Sitting in the back yard of his Honolulu home last July, Michael Bennett took a break between a workout and some pool time with his three daughters to discuss his passion for community service.
"You want to be able to transcend sports," Bennett said. "Not just be relevant in your sport, but be relevant in things that matter outside of sports. To be able to talk to kids about life, school, community, health. I want to empower young athletes to use their platform."
Few athletes have used their platforms more effectively than Bennett, which is why he was announced Thursday as Seattle's nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. For years, Bennett's foundation has worked to fight obesity through OCEAN Programing (fighting Obesity through Community, Education, Activity and Nutrition). Bennett has held free camps and health clinics in Seattle, his hometown of Houston and current offseason home, Honolulu, and this year in South Dakota on the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.
The NFL's Man of the Year Award, which was renamed to honor the Chicago Bears great in 1999, was established in 1970 to recognized excellence on and off the field. Each team nominated one player who has had a significant positive impact on his community. Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning shared the award last year, while defensive end Cliff Avril was Seattle's 2016 nominee.
"It's an honor," Bennett said. "It's an honor to be able to be chosen with all your peers… I'm honored to get this opportunity to be a nominee for this organization, because there are so many guys who do so much work. It's incredible."
In addition to the work listed above, Bennett also pledge his 2017 endorsement money to, as he wrote on Instagram, "help rebuild minority communities through STEAM programs (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics), as well as initiatives that directly affect women of color in hopes we can create more opportunities for our youth and build a brighter future." His foundation is partnering with the African-led global movement iamtheCODE to get 100 marginalized girls in Africa into STEAMED programs (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, entrepreneurship and design), as well as with multiple local organizations to start a gardening program for youth in juvenile detention. Bennett has been a regular visitor at the King County Youth Detention Facility, helping provide advice, motivation and, as is always the case with Bennett, a bit of levity as well. And this fall, Bennett worked with Safeway to provide Hurricane Harvey relief.
"I think I just wanted to do more," Bennett said of taking on so many different causes over the past two years. "I think there's always that thing where you come in and you go 'how much more can you do? How much more can you give?' For me it's about if I want people to do stuff, then you have to be that type of example when it comes to giving back. If you want to lead people you have to be in the grass with them. For me it's about doing that organic leadership. There was no particular event that made me do this. I just kind of always had a passion for people and a belief in people. To be able to use this platform for that is great."
Michael Bennett and the Bennett Foundation hosted their fifth annual O.C.E.A.N sports and football camp at T.C. Ching field on the campus of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Bennett and his brother, Martellus received the Shine A Light Award at the BET Awards for the work they have done to uplift and inspire youth in minority communities.
"I think it's one of those things you never want to give up on people," Bennett said of his work at the Youth Detention Facility. "You always want to give people opportunities. I think whether it's the juvenile detention center or working in shelters or creating after school programs or doing football stuff or just working with women, I think it's that ability to be able to listen and find out what people are feeling. That is the best part of leadership is that ability to listen; not just come out and think something is important, but to come out and listen to what they see as important. I think that's the thing for me I've learned over these last couple of years."
Bennett has also been generous with his time for teammate's causes, not just locally, but also traveling as far as Haiti to support Cliff Avril, and Norfolk, Virginia to support Kam Chancellor.
It's fitting that former teammate Red Bryant once described Bennett as a renaissance man, but while Bennett is everything from social activist to humorist to children's book author to, most importantly to him, dedicated family man, none of that has taken away from his on-field dominance. Bennett earned Pro-Bowl honors each of the past two seasons; has been a key player during a run of historically great defense for the Seahawks; and is regarded by teammates and opponents alike as one of the best in the game—49ers tackle Joe Staley once said of Bennett, "He's, in my opinion, probably the top defensive end in the NFL… He's so hard to prepare for."
On and off the field, Bennett has made a positive difference over the past year.
"Your longevity in sports is so short, but your legacy is forever," he said. "You never know when you're going to get hurt, you never know when you're going to get cut. Your legacy has to be what you do in the community and how much you give back and how you use your platform. That's what I constantly tell young guys, 'Let's push the boundaries, let's find out who we are as people,' because I feel like sometimes as athletes, we've been stuck in a box and confined to what our thought process is supposed to be, so to venture out and be a part of the world is super important."
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