The first thing I told Cedric Benson when we began our interview was that Chicago Bears fans think he’s a bust.
I wanted to start there, with that word, because that’s where you, the reader, will start. It’s where all conversations in Chicago about Benson start. Hell, my mind flips there too.
Yet my mind also flips to his brilliance down the stretch in 2006. We forget this now, but when the Bears stepped on the field in Miami for Super Bowl XLI, Benson was considered a crucial piece to the offensive puzzle. Though he backed up Thomas Jones all year, he was finally becoming the running back Bears fans hoped he would be when the team drafted him 4th overall in 2005.
In the final seven regular season games, Jones carried the ball 107 times for 485 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and scored two touchdowns. Benson carried it 88 times for 432 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and three touchdowns.
Heading into the Super Bowl, Jones had 40 carries in the NFC playoffs, and Benson had 36.
Of course, his Super Bowl did not turn out how he or anyone else hoped. He carried the ball twice. He fumbled on the first rush and was knocked out of the game with a knee injury on the second.
This dichotomy between Benson’s reputation and his importance to a Super Bowl team was the reason I wanted to interview him. I found him in this SB Nation story from February about the difficulty some NFL players have in retirement. That story referenced Benson’s new career as a loan originator in his college town of Austin, Texas. I tracked him down through the bank and called him. He answered. I asked if he wanted to talk about 2006 and his time in Chicago. He agreed immediately.
We spoke the next night for a little over an hour. He explained his 36-day rookie holdout ("Honestly, I thought it was just business") his relationship with teammates ("I had very few allies") his struggles with the Bears ("No year in Chicago was I happy") and his heartbreaking Super Bowl ("When I made the cutback he was already knee high, spearing me, helmet first").
He talked about seeing his career in Chicago turn a corner, his 2008 arrests, and his 189-yard performance against the Bears with the Bengals. ("I didn’t want it to be vengeful but it was hard for it not to be.")
Looking at his NFL career on a whole, you wouldn’t exactly call Benson a "bust." He collected three 1,000-yard seasons in Cincinnati and ran for 6,017 yards, second most in his 2005 draft class behind Frank Gore. He certainly was not what anyone in Chicago wanted him to be; of the 24 players drafted between 2000 and 2009 who rushed for at least 6,000 yards, Benson is the only one whose career yards per carry is under 4.0.
That includes Thomas Jones, the man he replaced, and Matt Forte, the man who replaced him.
As we spoke, I prodded Benson for details about his career, to see what he remembered. As it turned out, the details were scarce. Who were you friends with? ("Brandon — McCown? McGowan?") Do you remember how many yards you had in the 2006 season finale against Green Bay? ("No." "It was your first 100-yard game." "Nice.") Do you remember who forced your fumble in the Super Bowl? ("I don’t remember his name. I just remember he was a good player.")
But then we spoke about 2007, and with great clarity Benson suddenly recalled a Seahawks game I’d mostly forgotten, and a 43-yard touchdown run that marked "the pivot, the turning point" of his career.
"You get in a rhythm, so to speak," he told me. "And that’s what I found. I’d been searching for myself."
Benson says he never got a fair shake in Chicago from either the media or the fans. He wants both groups to have "a better understanding of why my career didn’t explode the way we would have all liked in Chicago." In the following edited version of our discussion, he gives his explanation.
Let’s jump back to ’05, your rookie year. You held out 36 days. When you look back at that 22-year-old version of yourself holding out, what do you see?
I see a young man being thrown amongst the wolves. There was a lot of back-and-forth negotiations before I was picked. Before I was picked I was under the interpretation I wasn’t going to get picked. So I didn’t have a real pleasant experience at the draft anyway.
Where did you think you were going?
The Bears were trying to get me to agree to a deal seconds before they picked me. And we kind of said, "No, we’re going to go after what we feel" — we were going to go after for what I did. We’d get picked with whoever wants me to play. And the Bears still picked me. So it left a lot of room open for immediate controversy amongst us negotiating. Nobody knows that. (Laughs.)
I remember that it seemed like maybe you were upset.
Yeah. Just because, you know, I worked really hard to be there. And it was like I was being played or manipulated before I even got picked, so when I got picked I was sort of confused. The Bears just said they weren’t going to pick me if I didn’t agree to this deal. I didn’t agree and they still picked me.
