RB Michael Bennett might have pursued firefighting had football not led him down a different career path
Michael Bennett has always wanted to be a firefighter. With the gift he received from a former coach last month, Bennett can at least look the part.
Last week, Bennett showed up at the Celebration Hotel wearing an authentic firefighter's helmet, complete with his last name and jersey number (29) displayed prominently on the front. The hat was an early birthday gift from his former pee wee football coach, John Volze, who happens to be a fire chief in Milwaukee.
Bennett's professional career has taken a slightly different turn. He showed up in Celebration, Florida last week because he is a running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, trying to carve out a niche in a crowded Bucs backfield. Still, Bennett's interest in firefighting began early in life and continues to this day. He recalls going to the fire station in Alligator, Mississippi when he was just five years old.
"I got to feed the dogs and help wash the truck, but I never got a chance to have a ride-along," said Bennett, who says he subsequently visited the station frequently and watched longingly whenever the firefighters sprung into action.
When Bennett was about 13 he moved to Milwaukee, where he met Volze. It didn't take long for the aspiring halfback/fireman to buddy up with the part-time coach and full-time fire chief.
"I told him that firefighting was something I wanted to do with my life if I didn't play football," Bennett said. "So again, after practices I would go over there [to the fire station] and do my same routine."
Bennett kept in touch with Volze and the two still talk frequently. During the years that Bennett played for the Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs he routinely returned to Milwaukee to visit Volze and relive his childhood dream.
"By 2001 when I first got into the league I would always go back to Milwaukee and do an actual ride-along this time because I was old enough and big enough to get into the truck," Bennett said. "My biggest job was to just blow the horn."
Bennett's initial interest in firefighting was a childhood dream, filled with visions of riding in trucks and battling flames, but his continued interest in the profession is rooted in profound respect.
"Those guys save lives," said Bennett who has considered driving a fire truck when he retires from football. "We as athletes get all the glory with touchdowns and this and that, but they are the real heroes behind the scenes."
Thanks to Volze, Bennett now has a keepsake that he hopes will bring him good fortune.
"It's just like a good-luck trophy and good-luck charm for me," said Bennett. He plans to keep the fire hat in his locker and hasn't ruled out wearing it to games.
Bennett won't be putting out any fires during the three weeks the Buccaneers spend at training camp in Central Florida. On the contrary, if he can display the same talents that made him a 1,000-yard rusher in Minnesota, Bennett may be able to fan the embers of potential the Buccaneers saw in him when they traded a draft pick to Kansas City to move him to Tampa last fall.
Bennett's camp roommate and last year's starter Earnest Graham is listed as the team's featured back, but the Bucs have plenty of options to go along with Graham. Graham inherited the role last year after both Michael Pittman and Carnell Williams were sidelined with injuries, and he rushed for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns in 15 games. Even with Graham's emergence, the Bucs felt compelled to add to their backfield depth by dealing for Bennett at the trade deadline.
After playing eight games with the Buccaneers in 2007 Bennett signed a new deal with the team in February. One month later, the team signed Warrick Dunn, who spent the last six years in Atlanta. The apparent stockpiling of halfbacks comes as a reaction to the devastation the position saw last year. Barring injuries, the Bucs come into 2008 with a wealth of choices.
"We're deep. We're super deep," Bennett said. "The biggest thing for us as a stable of running backs is to try to stay healthy and keep doing what we're doing week in and week out."
Bennett, who registered his best season in 2002, when he rushed for 1,296 yards and was named to the Pro Bowl, says he doesn't mind sharing.
"This is a team game and you can't be selfish in this league," he said. "I've been on top, I've been on the bottom and I've been in the middle. I've had the best of three worlds."
Having been with two other NFL franchises before landing in a pewter helmet last October, Bennett felt he could "plug in and go," with Tampa Bay's playbook. In his eight games last season Bennett crossed the goal line once and rushed for 189 yards. The difference in Tampa Bay's approach and the offenses in which he began his career, comes from the fact that Gruden often calls two plays in the huddle.
"You take, for instance, when I was in Minnesota," said Bennett. "When we came out, on one play, and no matter what the defense gave you we were going to run it…with this offense coach will give you a play and another play.
"You have to be a student of the game in this offense to really grasp it and pick it up."