Packers’ Benson has baggage but carries it lightly
By Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
~Green Bay – Immediately, Cedric Benson laughs. The memory resurfaces. Of course he remembers that summer night with the Chicago Bears. How could he forget? Everybody took their best shot.
No quick whistle could save the abuse. Play after play, defensive teammates punished the young running back. Maybe it was out of their loyalty to veteran Thomas Jones, maybe they didn’t like Benson’s attitude.
“It’s weird,” said Benson, smiling, “I haven’t really thought about that stuff in a long time. But thinking back on it, maybe they were trying to send a message or toughen me up. I don’t know what they were trying to do.”
Since he entered the league in 2005, Benson’s reputation has been stained. The former fourth overall pick endured an icy partnership with Jones. He was arrested four times in a span of three years. Twice, nobody wanted the guy. Benson spent 114 days without a team after the Bears cut him in June 2008. And this off-season, he lasted six months unsigned.
A 29-year-old with three straight 1,000-yard seasons was unwanted. Teams shied away.
So it begs the question – is Cedric Benson a good guy, a good teammate? Those who coached for and played with Benson insist he is. Benson says he is.
But he’s also a soft-spoken, sincere individual. Benson dismisses the clichéd punk-to-pro narrative, that he evolved from self-entitled to selfless. Benson believes he has always been himself. The Packers will soon discover where this takes them.
“People want you to be a certain way,” Benson said. “There’s no handbook for how to act. But if people require that, then they should make one. I was just being myself. I don’t know how I was perceived, but I was just working hard and trying to be the best player I could be.”
When general manager Ted Thompson and the Packers reached out, it was Benson who brought up the arrests. Not Thompson, not coach Mike McCarthy.
In May 2008, he was arrested on charges of drunken boating and resisting arrest. One month later, he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.
In June 2010, Benson was arrested for assault after allegedly punching an Austin, Texas, bartender in the face. And in July 2011 – gory photos revealing the bloody damage – Benson was charged with misdemeanor assault with injury. An altercation with a roommate turned violent.
The Packers didn’t dwell on any of this, Benson said.
The Bears cut Benson in response to the alcohol-related incidents, but the running back said those arrests “don’t even exist” to him because he wasn’t convicted. He believes he was targeted.
As for the roommate, Benson said it was all about “one party trying to resolve things and the other party trying to create things” and that “it was over just him being lazy and needing to get up and make something of himself.”
Benson does realize this baggage may have been one reason he was virtually ignored in free agency this off-season.
“It could have. It could have,” Benson repeated. “But how foolish if it did? If it’s worth anything, you have to look into the situation. They weren’t harsh crimes.”
So if the Packers aren’t concerned about Benson’s off-field issues, as Thompson echoed in a recent news conference, the question is how he’ll adapt to the locker room and the scheme. In Chicago, his working relationship with Jones was septic at best.
Jones was the respected workout warrior, the son of coal-mining parents, a film-room junkie. Benson was the Texas wunderkind, an anointed face of the franchise who held out 36 days and proclaimed himself the starter.
At the time, Benson alleged teammates took shots at him during the aforementioned practice because of their loyalty to Jones. And another practice – irritated with the young back for whatever reason – Jones punched Benson.
“With the point he was at in Chicago and they drafted me in the first round, I think he may have took it really hard or the wrong way,” Benson said. “So our relationship didn’t get off to the best start. In time, things got better.”
Ruben Brown, the left guard on those Bears teams, believes management put both running backs in an impossible situation. Roles weren’t defined, he said. Jones’ career was peaking, yet Benson was named the starter. Tension was inevitable.
As symbolic as the punch may appear – respected veteran smacking immature 23-year-old – Brown downplayed the incident.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys get punched, slapped, shoved to get points across or try to send a message,” Brown said. “No time is it always acceptable, but in our environment it’s not a normal work environment. It’s almost understood. You wouldn’t want that happening in the stock exchange or IBM.”
Multiple times, Brown insisted Benson is a good guy. Brown was 11 years older than the young back, yet the two still hung out and ate dinner together often. Brown doesn’t believe the laidback Benson was a locker-room cancer in any sense.
“He didn’t have any influence on our locker room the way it was portrayed,” he said. “Only his productivity was a factor for us. He was effective with his talent. His personality and how he carried himself and what he was like as a person, it had no bearing in our locker room at all. The offensive line enjoyed him.”
In Cincinnati, Benson finally became the unquestioned No. 1 back. Running back Brian Leonard had preconceived notions about Benson. He heard the rumors, read the reports and half-braced for an arrogant teammate.
Instead, Leonard said, Benson was the exact opposite. Once, unprompted, Benson flew out to Leonard’s charity event in New York City for three days.
On the field, Leonard called Benson one of the hardest workers on the team.
“He goes through a walkthrough like it’s a game,” Leonard said. “He goes at one speed – full-speed all the time. That’s just his personality. Being a first-round pick with all the money he got, to go out and practice as hard as he did, that says a lot about a guy.”
Meanwhile, running backs coach Jim Anderson said he didn’t have a preconceived notion. He never called anybody in Chicago to investigate Benson’s character. He wanted his relationship with Benson to develop organically.
Teammates, he said, respected Benson.
“When it came time to play the game – when the bell rang – he was ready to go,” Anderson said. “We had a good relationship. We just said, ‘Hey, listen, our job is prepare you to be the best that you can be. Let’s do it.’ ”
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