You ultimately signed August 28, before the fourth preseason game. Were you hearing any stories about famous holdouts, like the players on the ’85 Bears who missed the whole season? Were you thinking, "Uh oh, it’s time to bite"? What were you thinking about?
Honestly, I thought it was just business. I thought it was just the way the routine went. There were other players that held out. I thought it was just how it went. Being that young, sometimes your eyes go to the tabloids and you read some of the stuff or hear some of the stuff and it plays on you. It interferes with trying to make a good business decision.
I think if I would have to do it again, I probably would have held out longer. I probably would have held out as long as you can.
So ultimately, you signed a five-year deal — I’m reading here — it was $17.5 million guaranteed, a total package of $35 million. Is that correct?
Yeah. I guess. (Laughs.)
It sounds like you weren’t the one trying to pull the trigger on that deal. How long do you think you would have held out?
I mean, I was the one who pulled the trigger. I was ready to go to camp. I was ready to play football. You know, when you hire an agent, you hire him to make the best decisions for you. And you have to trust his decisions as well. I should have been a better — more disciplined to my agent, because I hired him. Many times teams, when they hire coaches, they stick with them.
So your agent wanted you to continue to hold out?
Yeah. He felt negotiations weren’t fair.
What I’ve read and what I remember hearing is that once you signed, your teammates didn’t exactly embrace you. When you ended your holdout and came into Halas Hall as a rookie, which players were your biggest allies on the team? Who embraced you?
You know, it was tough. That team had a lot of leaders, and they felt a certain way about me coming in, so I had very few allies. Mostly the young guys I came in with. The team of course naturally huddled around the leaders that were there. So it was a little tough sledding for me that first year, definitely.
Right. So the guys who you came in with, that’s who? Bradley? And Orton? Who was really in your corner from Day 1?
My guy Brandon. What was his last name — McCown? McGowan?
Yeah. We got to know each other real well and we were close.
We were all pretty tight, that rookie bunch that year. We were all kind of in the same boat as far as everybody feeling like we needed to prove ourselves.
Who were your fiercest critics among your teammates at that point?
Probably Olin Kreutz and the o-line. Deep down somewhere, I’m sure they knew the outcome of me being picked at that position. They knew that eventually I would be the guy, so they were always the biggest critics — those guys, and myself. I’m always pretty hard on myself.
Anything specific you remember from Olin and the o-line?
No, just them kind of — Olin in his own way expressing the urgency to be better.
We’ve heard a lot over the years about Olin’s "way." What do you mean "Olin in his own way"?
Oh man. He’s got this serious, dry humor. I guess for a rookie coming in it would be hard to catch on to it. He’s serious and he’s not laughing, know what I mean? But he’s kidding.
And what about the guys on the defense? All those leaders?
They naturally huddled around Thomas, so like I said, it was a little tough sledding.
How about Thomas? How did that relationship begin?
Of course at first it wasn’t too bright. He felt that we didn’t need to draft another running back. He felt he was the guy. So we got off to a rough start. Our relationship didn’t really start to get that good until after he was on another team and I was on another team.
I was really eager to make a stamp. I was eager to keep the running game as efficient as it was. (Pause.) I just wanted to do great, man. I was confused coming in. I was not that liked on my team, early. So I was really trying to find myself.
What do you mean "confused"?
From the negotiations at the draft to not being very welcomed to the team. Having to deal with that. That’s a lot for a young guy coming into the big show.
Did they prank you? Because I know that those guys are big on pranks. And like you said with Olin, it could be a joke, but he’s being serious, but he’s kidding.
Ah yes. Yes.
What sort of pranks and hazing and all that ritualistic stuff did you receive?
Not too much hazing. It wasn’t too bad. I wasn’t a person who would take too pleasant to being hazed. They would do the typical, getting taped up in the ice tub thing — all that stuff. But that was so long ago. It wasn’t my most pleasant moments, so I don’t think I’ve tried to remember too many of them.
No, not bad memories. Just not a lot that I care to remember. It wasn’t my happiest moments in my NFL career.
Okay, so you guys started 7-0, and in the fifth game against Buffalo you scored your first two NFL touchdowns. And this is going to sound weird, but the night before the game I had a dream that you were going to score your first touchdown.
