Bennett constantly is trying to find that elusive balance between the unbridled passion with which he plays football, and the proper decorum for unleashing it on the field. He also often ponders the role and responsibility of an athlete in modern society.
Michael Bennett cheerfully calls himself an oxymoron, a self-proclaimed man of peace who thrives in a violent game, a thinker and activist in the most conformist of professions.
Bennett chafes over a contract he long ago outperformed, yet twice has decided to minimize disruption by showing up to Seahawks training camp on time. In a sport where the short shelf life of players makes them disposable commodities, Bennett says he’s “getting younger by the day” and somehow keeps elevating his play.
On a Seahawks team filled with strong personalities, Bennett manages to stand out, by virtue of his outstanding play on the defensive line and his unique way of looking at the world, peppered with provocative quotes.
“I’ve decided to lead a stress-free life,’’ Bennett declared midway through training camp, one that was enlivened by his frequent dust-ups with offensive linemen. “I mean peaceful.”
He readily acknowledges that there’s a paradox in yearning for a peaceful existence while playing the most combative position on the football field. Linebackers and safeties and corners? He calls those “fancy positions” where they might face contact every few plays.
“As a defensive lineman, you hit every play,’’ he said with evident pride. “You know: Play 1, you’re going to hit somebody. Play 2, you’re going to hit somebody. Play 3, you’re going to hit somebody. We have the most physical position in the whole NFL.”
Back to that oxymoron: Bennett differentiates what takes place on what he calls the “actual gladiator arena,’’ where being too peaceful can result in injury, and all other aspects of his life, up to and including playing with his three daughters.
“At the end of the day, I go home and try to be as peaceful as I can,’’ Bennett said. “Where athletes fall short is taking that aggression off the field. I think a lot of guys take their aggression off the field and it ends up hurting them in their life, whether it’s being a father or being a regular citizen. You have to be able to balance both.”
Finding that elusive balance between the unbridled passion with which he plays football, and the proper decorum for unleashing it on the field, is a never-ending quest for Bennett. So is mulling over the role and responsibility of an athlete in modern society.
The former, he acknowledges, is ultimately a losing proposition, though one still worth pursuing.
“I don’t know where that line is yet,’’ he said. “Every great player I ever knew, they were passionate and they always cross that line. That’s what you’ve got to do to be a great player; you’ve got to walk that line.”
As far as how an athlete should conduct himself, it’s a topic that contains a multitude of possibilities to Bennett, who is a one-man antidote to the notion of the “dumb jock.” He fights back against that stereotype through such quiet acts as the book club he has started within the Seahawks’ locker room (first title: Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”) and via thoughtful commentary on social issues ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement to Colin Kaepernick’s national-anthem protest.
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When it comes to athletes, “people talk about how many shoes guys have, or cars, but they never talk about the depth of a person’s intellect, or what they believe in,’’ he said.
Bennett likes to relate the story of the youngster who told Bennett he was his role model. Bennett asked him why.
“He said, ‘Because I chase quarterbacks down and do it fast.’ I told him, ‘Well, I failed you then. Because if that’s all you see of me being a role model, then I failed you. It has to be a deeper meaning when people say role model.”
Bennett calls this “a pivotal point in American history,” and he has a keen understanding of the impact that athletes can have, positive or negative.
“Athletes have a brain, and we control what is sold in America,’’ he said early in camp, before launching into a treatise on how athletes have a responsibility to use that power for good.
“When you’re playing in the sport, you want to get as much money as you can,’’ he said. “But when it comes to off the field, you want to be a great leader and a great influencer.”
In many ways, Seattle is the perfect spot for Bennett, a place where individuality is celebrated and the coach, Pete Carroll, doesn’t mind his players speaking out. Bennett knows that’s rarely the case around the NFL.
“A lot of times, a coach wants a player to personify who he is, whether it’s tucking in his shirt or wearing his clothes a certain way or talking a certain way,’’ Bennett said. “I think that’s the hard part about it, because once a person starts to be himself, he tends to be an outcast. But at the end of the day, being an individual is what makes you great.”
Bennett has gained stature within the organization for showing up despite misgivings about his contract. Whether or not that will translate to a boost in his salary — he is making roughly $7 million a year, and according to OverTheCap.com, 37 defensive linemen had more guaranteed money than Bennett when they signed their current contracts — remains to be seen.
“We want to figure out how to make it as a Seahawk until he finishes playing football, so we will see what happens,’’ Carroll said at the outset of camp.
For now, Bennett will keep playing with a passion he says grows stronger each day he wakes up — and he’ll keep searching for that line.