Michael Bennett – Real man, real mentor, real inspiration
This article is shared from the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention’s In Depth column and is featured courtesy of Linda Robson, Communications Specialist with the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention.
Moments with the Seattle Seahawks star at Juvenile Detention that ESPN didn’t show
There’s no doubt that two-time Pro Bowl Defensive End Michael Bennett is larger than life when he’s suited up and crushing opponents at CenturyLink Field. But Bennett looms larger than life off the field, too, even when he’s not wearing the imposing helmet and pads or the giant numerals on his Seahawk uniform.
As nearly a dozen adult guests crammed into the tiny box of a corridor between two security doors at King County’s juvenile detention facility, Michael Bennett’s towering frame nearly blotted out all the light from the florescent bulbs overhead. As the first security door crashed closed with a metallic thud, the tiny box corridor went awkwardly quiet for a moment as all of the guests held their breath and stood shoulder to shoulder with people they’d never met. That is, until Michael Bennett looked over his shoulder at the door handle that nearly hit him in the rear end and said, “Dang, that door closed REAL hard. I wasn’t really expecting that.” The tiny corridor packed tighter than a Tokyo train dissolved into laughter, and all of the awkward feelings instantly melted away.
It’s a moment that wasn’t captured by ESPN’s cameras for their profile of Bennett that aired November 20 before Monday Night Football, but it’s a moment that is quintessentially Michael Bennett—an imposing 6’4” figure who is simultaneously intent and laser focused while also relaxed and captivatingly personable.
His charisma and the connections he’s built with the teens in juvenile detention are on display the moment he enters the library for the group presentation portion of his regular visits to the facility. “He really comes with a plan, and comes with an organized presentation that gives the kids some real tools and action steps,” said Lisa Hymes-Davis, Acting Chief of Operations and Security for the Juvenile Detention Division. On this November afternoon, Bennett brought three of his teammates to talk about managing distractions, setting goals, and making a plan to achieve those goals.
Bennett is surprisingly soft spoken, but as he led the teens through a written exercise about goal setting and action steps, every eye and ear in the room was fixed on Bennett, adults and teens alike.
“He ‘s not a flash-in-the-pan athlete. His message is different. He makes a point of communicating to these kids that it didn’t come easy. That he had to work hard and sacrifice,” said Juvenile Detention Division Director Pam Jones.
Both Jones and Hymes-Davis admit they were skeptical that Michael Bennett really would come back after his first visit in June to launch a gardening program, thinking it would be a one-and-done event that’s typical of celebrities. But after seeing the commitment that Bennett has shown, and the thoughtful and attentive way he engages with the youth, Hymes-Davis says, “I’m now a huge Michael Bennett fan.”
What makes Michael Bennett special to the staff and youth at juvenile detention goes way beyond star power. “He really wants to shake the hands of all the kids and give that one-on-one time. I mean, really, he insisted.,” says Hymes-Davis. Jones added, “Sometimes he’s still here and we’re rolling into meal time and other scheduled things, because he stays for hours talking one-on-one with them. But, you know, since he’s willing to really give of his time and be here and be present for these kids, we make it work, even if it gets a little complicated with the schedule. We make it work.”
On this November visit, Bennett’s unique ability to mentor and bond with the youth in one-on-one interactions is on full display. ESPN’s footage captured the clever way Bennett is able to coach the kids through his lesson on managing distractions and setting goals. What ESPN didn’t show was how Bennett’s relaxed and even playful demeanor puts the entire room at ease, even with the TV camera and the gaggle of adult volunteers and staffers clogging the unit. Bennett is so relaxed, he even takes off his shoes to settle in for a game of dominoes with two boys.
But it was when the TV camera and crew had moved on that the real depth of Michael Bennett’s skill and special touch with the youth emerged. The flock of chattering adults began drifting towards the door, but Bennett didn’t move a muscle, and paid absolutely no heed to the motion to move on.
He was intently focused on the boy sitting across from him, who in very hushed tones had just begun to open up and talk about his struggles at home and the situation that led to his time in detention.
Michael Bennett hardly breathed or even blinked as the boy unpacked his deeply personal story. Bennett gave his whole attention to that boy in that moment, and the rest of the adults would simply have to wait.
Asked later about the emotional encounter, Bennett said, “I pay super attention to their goals and what they want to be, because this is their time that they’re being vulnerable. And, you know, to get them to be vulnerable…who am I not to pay attention to their vulnerability? Who am I not to pay attention to what they want to be?”
Hearing about the encounter later, Pam Jones simply nods and plainly states, “One thing that’s special about Michael Bennett, he’s a good listener.”
Jones points to yet another thing that is special about Bennett and his visits to juvenile detention—Bennett never comes alone. On this day, one of Bennett’s three guests is fellow Seahawks defensive player Garrison Smith. “He asked me to come, and…you know, that’s all it took,” said Smith on why he was willing to come to a juvenile detention facility instead of some other kind of community service project. “I’m from the inner city in Atlanta, so I can relate to the kids. That’s what I do back home—talk to the kids who are in tough situations. It’s something I like doing.”