(Laughs.) I appreciate that.
How was your relationship with Thomas at that point?
Like I said, it never was really that good when I was on the team. It was always a big rivalry.
So I’m looking at this story from that Bills game, and I’ll read it to you: "Halfway through Sunday’s second quarter, Cedric Benson blasted into the end zone from 1 yard out for his first NFL touchdown. As he trotted to the sideline, still holding the football, one Bears teammate was out in front of all the rest to greet and congratulate him. Thomas Jones."
You called T.J.'s reaction to your touchdown "neat." So maybe there was a little bit of coming together.
Yeah, absolutely. He definitely was trying. We were on a roll, we were coming up as a team, winning games. But there’s always that rivalry there. It’s always, "Who’s going to be the guy?"
Sure. Alright. Cardinals game. I know you didn’t play much in this game but obviously it goes down in Bears history as one of the most astounding games ever. What was that locker room like at halftime?
Man, you know, I can’t even really remember. Like I said, I was young, I didn’t play. That was a time in my life where I was really trying to find my way. You know? And anything outside trying to figure out what I needed to do in order to be better and to be happy, I didn’t really notice.
So that wasn’t a big exciting comeback for you.
Like I say, that time wasn’t a big exciting time for me. It was a struggle from Day 1. A struggle to be the starter. A struggle to establish myself in the NFL. A struggle to make friends. A struggle to get comfortable in the city. It just wasn’t a pleasant experience for me.
You mention friends, and I re-read a profile that Melissa Isaacson of the Trib wrote about you after you guys clinched the division against the Vikings. You had done a radio interview and someone asked you if you were friends with Thomas Jones and you said "No." And you took heat for that, and later you were like "How is this any different than any person who works any job? People aren’t friends with all their co-workers." Which of course makes perfect sense. Did you at least have "work friends" on that team?
Like I said, most of the young guys who I came in with, we were close. We kind of had to bond together. We were all young.
What about the other side? Did you have any relationship with Urlacher, Mike Brown, Tommie Harris, Lance Briggs, Peanut — any of those guys who were considered those defensive stalwarts? Ogunleye? Alex Brown?
We became friendly. We hung out, go to the house, do some events together — paintball fights, stuff like that.
I know paintball was big on that team.
(Laughs.) Jeez. No, that was mostly Urlacher and those guys. I was young. I wasn’t really in the circle yet. It was just a bittersweet time for me.
How did Thomas react to your growing success in the second half of the season?
Nothing that stood out. I’d like to think he was happy for me. But I know we’re both in a very competitive sport.
Were you guys ever talking about the ways in which you could jointly benefit the team? Because when fans think about that team, we always think, "We have these two talented backs." Were you talking about that, the two of you?
Not really. The fans may have been thinking that but the team wasn’t thinking that. The team wasn’t really trying to bond us together as a two-back unit, you know? Thomas thought he was the guy, and thought he should be the guy.
So we had this dynamic between the running backs. You had the free agent signee — Thomas — and yourself, who was drafted, and it kind of mirrored what was going on with the quarterbacks. We had Rex, who we drafted, and the free agent Brian Griese, and then your rookie classmate Kyle Orton who had a wonderful and very surprising rookie year the year before. What do you remember about that dynamic? What was your view on who should be quarterback and how that should be handled?
I mean, I don’t really know bro. I was young and trying to figure my position out. I had no say-so on that at all. I had no idea.
Did you have a sense of who the offense trusted between Grossman and Griese?
No. I didn't even understand how the whole dynamic of the NFL even worked at the time. I was figuring it all out. I was like a puppy in a new world.
Which coaches were most helpful for you?
Lovie was supportive. Coach Drake was a very positive influence. I knew him from Texas of course.
Who was your running back coach at that point?
Tim Spencer — is that it?
What was your relationship with him?
He was a fan of Thomas Jones. He was supportive of Thomas Jones. (Pause.) In my personal opinion, as a head coach or a general manager, all these things should have been addressed before I showed up. They should have been addressed with the team. They should have known they were going to pick me and make it known, so that when I came in, everybody wasn’t surprised. It was tough man. It was an uphill climb for me in Chicago.
