Columnist Phil Arvia says a lot is riding on Benson's performance this year if the Bears want to make it back to the Super Bowl, but that camaraderie just isn't there.
Cedric Benson walked alone from the dining hall Saturday on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University, long after most of his teammates had finished their lunch.
Blame it on coincidence or a running backs meeting that went late. Or blame it instead on an outsider’s status undiminished by the offseason departure of Thomas Jones, Benson’s predecessor as the Bears’ load back.
Not quite a year ago, Benson hurt his shoulder during a night practice, the injury reawakening a story line from a few days earlier in the camp. A chippy Benson bowled over Chris Harris and shoved Nate Vasher during one workout, then implied some teammates were taking cheap shots at him to show their displeasure at Jones having been dropped behind Benson on the depth chart.
After he was injured on a hit from Brian Urlacher and Mike Brown, he changed his tune.
“Initially, you tend to think bad things,” Benson said then. “You start to wonder why they hit you and if they are looking to hit you, but we watched the film, and I definitely don’t think they were trying to hurt me or anything like that.”
Saturday, looking back, Benson reversed field again.
“I’m sure I wasn’t on every guy’s favorite list last year,” he said. “The team really rallied around Thomas, which I thought was cool. Maybe one day I’ll get the same thing, but I don’t know, you know?
“I don’t think, I definitely don’t think, there’ll be any of that kind of stuff this year.”
Probably not. The Bears need Benson to be what they drafted him to be if they are to reach their goals of returning to and winning the Super Bowl.
Benson needs his teammates, too. But after everything that went on last year, his relationship with some of them will forever be strictly business.
“I’m not mad at anybody or faulting anybody for any certain way they treated me or anything like that,” Benson said. “But it may leave an effect on, like, today.
“Those people seem to be different today. I mean, I wouldn’t not speak to them. I wouldn’t not go eat dinner with them or sit down and have lunch with them. But, like, genuinely, it would be hard for me to form some kind of companionship on a genuine level, on a sincere level.”
Was it coincidence that Benson arrived late and sat alone at dinner Saturday, as well?
Imagine feeling like that. Imagine feeling like that as a person who has spent a lifetime being a team member, enjoying the special fraternity of locker rooms. Imagine feeling like that as both a sports lifer and a man sensitive enough to weep on draft day, so relieved was he to be freed from the burdens of the draft process and its eternal fixations on the negative.
I did, and told Benson that having to exist in a situation like that would bum me out.
“Yeah, but, you know, it doesn’t matter -- because it’s not going to change the way I’m fixing to play on Sundays,” he said. “It doesn’t have any effect on that.”
Ask Benson about his Sunday plans, and he has a one-word answer: “Touchdowns.”
His reasoning? “Touchdowns win games.”
In Chicago, what has historically won games are running backs who carry the ball 25 times for 100 or so yards. Benson basically was such a back in college - rushing for 5,540 yards on 1,112 carries in 49 games at Texas - but as a pro has been nicked up far more often, including a six-game inactive stretch during his rookie season after he hurt a knee.
Bears fans, I told him, are wondering if he’s durable enough for the job.
“It’s football,” he said. “You have to be lucky to go seasons and seasons without having knee injuries. People dive at your knees. I haven’t had any surgeries, though. I think that’s an example of durability.
“But avoiding getting hurt? That’s impossible.”
Unless, perhaps, you decide to eat lunch alone. Dinner, too.
Phil Arvia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or (708) 633-5949. Read his blog at http://blogs.dailysouthtown.com/arvia