely with Bennett’s quirky enthusiasm. “He seems cool to me,” Bennett says of Fox, whom he met after blinking first and reporting to the team’s not-so-voluntary minicamp in June. “All the guys from the Broncos said that I’ll love playing for him. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. I just want to win. It’s definitely a change from the last leader we had.”
At one point during the endless workout in Northbrook, Bennett pauses from squat-pressing Lord knows how much weight and approaches a bunch of high school and college football players who are measuring their vertical leaps with one of those poles with the acrylic vanes. They’re pretty solid kids, but he still looks like he could pick up one in each hand and make them fight like action figures. When he asks if he can test his leap, they say sure.
Bennett jumps, launching his enormous frame up, up, up, until his hand swipes the top of the highest vane. It’s impressive, this rare specimen in the peak of life seeing all his hard work pay off. He tries not to act proud, and the kids try not to act impressed. But both parties, it should be mentioned, seem very satisfied by the moment.