What did you do to deal with that?
Not much. Went to work, went home, and kept to myself, you know? I don’t know man. Just uh — deal with it I guess.
That Isaacson story says you had Thanksgiving on your own in 2006 and made yourself a turkey.
Yeah. (Laughs.) Yeah.
So that Packers game, season finale on New Years — do you remember how many yards you had?
It was your first 100-yard game.
Do you remember anything about that ballgame?
Not really man. No. Not really at all.
I’ve got a quote from you here from the paper. You said that the game was "really awesome." You’d been thinking about having a 100-yard game forever. You said that, let’s see — yeah, you said that you were excited and that it was a good game for you personally even though the team lost 26 to 7.
You kind of got burned here for expressing excitement over a personal achievement even though the team lost. There were a few times in your Bears career where you spoke candidly and it burned you. Did you receive any media training?
No, not me. You know, you can either be politically correct all the time or you can really be a human being. And of course people are going to pick apart human beings. That has nothing to do with being politically correct. But if I tell you something earnestly, from my heart, then that’s more real. That’s more entertaining. That’s better. Not only does it give people a chance to take it apart, it gives them more things to talk about.
The depth of what I was saying, though — if you put together everything that I’ve been expressing in this conversation — is that I was unhappy. No year in Chicago was I happy. From the moment they picked me to the time I left. So for me to get 100 yards with all the work I’d been doing to get there was a bit of hope for me. It was like turning on the light. I’m sure it may have helped me get another 100 yards.
It’s a team sport. It takes so many people. For things to go right you need at least half of the people doing the right thing. Because there are really good players on the other end. So to find success amongst a job where so many things have to go right, I think it deserves a smile regardless of a win or a loss.
What are your memories of the two playoff games before the Super Bowl? Seattle and New Orleans.
I just remember it all being really awesome, with the energy out of this world. Of course it was cold. But it was just really awesome. I wouldn’t mind re-living those moments again.
Do you remember anything about your numbers?
Are you interested in that? Do you look at the history of how you played or anything like that?
Not really, especially not during that time. My NFL career wasn’t happy times for me. I spent a lot of time on the negative side of the media. Spent a lot of time trying to re-establish myself, and then when things get really good for you they kind of come to an end again. It comes and it goes.
So you did have a nice game against the Saints. You scored a touchdown. What do you remember about when it was like, you guys were going to the Super Bowl. Was there at least some happiness there for you?
Oh for sure. That was an exciting moment. I wanted to do really good in the game. Yet at the time I didn’t realize the full spectrum of it. Some guys never make it to the Super Bowl. So yeah, I was really excited.
I’ve got a picture here of you, Rashied Davis, and Jason McKie all smiling and wearing your NFC champion hats. How was your relationship with McKie?
Good. He was a good guy. He was the fullback and it didn’t matter who was back there — he was blocking. He was cool with everybody.
So tell me about the Super Bowl. It looms large here in the city. How was your preparation — do you recall?
Good. Real good. I was poised to have a good game. I think that first play, the fumble, we called the play and the Colts called the exact play to stop that play. As soon as I made a cutback to the backside, the safety was down. He made a good tackle. He’s a Pro Bowl player and he got the better of me. And then the injury in the endzone — I mean, that’s what it is.
What was the game plan going in as far as how you were going to be used?
I didn’t know what the coaches had planned. I wasn’t in all those meetings. It’s not like the coaches say, "Hey, this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to try this and you two guys are going to — " They weren’t talking to me like that. I’m sure they were talking amongst themselves, and maybe talking to the vets, but it wasn’t like they were including me in the whole grand scheme. I still wasn’t the guy. I was the backup guy.
But you were sort of playing your ass off.
Well yeah, we had a good week of preparation. We knew what we were going to do to win the game. We were going to play our typical running game. So yeah.
So your first carry was the fumble. Do you remember who forced the fumble?
I don’t remember his name. I just remember he was a good player.
And then your second carry, you got hurt. And that was it. It all happened pretty quickly. You fumbled, the Colts had four plays and a punt, and the very next play you got hit and you were out. What did you do for the rest of the Super Bowl?
