Playing it straight

12-13-02, 6 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals backup running back Brandon Bennett has watching Corey Dillon down to a science so he knows exactly when he needs to get on the field for a Pro Bowl breather.

Maybe Dillon doesn't pop up after a run so quickly and just rolls off the ground. Or maybe he keeps walking around the huddle with his hands on his hips. Bennett doesn't even have to hear it from the coaches and he heads in for a play or two.

But now, suddenly, Bennett himself is getting watched and getting some Pro Bowl votes because he heads into Sunday's game as the AFC's kick return leader by percentage points (26.14 yards average to 26.12) over the Jets' Chad Morton.

"They believe in me and know I'm going to run hard and I believe in them," said Bennett in Thursday's sit down with bengals.com on audio. "Now we have a lot of the same guys playing week in and week out and we've kind of jelled and understand what we need to do as a return team."

Bennett hasn't played for two games with a knee he nearly blew apart on the second half kickoff in

Pittsburgh. He said he sprained every tendon, nearly broke his fibula, and almost wrecked his kneecap. But he's ready to accept his 43rd kick of the season in a bid to become the second Bengal to win a kick return title and first since Tremain Mack in 1999.

"It's one of those things positive for the team," Bennett said, "and I hope we can keep it going."

There may be no more positive story on a 1-12 team than the unassuming, underrated Bennett who exudes professionalism from last month's 94-yard kickoff return in Baltimore to making sure he gets all his treatments in the training room.

Here's a guy who got cut four times by four teams, including the Bengals, and the only reason he's here is because Ki-Jana Carter fell the wrong way and shattered his wrist in the 1998 opener. Even now, he's not supposed to survive training camp, but he always emerges as the man backing up Dillon with terrific hands as such a solid receiver on third down.

If there is a story of perseverance that should be bottled for kids, this is it.

"I come out with the same fire every year," Bennett said. "I don't want to go through that again. It's hurtful. Every time I've been cut, I feel like I had done good enough to make the team. I out rushed every running back I'd be on the team with. It's just a numbers game and I understand that, but it doesn't make it any easier to keep getting released."

There are no secrets when it comes to Bennett and his down home South Carolina brew of straight ahead philosophy. That's how the Bengals have schemed their kickoffs, now, junking the outside stuff geared for the traded Curtis Keaton and re-configuring their strategy to fit Bennett's quick-hitting style up the middle behind hat-on-a-hat blocking.

"And make something happen," Bennett said.

Which is what Bennett tries to do off the field when he's back home in Greenville and Columbia, or in Cincinnati. He's one of the more active Bengals when it comes to giving his time here during the season at schools and during one offseason back home he helped teach a second-grade class.

He's also involved in South Carolina's juvenile justice system, where he talks to kids during their last chance before the next stop is jail: "Just let them know there are other things out there besides drugs and fighting and stealing."

His message to the kids is as straight as one of his returns through the wedge.

"Never give up if that's your dream," Bennett said. "Just keep on going. You never want to be sitting at home and saying I wish I could have, would have.

"If I get cut today," Bennett said, "I would never have any regrets about what I've done."

For the entire interview with Bennett, please click

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