It is after practice Tuesday and the ’06 Honda is having a heck of a time tailing Cedric Benson’s silver convertible BMW zipping in between the buses and construction of a Colerain Avenue afternoon.
The Texas plates disappear but the voice on the cell phone is in your face with that Friday Night Lights letter jacket cool.
“Now, I slowed up a little but I can’t babysit you,” he says with a chuckle, maybe because he’s got the lunch. “You’re going to have to turn around and go east because you’re way past my street.”
Anybody could have missed it. If you’re looking to find the home of the Bengals bell cow running back in Greater Cincinnati, this wouldn’t be in the multiple choice. The West Side is usually behind the Westchester-Montgomery corridor, Northern Kentucky, Eastern Avenue, and downtown on the list of player addresses.
But when the realtor kept showing him the more expensive layouts farther out, Benson kept asking for something closer to Paul Brown Stadium that was big enough for his three Rottweilers.
(“They’re gentle,” he says. “Two are purebred and they are usually nicer.”)
Benson thinks the realtor reluctantly took him over here to the tree-lined street off Colerain because he thought he’d hate it.
“Perfect,” Benson says, looking onto a second-floor deck just outside his living room, an 8-10 minute drive from PBS.
“It’s kind of like a cabin. It’s quiet, there’s not much traffic, and it’s in the forest,” Benson said.
The place is early bachelor. Try 1982, which is the year Benson was born and which he says is the cutoff for when everything was old school and good.
The living room is connected to a small dining room and wings out to a kitchen. That’s the upstairs. Downstairs is a bedroom and a small room. The dogs romp outside under the deck in a fenced-in yard.
“I’m renting,” he says. “The only thing I put in is the fence.”
Nice. Comfortable. And very low key and normal, which is normal for Benson because he’s not afraid to do things that aren’t so normal for an NFL player.
Lunch, as it often is during the offseason, is takeout from Krishna, an Indian restaurant in Clifton where Benson calls ahead for his orders and greets the help with a bellowing “Krishna’s.”
While he suffocates brown rice with some unrelenting sauce on fish, potato and spinach, he muses how the younger generation just munches on fried food.
“I like natural foods. I don’t like processed food,” he says.
He admits he’s a deep thinker, deep enough that when a Sirius Radio producer told him earlier this week that he should do more radio and TV so more people could get to know him, it jolted him into even more reflection.
Benson does some of that reflecting to Frank Sinatra, the late balladeer that sang of bad breaks and better days with old school smooth. He got into Sinatra via Michael Bublé and when Benson talks about his running style that bulldozed the Bengals back into the playoffs last year, it’s almost like you can hear Francis Albert himself crooning, “I’ve got the world on a string,” one of Benson’s favorites.
“I’ve never been in a scheme with a wide zone or a lot of stretch plays; everything I did was square and downhill,” Benson says. “Except when I was at Texas we would do a shotgun zone play, but I’d be trying to get as square and downhill as fast as I could. Even in Chicago it was always downhill and between the tackles. But here it’s almost like a flow. It’s almost like to make it work you have to be a lot smoother. Be more of a technician. A little more of a reader. It gets defenses out of their lanes and forces them to do things they don’t normally do.
“A stretch play forces the defensive end, if you stretch it right, it forces the end to play really wide on the zone. If they two-gap here and the tackle is doing his job on the D-end, but the guard is just letting his guy two-gap and goes where he wants to go, whatever way he chooses to go, you’re going to do the opposite thing. You’re not just square downhill. You’re letting everything kind of develop while you’re just pacing your way up to the line.
“When everything meshes and goes together, it’s like music, you know what I’m saying?” Benson asks. “It’s like classical music being played. I think it fits me so well. I feel like I’m a smooth guy. I feel like I’m laid-back and easy going. Until you get the ball and find the hole, it’s like slow motion. Really smooth. A little bit like music playing on the beach and then when that hole opens up it’s like heavy metal. Yeah, Sinatra to Metallica. Spitting on the crowd. Biting the heads off chickens.”
At 27, Benson rocks to the old school. He grew up with a single mother and no father and says he paid attention to the elders in her orbit of friends and family. To their jobs, to their food, to their music.
He loves chocolate chip cookies.
But without the gluten.
