Sometimes, it’s not just the words you say that reveal your passion. It’s the eyes, or the sound of your voice that lights up when you speak that showcase it.
Maybe the eyes, or the sound, give away why Martellus Bennett is at least discerning retirement from the National Football League.
I had a recent chance to talk one-on-one with Bennett, a Super Bowl-winning tight end who shared this message on Instagram this weekend, one which described the probability that this season would be his last in pro football.
Now, it’s impossible not to also consider his company, “The Imagination Agency,” a multimedia company providing children’s adventures.
When I spoke with him earlier in October, his voice, his smile and his face showed a ton of excitement when talking about those ventures. (To be fair, he was still very excited about football, about the nature of his football relationship with Aaron Rodgers and their plans to push forward in the chase for a 14th world championship – a greater challenge without Rodgers.)
But when the other reporters left, Martellus and I conversed about the subject matters that have been such a passion for him – the social conditions in our country, particularly for African-Americans.
That’s when his eyes, his face, his expression really rose to its height. It was as if he saw someone really wanted to listen to him, to understand, to engage, to move past the invisible walls we put up when it comes to understanding each other in an often-racially and politically-split society.
I mentioned to Bennett that in a state that is as politically divided as any (Wisconsin), with a large geographic fan base in a city as racially divided as any (Milwaukee), that the Green Bay Packers’ workplace setting may be the most spotlighted and integrated as any in our state.
In Bennett’s words:
“Every team has that. This is one of the most eclectic workplaces that you’ll ever have the chance to experience working at.”
“You look at Facebook. It’s three percent Hispanic, three percent black. Here, it’s a mixture of everything.”
“When you play sports, you grow up with a tolerance (from) working with people who don’t look like you or don’t think like you, come from different places, and you go and win championships.”
He mentioned a common goal that drives people to engage in each other’s differences and not only “look past,” but embrace those differences. But is there that commonality of motivating goal in our society?
Not in the eyes of Bennett.
“In the world, there’s not one common goal that everyone seems to be working toward. What is the goal the world wants to work toward? If there’s no common theme, common thread or common goal that everyone’s working toward, what’s going to hold it together? There is not a common thread in it at all. Everyone wants something different. Everybody sees the world differently. Some people think the things that are going on are ok. Some people are against it. There’s no common thread of (understanding) what’s injustice.”
“We had a guy say the other day he hadn’t seen inequaliites in 100 years (former NFL tight end and head coach Mike Ditka). You’ve got guys saying things like that, which shows you that perspective, you say that, either you’re turning a blind eye to it or you don’t really want to see it, so you look past it.”
As he told me these things, the tone of his voice became that of someone who has faced these issues so much in his life, spoken out about it, been sometimes controversial in his own way of making statements by protesting during the National Anthem…but having few people outside his inner circle, or that of the locker room want to really engage with him about the underlying reason why such protests exist.
He became excited that someone who looks different than him, someone who could be perceived as growing up on the opposite side of the divide, wanted to reach beyond it, wanted to face, as he put it, “uncomfortable” topics.
“Change happens. Change usually happens at one single period of time. It doesn’t happen over time. It happens,” as he snaps his fingers, “just like that, everything changes. You can work toward change, but when change happens, it happens in one single moment of time. Overall, it’s a thing of tolerance, a thing of understanding, a thing of being uncomfortable. A lot of people don’t want to be uncomfortable. Thinking about things going on in the world make people uncomfortable, and people are always trying to find an out, to not feel uncomfortable. That’s why sports, people say ‘That’s my chance not to think about these things,’ because they don’t want to have to see (it). They could turn off the news, turn off of this and get away from things that make them uncomfortable, but now, we’re involved. We’re part of the world, too.”
“I think it’s good people get uncomfortable, people have to think, or it starts a conversation, or it strikes an emotion in people, so that way, they can step out and say ‘I’m for this, or I’m against this,’ and you know where people stand.”
Bennett says those uncomfortable conversations about things like racism have happened in the Packers locker room – with results of connection and understanding that he believes is sorely missing, and results that could be borne out more often in society if people are willing to engage.
“As a teammate, as a friend, we can have those conversations about (it). They may not understand it from where I’m coming from, but once I explain it, (they say) ‘Man, I never even viewed it like that. I never thought about that. We never had to deal with that when we were kids. That’s a whole different perspective. I’m glad you said something.’ It’s about growth. As people, a world, as one, as human beings, it’s all about growth. Life is all about growing. The ultimate goal for each human being is to be themselves without the fear of being judged. Right now, there is always a fear of being judged.”
That judgment happens every day on the 140-character app you may have on your phone, Twitter, its cousins Facebook and Instagram, the comments section of your favorite media outlet and the like. Bennett describes how that has become the new method for him to undergo racism.
“People laugh at me because I tell someone that cyberracism is real, that cyberhate is real. People will talk about cyberbullying, but they won’t talk about people being racist on the Internet. Those are racist messages, whether you type it with your thumb, you spray paint it on my car, you write it on the wall, or you write it on my comments page on Instagram, it’s still a wall, a place where I’m going to see it. What’s the difference? The world is changing. Just because it’s not written on a building or someone’s car or their house, or you’re not burning a cross, to say hateful things anywhere in a hateful manner, you may as well spray paint it on my wall.”
By that point, he had been talking for about 20 minutes – perhaps longer than he normally might. But this conversation seemed to feel different than the norm, and he didn’t just appreciate it. He felt “alive” in it. It gave him a chance to engage a stranger, help foster one connection that can help heal the divide that steadily seems to be growing.
Seeing Bennett light up like that, particularly in the wake of his announcement this weekend, it really makes you wonder if his plan is to have a full-time vocation that even makes his multimedia company pale in comparison. Surely, Imagination Agency will be – and already has been – a place for engaging that conversation.
But perhaps the life’s work is to make that conversation grow. Far beyond football. Because regardless of whether you agree with his positions on race and our society or not, it’s obvious that is a deeper passion for him, and it’s what lights his spirit.
Maybe that’s why Martellus Bennett may end his NFL career this season: To put a lifelong career of connection and engagement with his society on the forefront.