I think I spent most of the time in the locker room. I was upset that I was injured. Of course you want to play. Who doesn’t want to play in the Super Bowl? So I was upset that I was injured. But I don’t know — there was a lot to take in at the time. I dealt with it how I knew best at the time.
Went in, showered, came out. There wasn’t much I could do.
What went wrong in that game? Not specifically for you but overall for the Bears.
I don’t know. You know, I don’t know. It’s not like much had changed, me being out of the game. We still had Thomas Jones. Still had all the weapons. I’m not sure.
What was the mood after that?
Any time you lose, everybody is just eager to get home and away from everybody else as fast as they can. A lot of down energy. You’re just trying to get back home and get away from it as fast as you can.
Do you recall any particular point in the game where you felt like, "Uh oh, it’s over for us"?
No, because you never know. You never want to count yourself out.
So we go into the offseason and the Bears traded Thomas. Were you aware that that was going to happen before it was announced?
You kind of got the sense.
But they didn’t call you and say, "We’re trading T.J."
I’m sure they said, "You’re going to be the guy next year." I’m sure that was told to me at some point.
So what went wrong in 2007? Or is that even a bad way of looking at it? Do you not even look at it like that?
I don’t think things went wrong. Things happen from one year to the next and you never really know. I can’t put my finger on it. A lot of positions have to fit in order for things to work.
Were you happy that season?
No. It was a tough season. We were trying to run the ball. We weren’t moving a lot of guys around up front. It was a tough season.
Did you feel more like "one of the guys" or did you still feel like an outsider?
I felt like an outsider all the way up until about Seattle that year. And then we played Denver right after that and I got hurt, and that was it for my career in Chicago. That Seattle game — I knew right away that the pivot, the turning point, was there. My career was going to start climbing very fast. And I remember being in front of Lovie after that summer incident went down with the boat or whatever and them telling me that they were going to release me, and I was telling him, "That’s unfortunate, because things are going to pick up right where they left off. I feel it now. I’m in the zone."
So that’s interesting, about the Seattle game. What made you think that you had turned that corner, as opposed to in ’06 when you were really running wonderfully?
It was just my time. There’s a greater magician, you know? There’s a greater puppet master. And although we may want things to go the way we want them to go, we don’t always get them. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to get them. And I think it was just my time. For some reason all of a sudden, you feel different. You see things different. The flow of the field and of the game is different for you. You get in a rhythm, so to speak. The zone. And that’s what I found. I’d been searching for myself.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a long run I made in Seattle for a touchdown. And that marked the moment. And I think I ran for 1,000 yards every season after that until Green Bay. That was the turning point for me personally.
Were you doing anything differently?
No. Maybe the flow of the offense finally came to me or the flow of the run game finally came to me. I don’t know man. Maybe I was just due for some happiness. (Laughs.)
How did you feel about the way that your Bears career ended after ’07? We drafted Forte, and then the arrests and Lovie talking to you.
You know, they don’t ever wait to find out the facts about stuff. They just worry about being politically correct. I think they were getting a lot of heat from the papers and from the city and stuff. And they made a decision on a player whom I don’t think they ever wanted to draft in the first place.
Does it surprise you to hear that — I’m just telling you objectively — that that word "bust" is tied to your name in Chicago?
I guess not. I had one year as a starter. I guess that makes me a bust.
How do you view your time in Chicago as far as your level of production and achievement?
I thought when my name was called I gave it all I had to give at the time. I don’t think I would call it a bust. I had very little contribution in the grand scheme of it all. We did go to a Super Bowl. That’s about it. I wouldn’t call it a bust, personally. No. (Pause.)
I think if you can take away the Super Bowl season, then maybe, yeah, you could say that. We struggled on our offensive line that third season. Our quarterbacks were rotating. I don’t know who was quarterback at the time. We probably had several different ones. It was a tough year.
Rex started. He played the first three. Then Griese came in and played for a while. Then he got injured. Rex came back. And Orton closed the season.
Yeah. So I mean, come on.
2009. What do you remember about playing the Bears with Cincinnati? You had a big game against us.
Yeah, it was exciting.
What do you remember about that?
I just remember trying not to be angry. I didn’t want it to be vengeful but it was hard for it not to be.
Why was it important to you to not be angry?
