Brian Peters, who has known Cedric Benson since the Dodgers took him in the 12th round of the baseball draft in 2001, took him to a Mexican dinner Saturday night with his wife and four children in Houston when he realized that his friend had finally taken the extra base.
"I really believe he's in a better place within his own self," says Peters, Benson's baseball agent who remains an adviser and saw it all unfold so badly in Chicago. "When we were at dinner I could see he was at peace."
There are, of course, two Cedric Benson stories.
There is the aloof malcontent who courted trouble in the locker room and off the field in frittering away his opportunity with the Bears.
And then there is the feel-good yarn that began a month ago when the Bengals picked Benson off the rubble with a one-year deal, as viewed by teammates like quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
"From everything you read in the papers and online, I think people were hesitant to welcome him with his attitude and his problems in the past, I mean his perceived attitude," Fitzpatrick said. "But he's been awesome. Awesome. The one thing he brings is enthusiasm. He wants to be out there. He always works hard. Even with sideline talk during the game. He is kind of a leader out there, which is a hard thing for a guy who's only been playing two weeks."
Benson, who has started the last two games at running back and looks to have the rest of the games locked up with a violent urgency, couldn't help but smile when told of his quarterback's comments.
"It just makes me say, 'Wow,' " Benson says. "That's awesome. It makes me wonder where all those others (comments) came from. How credible were they?"
Benson chooses to not reverse field on those Chicago days. He will backpedal in some generalities, but he is clearly still stung by the probing nature of the pre-draft culture, the negative comparisons to fellow Texas back Ricky Williams, a 30-plus day holdout and a spot behind Thomas Jones to start his career.
"I faced a lot of obstacles in Chicago," he says of the team that took him fourth overall in the 2005 draft. "When I got there as a rookie, you're poised and ready to play, and I didn't get that opportunity. I had to sit behind a guy for two years. I think that might have played a little bit of a role in veering me off the path I wanted to be on.
"People have a tendency to (prejudge). I had a lot of things put on me just because of previous places where I'd been and where I'd come from. I was compared to a lot of things in a negative connotation and those are the things I had to deal with. When you look back at those things you wouldn't change it because it makes you who you are today."
What he is today is viewed as a pro in a Bengals locker room rocked by the 0-8 trauma. His numbers are quite pedestrian at 3.3 yards per his 41 carries, but his energy and passion for survival have meant so much to an offense that has had none of either for a year and a half.
Benson is quiet, intense, polite, and likes to keep to himself away from work. But he'll mingle with mates and media. On Thursday he congratulated Chris Henry for his new addition with "boy or girl?" and when Henry said "boy," Benson nodded. Then he took some questions about the revival, characteristically pausing before giving an answer instead of a cliche.
"Cedric has been great in terms of coming in here and picking up the offense," Fitzpatrick said. "He's brought some excitement. He's fun to play with when he's on the field. You know he's got your back."
The equipment guys marvel at his neatness and organization right down to his travel bag that he packs with the same regimen and care. The training staff is impressed with his low-maintenance professionalism. Practice observers say he takes every rep at 100 miles-per-hour and finishes his carries an extra 20 yards downfield.
And he had running backs coach Jim Anderson from hello that first off day he showed up in his office to study.
"We visit for an hour or two and that gives us a chance to get started on what we would go over the next week," Anderson says. "He understands. He's been home. The light was shut off and he wondered if it would ever turn on again. You go to a quieter place and you regroup and I think you make up your mind you're not going to do the same things and you see how you can make it work this time."
If Benson needed a blank slate to revive his career, he couldn't have gone to a better position coach than Anderson, a 25-year NFL veteran who has coached more personalities than Dr. Phil. Anderson has seen so much (the stubborn pride of James Brooks to the volcanic Corey Dillon) that he doesn't rely on scuttlebutt and headlines.
"I'm going to react to how a guy presents himself in the here and now," says Anderson, who knows full well the power of Texas prep and college football as a former SMU assistant. "This guy has been great. Growing up in Texas and playing at what they call 'The University,' he's got some skins on the wall."
Benson is just simply "happy" in the eyes of Peters. It wasn't only the Bengals deciding to give him a shot last month that turned things around for him, but Peters believes it is what happened that same week in a Texas grand jury room.
Benson was not indicted on two DUIs stemming from incidents that took place near his Midland, Texas home this past May and June that got him cut from the Bears. One was an odd confrontation with police on his boat.
"I think he felt a sense of vindication," Peters says. "I mean, he wasn't allowed to bring anyone from his side in there. Not even his attorney. It was all done from the prosecuting side. And to have it end like that with absolutely nothing happening, I think it really lifted him up."
Peters says Benson "made some decisions that weren't great," and Benson himself admits that he's not the guy that he was in Chicago. He believes he has changed but that the transformation began while with the Bears.
"It's hard to put it into words; I can't word it," Benson says. "You just learn how life has a lot more meaning than what is happening in this small point, this portion of your life. You want to be the greatest. You want to be the best at what you're doing at any moment in your life. You want to be the best. You want to be the greatest. You have to take it one day at a time."
With the help of a chaplain in Chicago, Benson says he began piecing things together a few years ago. He also says he took advantage of a summer at home to keep getting acquainted with himself.
"I changed my diet. I took a food allergy test. I learned about myself mentally and spiritually," he says. "I wanted to get back to what I'd been doing in college. That's when I was at my best and I had my most success. I was young. From a mental and spiritual aspect, I wasn't where I am now. But just as far as preparing and getting myself ready to play. Any time you go through things you take advantage of the messages trying to be sent."
Peters believes Benson just never got over a distrust he had with the Bears. With all the questions surrounding the comparisons to Williams, Peters thinks Benson went into the draft process "defensive and he approached it with real skepticism." The ensuing lack of communication during the holdout, he says, heightened the awkwardness.
"That holdout, in hindsight, was, honestly, not a good thing at that point in his life," Peters says. "He went in with that lack of trust and it was hard to be open when he got in there."
But there have been no such problems with the Bengals. They gave him a one-year deal and while they have yet to approach him about an extension, they no doubt will. They know the score and that he's been better than the guy they cut (Rudi Johnson) and the guy he beat out (Chris Perry), and that there will be other teams trying to jump on the bandwagon.
"I appreciate the opportunity; I could still be at home," he says. "I'm here to help the Bengals win and we'll see what happens."
Benson is out of a hotel and living in a condo in the Queen Towers but he says he hasn't been hanging with anyone in particular and that not his M.O. anyway.
"I'm too tired after work," he says.
It has been all pretty much according to the playbook.
"There is nothing wrong with positive yards," Benson says. "You can always fall forward and get something."
Which is why Benson and the Bengals are a nice fit in a season that hasn't measured up.