Seven years ago Michael Bennett went undrafted, signed with Seattle, then later was cut by the Seahawks.
On Wednesday, Bennett was a star at the Paramount Theatre. Actually, he was the star of the night, at least one of them, accepting the Male Sports Star of the Year award at the 81st MTR Western Seattle Sports Star of the Year awards.
A local awards show might not seem like a big deal for a multimillionaire athlete who plays on one of the best teams in his country's most popular sports league. But this night, this recognition, it mattered enough to Bennett to fly to Seattle with his wife Pele from their offseason home in Honolulu.
During his acceptance speech, Bennett noted how much an award voted on by local fans meant to him, saying, "It's from the city, that's what makes it so special. I think I embody everything that the city of Seattle is—hard working and dedicated to everything they do. I just love the Seahawks and love this city."
After establishing himself in the NFL during four seasons in Tampa Bay, Bennett signed with Seattle in free agency in 2013, and has since helped the Seahawks win a Super Bowl, play in another one, and earn Pro Bowl honors for the first time, all while building a reputation as one of the league's best and most versatile defensive linemen. And after accomplishing so much in Seattle over the past three season, this place has started to feel like another home to him—so much so that he had Washington Governor Jay Inslee sitting next to him at his table—which is why Wednesday night was so important to him.
"It's pretty cool," Bennett said after the show concluded. "That's why they call me the people's champ. I love the city. I'm down to earth and the city's down to earth. I think this is just a cool place."
This "cool place" has come to embrace Bennett as one of its stars, which was never more evident than on Wednesday when he accepted an award that in the past three years has gone to Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson and Earl Thomas. While stardom and accolades came to those three quickly in their careers, Bennett had to fight longer to achieve that status. Despite being a disruptive force on one of the best defenses in the NFL, Bennett had never earned Pro Bowl honors until he had a career-best 10 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in 2015. So respected by his opponents is Bennett that some of his Pro Bowl teammates were shocked he was a first-timer at this year's game.
"He's, in my opinion, probably the top defensive end in the NFL," 49ers defensive end Joe Staley said. "He does so many different things, so he's hard to prepare for. It's hard to describe it too, it's kind of a slipperiness. It's hard to get your hands on him. He does a good job of controlling his body and fighting off blocks and taking away your game plan against him.
"Everybody (on the line) has to prepare for him, because he's going to see everybody. That speaks to how talented an athlete his is."
Bennett, 30, admits his relative anonymity through much of his career has allowed him to appreciate moments like the Pro Bowl and last night's award more than some of his peers might at that stage of their career. But while the rest of the sports world might be catching up on just how talented Bennett is, his teammates and coaches fully appreciate their star of the year.
"He's really one of a kind," Carroll said after the season ended. "Mike is an amazing kid. I really admire Mike. I admire him for his heart. He has a great heart and he cares so much about playing this game at a high level, he cares about his teammates so much, and yet in the meantime, he's having all the fun you can possibly have. I really admire the guy that he's so consistent throughout the season… He's an amazing kid with a great mind, and he's a lot fun."
Carroll has built a successful team in part because of the way he embraces the idea of letting players be themselves, and Bennett's time here has very much embodied that. Bennett is everything from family man—he regularly brings up his wife and three daughters in interviews—to comedian, to, in his more serious moments, someone who has a foundation that fights childhood obesity, someone who socializes with the governor, or who speaks eloquently on serious topics such as race, or who isn't afraid to endorse a presidential candidate with a hat during a press conference.
That very unique package that makes Bennett who he is has helped him thrive on the field and become beloved by fans, and on Wednesday he was rewarded for what he has accomplished as a Seahawk. It was a perfect night for Bennett. Well, almost perfect.
There was one person, or at least, one miniature statue, missing from Bennett's big moment: "I wish I had my black Santa too."
Seahawks players, Legends and staff attended the 81st annual 2016 Seattle Sports Star of the Year Awards, where Michael Bennett won Male Sports Star of the Year.