Michael Bennett: A Candid View of Life On and Off the Field
Updated: Mar 7, 2018
Original article: HuffingtonPost.com
When I arrive at his house, Michael Bennett stands statuesque in his kitchen stirring a bowl of grits while holding his youngest of three daughters as she looks on, studying her dad. The Seahawks defensive end and founder of The Bennett Foundation — an organization that combats childhood obesity through education and nutritional programs — sits down with me for a surprisingly candid interview where he reveals his innermost struggles on the field, the elements that fuel his game, why he was overlooked in high school and the real reason he plays.
Now entering his sixth year in the NFL, Bennett has emerged as one of the most prominent players in the league, notably putting himself on the map in 2013 as a key contributor to the defensive unit that ranked first in the NFL and went on to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
Originally from a town of just a few thousand in Louisiana where most of his relatives lived on the same street, Mike looks back to the years that primed him for what was to come: “I harnessed my skills of being tough when I used to tackle with my cousins in the front yard all day, and I got my hard-core attitude about life from my Grandpa,” he recalls. “Staying focused, working hard and not getting deterred because that’s the way he was.”
The second of five children, Mike and two other siblings were sent to live with his father - who would later become his flag football coach and strongest ally — in Texas while the youngest two stayed with his mom. “By the time my mom was twenty she had five kids,” he shares. “It was difficult growing up like that.”
In Texas — where he later went to play for A&M — Bennett felt as if the world were in the palm of his hand, while his visits back to Louisiana left him feeling as though the ‘opportunities were small.’
“My stepmom had a master’s in education. Growing up, she didn’t care about football much. I was grounded a lot and she was the one always saying, ‘Do your homework.’ Now, looking back I realize that she was just preparing me for life,” he told me, smiling.
Although many professional athletes are singled out by the time they reach high school, the road to the NFL looked quite different for Mike:
“Honestly, my brother, Martellus (tight end for the Bears — a team Mike almost joined last year), was just about the best athlete in Texas. I was kind of overlooked because he was so good,” he explained, modestly. “Not a lot of people thought I’d be in the situation I’m in now except for my dad. I think people always thought, ‘How can this guy be good? He’s not the fastest, tallest, strongest,’ but it’s not all about physical ability. What you can’t measure is someone’s heart; that’s what I have.”
In part, the closeness between Bennett and his father can be attributed to their similar course early in life — both were fathers by age twenty. But there’s one profound piece of advice that determined vastly different paths for each. “When my dad had a baby, his dad told him he had to get a job and provide for the family. My dad told me to stay in school,” he tells me. “It’s a big difference.”
“There comes a point as a man, where your mother is still important but there are situations where your father pushes you through the moments when you need him,” he added, his tone of voice stronger as the appreciation flows through his words.
Mike was signed as an undrafted free agent for the Seahawks in 2009 and again in 2013. Some sports analysts have speculated that he wasn’t drafted due to ‘inconsistent performance in college,’ but Mike has his own theory:
“My mindset has always been different than the rest of the guys. I don’t think I was drafted because I’ve always clashed with the coaches,” he claims. “I question my coaches; I ask ‘Why?’ if something doesn’t make sense and I think they feel I’m talking back. I’ve explored different religions in the past — Christianity and Islam — and I think that the coaches view me as radical or something. I’m not at all, I just like to learn.”
Pele, Mike’s wife since 2012 and mother to his three daughters (the two have been together since age 14) joins us in the family room. She is petite, warm, unassuming and bears exotic facial features. “She’s Samoan,” Mike interjects. “Every time I go to my mother-in-law’s house it’s like a map of the world — everyone has married someone from a different country; it’s true diversity.”
Oftentimes, the silent partner in the NFL are the football wives, a role that through Pele’s lens hasn’t been one that resembles any reality TV show or drama-filled experience. She expresses gratitude for the camaraderie of the fellow NFL wives but acknowledges that ‘she hears of completely varied stories and experiences from different women.’ There is, however, one feeling they all share — “If it’s a rollercoaster for our husbands, it’s a rollercoaster for us, “ she admits. “We have to adapt to everything that Mike does, so I can’t move forward until I know what he’s doing or where he’ll be.”
Mike nods in agreement, quickly becoming more animated as he spills aspects of his profession that deeply affect him:
“One year of football is like ten regular years of life and a lot of people don’t understand that. The fans are so far removed that they don’t see our situation up close. I tell the coach, ‘ You don’t know what it’s like when your wife is helping you to get out of bed,’” he explained, intensely. “Coaches don’t know how it feels when a wife is crying because her husband has broken his neck and she doesn’t know how to talk to him because all he has known for twenty years is football and now he doesn’t feel adequate anymore.”
Though fully aware of the risks associated with the sport as well as the reward, when Saturday night arrives during the season, Mike says he goes to sleep eager and ready for Sunday’s game.
His priorities have evolved and the motivation that sustains him is constant — his family. Largely crediting the birth of his first child, Peyten, with his success, he says her entry into his life reinforced his focus and made him want to work harder. He tells me, “I don’t have any selfish ambition. I really don’t. I’m going out on that field for my family. My whole goal is to leave an empire behind for my kids so that they can do something far better than what I’ve done; they’ll have the chance to do everything I couldn’t do.”
“Every time I run onto the field I tell myself, ‘I’m not worthy of being here,’” he says with vigor. “I look around the stadium and say, ‘I’m not supposed to be here, but I am.”