When using traditional parameters, Martellus Bennett’s career in the NFL was a rather successful one. A former second-round draft pick, Bennett spent 10 years in the league and appeared in 144 regular season games and five playoff contests. He won a Super Bowl, was named to a Pro Bowl, and finished with estimated contractual earnings of around $34 million. He also was able to step away from the game on his own terms.
However, there is more to playing pro football than individual and team accomplishments. Bennett made this clear earlier this week, when he took to social media to open up about the psychological toll of playing the game in response to a report that a former teammate of his — ex-Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall — was looking to fight heavyweight boxer Deontay Wilder.
Bennett’s initial reply to the story — “Retired 6 time Pro Bowlers can get knocked out too.” — was soon followed by a deep dive into how the game of football impacts the psyche of those playing it.
Bennett’s statements have been slightly edited for easier readability. For the full, unedited thread of his posts please click here.
“Honestly football made me such an angry person, everything bothered me. Football is interesting. Psychologically, it’s some really dangerous s--t. To really play the game of football you need to have some f----d up wiring in your head. It’s chaotic,” the 33-year-old posted.
“It takes years and years of brainwashing to go along with a lot of the s--t. It starts at peewee. That’s why you have to watch who is coaching your kids and what they’re teaching them beyond the game. We were groomed from a young age to care a little less about humans. If you’re the backup and the man in front of you goes down, you kind of get excited but feel bad at the same time.”
After starting his career as a kid and playing football through high school, Bennett — a two-sport athlete who also excelled at basketball — joined Texas A&M as a five-star recruit. Playing alongside his brother, defensive end Michael Bennett, he had a productive career that made him one of the top tight end prospects in the 2008 draft.
He eventually was selected in the second round by the Dallas Cowboys, signing a four-year rookie deal worth close to $3 million.
“Most guys don’t know how to make money,” he pointed out. “Making money is hard as f--k. Once your body breaks down that money machine is gone, and unfortunately the spare parts in the mind that don’t break are so rusty you get discouraged when trying to use them.
“The institutionalization of sports is something that isn’t spoken about enough. Kids get funneled in and when you sign those permission slips you’re signing over their identities. Training camp is brainwashing camp.”
Bennett went on to spend four seasons with the Cowboys, but left as a free agent in 2012 to sign a a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the New York Giants. Serving as the team’s top tight end option, he promptly delivered the best season of his career up until that point — one that set him up for his first major payday the following spring: the Chicago Bears signed him to a four-year pact worth $20.4 million.
Bennett did make it to the end of the contract, but not in Chicago.
The Bears traded him and a sixth-round draft choice to the New England Patriots in 2016, in return for a fourth-round selection. Bennett started the season as the number two alongside Rob Gronkowski, but was moved to the TE1 position after the future Hall of Famer suffered a season-ending back injury. In this role, he earned his first championship ring: Bennett contributed five catches for 62 yards in the Patriots’ comeback win in Super Bowl 51.
He eventually left New England the following spring to join the Green Bay Packers on a three-year, $21 million deal. However, he returned just a few months later amidst a medical dispute with the Packers that led to his release midway through the 2017 season.
Bennett played two more games for the Patriots before being placed on injured reserve. He was released the following March and eventually announced his retirement later that month.
“Integrating back into everyday society after a career continues to be a struggle for a lot of guys,” he wrote. “The PTSD. The identity crisis. The pain. The constant reminder of who you used to be by fans — and trophies, and highlights, and family — as you’re trying to transition into the new you really slows down the process. Also, starting over. Shedding the ego and starting over after you’ve made it to the top is hard.”
“It’s hard to become a nobody after you were a somebody.”
Bennett has been quite active since his retirement three years ago, though. He is running his own company, The Imagination Agency, and writing children’s books. His fifth such publication — There’s a Unicorn in my Backyard! — will be released later this month.
But while Bennett is keeping active during his post-playing career, he acknowledged that the transition away from pro football is a tough one.
“Guys should prepare their families for retirement. Life after football. Because everyone is retiring, and football is truly family when you’re a player or coach,” he wrote. “The other thing that I’ve talked guys they is no longer being a part of the locker room. Understanding that a lot of people weren’t really their friend it was just the proximity that brought the closeness. That really hurts athletes.
“After all you’ve been through, you would think you would all be friends forever. You’ve put your body on the line for these dudes. This team. Y’all shower together. Cry together. Been around each other’s kids. And when you’re no longer on the team that bond can be broken quickly.”
One question that Bennett himself asked therefore naturally pops up: Is it all worth it? The answer to that question does not seem to be an easy one to find, or at time one even worth searching for.
“When you struggle lifting up your kid or your mind doesn’t work right, you go broke when you begin questioning if it was all worth it. And more times than not most would say ‘No’ when truly being honest,” Bennett wrote. “Athletes experience a lot of physical and mental abuse. It’s a traumatic experience. I believe guys must find a way to deal with the physical and mental trauma after they leave the game.
“It’s a tough balancing act during your career because the trauma is the only thing that pushes you to do it. And the moment you start addressing trauma, the foundation that everything you believed in begins to crumble. And you can’t perform on a crumbling foundation. Athletes mask their pain everyday for years to be tough. Do you know how thick that mask becomes after years and years of wearing it?”
The 2020 season — the third without Bennett as an active participate — comes to an end on Sunday, which also means that all but two teams are already in offseason mode. For dozens of players this also means entering the unknown: Will they be back in 2021? And on which team? And if not... what now?
As Bennett’s thread of posts illustrates, the challenge does not end when the cleats are stored away for good.