It takes more than supreme athletic prowess and unique physical gifts to succeed in the NFL. If wide receiver
Benn was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after becoming just the fourth player in Illinois history to record at least 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Benn offered the Bucs a big, muscular target who possessed run-after-the-catch ability as well.
Near the end of a productive rookie season, Benn tore the ACL in his left knee. Despite suffering the injury in December of 2010, Benn was back on the field in time for the start of the 2011 season. He started in all 14 games that he played in and improved upon his rookie numbers with 30 catches for 441 yards and three touchdowns.
Instead of continuing the upward trend in 2012, however, Benn was limited to just eight games before being placed on Injured Reserve with knee and shoulder injuries. He was traded to Philadelphia in the 2013 offseason and looked forward to getting a fresh start. No longer saddled with the expectations of a second-round pick, Benn could come in and just focus on competing for a roster spot. The Eagles offense was similar enough to the one in which Benn thrived at Illinois. He thought it was a perfect match.
Then, during a joint practice with the New England Patriots on August 6, Benn succumbed to another injury. He was tackled low after catching a pass and knew something was wrong with his knee, but he went back out for a special teams drill. He tried to plant and once the knee gave out there was no doubt in Benn's mind what had transpired – he had torn the ACL in his left knee.
"There's nothing I could do," Benn said. "I knew how it felt, but I tried to ignore it."
Benn never had an injury problem in college. He had worked to shake the label of being "injury prone," but doubt had rented space in his mind.
"I was just like, 'Why me? Why does this keep happening to me?' I wasn't a guy who had injuries until the NFL," Benn said as he embarked on another long rehab stint.
Benn is only 25 years old, but started to question whether he wanted to continue to play. Committing to rehab would mean extended periods of time away from his fiancée, Mariel, and daughter, Azaia, who live in Pensacola, Fla. The first part of ACL rehabilitation is the toughest, most demanding and excruciating, Benn explains. In order to break up the scar tissue, the leg is in placed in a machine that forces it to bend. Over time, the leg is able to eventually regain its full range of motion. But it's this phase that produces the "low moments" that tests one’s will and desire.
"I questioned myself sometimes if I wanted to play football again, if I wanted to just say forget it. That's how low I got. I just kept pushing. I kept my faith, kept praying," Benn said.
"I had to make that sacrifice. I had to get through it. It was tough."
By the middle of last season, Benn was able to be on the sidelines during games and enjoy being a part of a playoff team for the first time in his career.
"I look at football differently than I did before. Every time I touch the field, I feel blessed to be out there. I don't take one day for granted,” Benn said.
"Before, I'd be tired and not feel like practicing. None of those thoughts come into my head ever. I look at football in a different way. I wouldn't say I looked at football in a selfish way, a me-me-type of way, because sometimes it can get like that because it's from your competitiveness not because you're a selfish guy."
There has been no offseason for Benn. In the month following the season, Benn was able to resume running and cutting, inching closer to a return to the field. Just as Benn could visualize the end of his rehab journey, another roadblock was placed in front of him. Two more, to be exact. The Eagles used their second- and third-round picks on the wide receiver position, adding
"I embraced it. You've got to embrace that type of stuff," said Benn, who followed the draft. "I'm not one to shy away from competition. I love competition. My life has been competition. I compete in everything that I do. The thing for me, when these younger guys come in, I want to help them out. If there's any way to teach them so they can learn from my mistakes, something I could have done better, should have done better, I definitely tell them.
"The biggest thing for me honestly is I'm competing against myself."
Benn has been full go from the start of the Eagles’ Organized Team Activities. A few months ago, Benn could barely walk. Now, he's running up and down the field with no hesitation. The past injuries are not going to hold him back from doing everything in his power to win a job on this team.
"I know how much I sacrificed this offseason, the whole season, leading up from last Training Camp all the way up until now," Benn said. "It makes me want to go even harder. It doesn't make me timid at all when I'm cutting. It makes me go even harder."
Physically, Benn feels great, but there's one specific area where the receiver feels stronger than ever before.
"If anything, the thing I've gotten better at it’s being mentally tough. I think I've gotten very strong as far as being mentally tough," Benn said. "I look at it, how can I help the team? How can I help myself to become a better person on and off the field? Just being thankful to be here. There's a lot of people who want to be here who can't."
And with that mindset, Benn will parlay all of the hard work over the past 10 months into his quest to make the Eagles roster.