Because that just wasn’t my place, to be angry. I didn’t want it to be vengeful. I didn’t want that to come out of my spirit. I wanted it to be just another game that I wanted to do really good at. But at the same time I couldn’t hide three years of being unhappy and wanting to shove it in all their faces. (Laughs.) Like you said, in Chicago, my name is "bust." That’s what they think. They think I’m the bust. And well, when I was on another team and y’all had the opportunity to prove that I was a bust, things didn’t quite go that way.
Do you remember how many yards you had that game?
Not off hand, no.
It was 189. It was your career high. It was the 6th — at least back to 1960 — it was the 6th best rushing performance against the Bears.
Adrian Peterson has slots 1 and 3, Ricky Williams has number 2, Earl Campbell number 4, Edgerrin number 5, and then you.
Nice. Yeah, I was primed and ready man. I was primed and ready. That was a good year for me, that year.
So I found your name in an article that was written earlier this year about NFL players retiring. And I found you on LinkedIn and Wikipedia. I see that you’re at a bank. What’s going on?
Mortgage lending, man. I got my mortgage lending license. Kind of new to it — only about a few months into it. Like any business, it’s tough sledding at first. But I want to make my name known for mortgages, not football, which is very tough. That’s not easy when all you’ve done is play football.
I assume you still have a pretty big following in Austin.
Yeah, that’s another thing. You double that all with UT and it’s kind of hard.
I’ve got a six-year-old daughter. My mom and my two younger brothers also live in Austin.
You always seemed like a pleasant enough guy with the Bears and I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, but even after you left the Bears, you made news a lot for bad reasons. How is all that? How’s the legal situation? What’s good?
It’s all good. It’s not like any of it was (pause) — it’s hard to explain that stuff. It ain’t easy being a brother in America. And when you’re a brother with money and a noticeable face, they kind of come after you, especially down in the South. So those things can happen. That’s a reality of America. As much as they want to point the finger and say, "You’re a bad guy. You did this, did that," America has to accept who she is and what she’s been doing for years. Naturally I ran into that, and making myself available to run into that, I guess you could say.
And that’s all I can really say about that. I wasn’t guilty of any alcohol-related incidents, and I got into a fight with my buddy, and that’s about it.
Are you talking about the boat?
Yeah. Fortunately I was found innocent in both of those. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I was found innocent. The damage was already done.
Speaking of "damage done," how’s your health?
Pretty good. I probably weigh about 215 pounds or so. About the only problems I have are lower back problems. All things considered, I’d say that’s pretty good. I still feel basketball and train hard. I still train hard like I used to. Not as much, but when I go to the gym I still lift. I’m pretty good.
Well that’s good. I want to wrap up with a few things, first just by seeing if there are any other great stories from 2006 you want to share.
No. I was a very unhappy guy at the time. It was tough for me to give my best on the field when I didn’t come into a very supportive situation. I think for anybody coming into that situation, that would be challenging. If fans feel I was a bust, I want them to try to have a better understanding of why my career didn’t explode the way we would have all liked in Chicago. I had a lot of things working against me, from teammates to coaches to the general manager.
I know these are two separate bodies but they’re kind of tied together — did you think that you got a fair shake in Chicago from the fans and the media?
No, not at all. Because players hold out all the time. So to choose to be disappointed because I’m holding out is not fair. Lance Briggs held out. And then maybe the year after that somebody else held out. And then somebody else held out. It’s business. They don’t understand that here’s a guy from a small town who worked his butt off to get here, and they’re just going to milk as much off him as they possibly can. Well, it’s important for that guy to milk as much as he can.
Because his career is not going to last. The Bears have been owned by the same family forever. Whereas, I spent three years there. You see what I’m saying? Here we have a nine billion dollar industry. What’s my holdout going to do to a nine billion dollar industry?
I hear you. So, final thoughts on the 2006 season. Playing in Chicago.
Yeah, I mean, it was an awesome year. Going to the Super Bowl, the camaraderie of all that — it was a great experience. I think if I could do it all over again, I might have cut back a little shorter or a little further. On the fumble. (Laughs.) Yeah. Because when I made the cutback, everything was in sync before my eyes. And when I made the cutback he was already knee high, spearing me, helmet first. Just caught me totally by surprise.
*** SEPTEMBER 17 UPDATE ***