“I’m ’82. Just the era before things were changing,” he says. “Those kids born in '83, '84, '85, that was the cutoff. The new generation, a lot of them are lazy. They look to people that have things and have accomplished things, but they don’t want to do the work to get there. What they fail to realize is the reason is they worked their tail off to get what they got ... I think (for) this generation it’s because of TV, video games, everybody eats fast food. My mom worked hard. My friends’ parents worked hard all the time. I think I just caught on. Some people catch it and some people don’t.”
What Benson gets is that his old school background finally caught up to his old ways and transformed his NFL career that was left for dead only two summers ago. After two off-field incidents involving alcohol combined with some bumptious moments with the Bears drove him out of the league, Benson has become the face of the Bengals’ recycling effort.
“I think we’re young for a long time. It takes a long time for young men to finally grow up,” he says. “Growing up can consist of a lot of things. I think growing up is eliminating bad habits. Eliminating things that bring you and everyone else around you down. It’s hard to let go of those things because for some reason they are pleasing to you ... but in reality they are your worst enemies. Like your inner demons.”
Benson says while he was reaching All-American status and top four NFL material at Texas, his only focus was making it to the NFL. He says when he finally got to Chicago, he had no goals left and was empty.
“I had to get some goals,” he says. “I had to grow up. Growing up in this league as a professional. Off the field, it’s not like I was a bad person, but I didn’t put in enough effort into things that are important. I’m still guilty of that today. I’m not perfect. I’m still working on things, but I’ve come a long way.”
A long way to the woods of Colerain Township, which he likes because it allows him to just think about football when he’s here. Since he signed here on the last day of September 2008, he’s been able to compartmentalize his life on the dotted line.
This part is just off of Interstate 74. The other part is on a 1.5-acre hilltop in Austin, Tex., his home that overlooks “everything that Austin has to offer.” That includes The Tower and dorms at the University of Texas, as well as Lake Austin, and the shimmering downtown.
“When I got this job and was fighting for a starting spot, I accepted where I was,” he says. “I realized that I’m not going to get the chance to play professional football for very long, and that I have to do whatever it takes to take advantage of making the most of it. There is plenty of time to do things like travel when you’re retired, and you’re retired for a long time. Right now, everything I do is geared to play football. Whatever it takes.”
The reason he likes that Frankie song “I’ve Got the World on a String” is “because I think I do.”
So, right now, that means living in the little house in the woods that is just 10 minutes from work. A free agent after this season, Benson says he’d love to stay and retire a Bengal. He loves the running scheme, of course, and his low profile is a good fit for low-profile Cincinnati. But he loves to see kids wearing No. 32 and he can feel the love from the fans.
“They know; they get it,” Benson says of his game.
Benson says he’s got five or six years left.
“But I won’t hop from team to team when I’m on the way down,” he says. “When I can’t do as well as I could the year before, I’m done. That’s a great goal to have.”
He certainly doesn’t have any numbers for goals. But he does have something in his mind. It is a guy sitting in a chair with a remote.
“The only thing that matters is what happens on Sunday,” he says. “A wise man once told me if you go out there and take care of business, execute every play, one play at a time, going all out every play, you’ll get what you want in the end. One Sunday at a time.
“You want people to remember you every Sunday, you know what I mean? You want them to go home at the end of the game or change the channel saying, ‘Man, that was a great game. That No. 32 ... ’ You know what I mean? That’s what I want. If I’ve got him saying that, then I had that 100-yard game or I got the 1,500, 1,600 (season).”
And this is really Benson’s never-ending matchup. He likes his teammates and the locker room, and the fans, but being well known isn’t his gig. He was honored by what the man at Sirius said, about how he should go more public so more people would get to know him.
But that got him thinking about another one of his favorite Sinatra songs. “That’s Life.”
“A lot of people don’t know me or have an assumption about you, but at this point in my life, nothing gets under my skin,” he says. “I’ve been talked about positive, negative, every which way. I’ve been up and down. That’s life.
“It’s not my job,” he says of getting people to know him. “I don’t really care to. One thing that will never change is what you’ll know about me is you’ll definitely know what kind of player I am. That’s all that matters right now.”
Right now for Benson, it’s all about karma. He calls it “energy.” But it sounds like karma.
“The way you start the day is a big outcome of how your day is going to be. It’s bigger than we can ever imagine,” he says.
So Benson likes to fall asleep with the TV on turned to the Discovery HD channel. At 5 a.m. “Sunrise Earth” comes on for a couple of hours and when he wakes to birds chirping or the ocean whooshing, “I have my best days that start like that. Energy is everything.”
Another day is coming out in the woods. If you can find him, he’s glad to have you.