as told to Elizabeth McGarr McCue
One of the biggest luxuries of being in the NFL is time. In the off-season you train for three hours a day, so that leaves you with 21 hours. I started experimenting when I got in the league. I was in a band — I did alternative rock, I did hip-hop. I did art shows. I had a clothing line.
Things grew from being hobbies. At the end of the day, you want to turn your hobbies into jobs — that way you can always do what you love. That turned into what I'm doing now, which is children's books, novels, toys, movies, and a cartoon series.
Growing up, most football players don't really know who they are because their identities, for a long time, have been centered around football. Everyone recognizes you as a football player. You really don't develop any other interests because you focus on being the best football player you can possibly be. At a young age, it's cool because you go to school, you play football, and you talk to the girls and hang out with the guys.
But every decision you make then is really a compromise. If I want to go to the movies, seven guys decide on which movie we're going to see. You don't really get to know what you like. In the locker room we listen to hip-hop all the time. Then you think hip-hop is the number one music you like until you start experimenting with other things, and you realize that alternative rock or electronic pop is more what you really love.
A lot of people believe I was bred to be a football player, but my parents bred me to be a creative person. I grew up playing three instruments in a band. My mom's a middle school teacher, and she used to make me do creative writing as a punishment. She'd make me write a five-page story about whatever. It could be about pirates. She didn't care, as long as the handwriting was neat and the story was complete. I started writing about the same characters a lot. As I grew up they started to feel real. Now I'm finally starting to share them with the world.
I got even more serious about creating so that I can live forever for my 19-month-old daughter, Jett. That way, in the stories that I tell, I will be able to leave messages for her, even when I'm gone. She can always turn to me for advice.
Hey A.J. is one of the stories I'm planning on releasing soon, and that's based on Jett. It's about a girl whose imagination gets her in trouble. Let's say it's bath time. As soon as she gets in the bathtub, it turns into a pirate ship. It's Pirates of the Caribbean, and she's having this war in the sea, but then when you come back to reality, it's just her splashing water all over the floor.
The Imagination Lounge is my creative space at my house. I have lots of brainstorming sessions and pizza with friends. If anyone comes over, I usually put them to work creatively. It's either me pitching them an idea or showing them something and getting their feedback. I also built a recording studio where I can do all my voiceover work. I write the soundtrack for my films too, so I'll be recording them as well.
The first animated short film I did, Zoovie: A Warm and Fuzzy Tale, which I released this summer on Vimeo, is 25 minutes long. I also wrote a cartoon series based on it that I've been pitching to companies.
I believe in collaboration, so there were a lot of us who worked on it. I develop the story line and all the characters, and then I introduce everyone at the animation company to the world the characters will be in. From there we all work together bringing my vision to life.
A lot of people ask me who I look up to. Most people expect me to say receivers like Randy Moss or Terrell Owens. They're guys I look up to, but at the same time, I admire authors like Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl and film giants like Tim Burton. Not only am I chasing greatness on the field, every single week competing against Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski, I also wake up every morning thinking about how I can pass Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl and Tim Burton.
The biggest thing I tell kids — and adults — is that we're allowed to have more than one dream. I think it's hard for people to understand. They're like, "Oh, you're in the NFL!" But that was just one of my dreams.
Photos: Courtesy of the Imagination Agency (background art), Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated (Bennett portrait), David E. Klutho for Sports Illustrated (action)