Asked if he feels a connection with the teens in juvenile detention and recognizes himself in them and their experiences, Smith says, “Oh, big time, big time. Because, like I said, I grew up around it.” Smith hopes the stories of his childhood friends are cautionary tales for the teens in juvenile detention. “They were saying, ‘I’m just in here for robbery, it ain’t a big deal,’ but I’m trying to explain to them that my friend got a life sentence, not because he hurt somebody, but because somebody died (of a heart attack) during the robbery.”
Smith hopes the boys and girls understand that the choices they and their friends make can have very serious unintended consequences. “Your intentions might not be to hurt nobody, but if somebody dies, then that’s on you…a life sentence! So that’s why I’m trying to just really give them different perspectives.”
Bennett makes a point of bringing other people with him to juvenile detention because he knows that each new person and each new perspective can multiply the positive impact on the youth here. “A lot of these kids have circumstances that most people couldn’t deal with,” he says. “When somebody hasn’t been through a journey, and they haven’t been through things that can make you make bad decisions, you don’t want to listen to them. But for me and all the other guys that I bring with me, they all have a story. And sometimes, it’s not my story—my story might not reach that person. But what you’ve been through might change the whole trajectory of somebody’s life.”
Some might say that the teens in detention should be concentrating on other things besides a visit from a star athlete. It’s a perk that hasn’t been earned by kids who commit crimes. But Bennett’s incisive comment lays bare the hard truth that juvenile justice systems across America are wrestling with—the teens in detention have committed violent crimes and engaged in extremely dangerous behavior, and yet most of them have been victims themselves. For some, abuse, neglect and violence are the only things they’ve known their entire lives. If their time in detention is supposed to be an opportunity to learn life lessons and coping skills that could keep them out of jail as an adult, Bennett has proven that his program and his approach can deliver just that…perhaps in a way that no other person could.
“Sometimes kids just need to be inspired, you know. And when you’re in a certain position and you’ve got the platform to be able to give back, and not just to mentor the kids but to inspire them to live their life differently,” says Bennett, “that’s what it’s really about….[to] transform from who they used to be into who they want to be.”
When asked what he thinks of the criticism that the kids in juvenile detention haven’t earned the privilege of a Seahawks player’s time, Garrison Smith’s response is emphatic. “That’s not true. They’re human, and there ain’t one perfect person in this world,” he says. “We’re all humans, we all make mistakes, so, they’re just like us. And we’re in the business of building people up, wanting people to have a future. So that’s why it’s just important for me to come here, because I want them to see that they still got people who care about them, even though they’re in this situation.”
And when juvenile detention staff talk about Michel Bennett’s program, his lessons, and his listening, the words “perk” or “extra” or “fun” never come up. If anything, the message Michael Bennett brings to King County Juvenile Detention is the message that the teens and the adults need the most. Pam Jones recalled, “It was one of his first visits early on, and he said to the kids in the group, ‘This right here, this is a speedbump. Don’t let this define your life. Don’t let this define who you want to be. This isn’t the end, this is a speedbump.'”
“Too often these kids start to see themselves as being defined by their mistakes. And even we as staff sometimes fall into the trap of seeing these kids as being defined by this experience here in detention, because that’s where we interact with them day to day,” said Jones. “But that moment was such a good reminder for the kids and the adults in the room that our identity is much more than just the mistakes we make in life.”
Bennett is keenly aware that it’s not just his words that impact the teens in detention. In fact, it’s his actions, both on and off the field, that may have an even greater impact. And being a role model like this can be a heavy burden fraught with complexities—Bennett’s position at the front and center of the NFL National Anthem protests has put him at the center of controversy as well.
“He’s at the center of all the criticism that those players are disrespecting veterans or disrespecting the flag, and he’s been criticized personally,” says Jones. “But he’s been very forthright and has talked to kids about it, and he’s had the chance to clear the air a little bit and tell them exactly what he’s doing and why, and the meaning behind it.”
“And he’s also told them that sometimes in your life you feel like you have to take a stand and do what you think is right and advocate for what you think is right,” says Jones, “and that you need to be prepared to be criticized and misinterpreted, and that you have to prepare for that and figure out how to be the bigger person and withstand that. I thought it was just as important for our adults to hear that from him as it was for the kids, because really it’s the adults who are first to bring up the issue and ask those questions.”
Considering how outspoken Bennett has been on issues of race, law enforcement, and social justice, his choice to volunteer so much of his personal time interacting with teens in juvenile detention seems like a very natural and very purposeful decision. When asked if his volunteer time with the youth is an extension of his advocacy on issues of race and the justice system, Bennett replies, “I think it’s an extension of who I am in general—it’s about people.”
“I think…you know, when you’re talking about race and talking about injustice, you’re just talking about people, and it’s an extension of human beings, …and being a voice for them. And these kids are voiceless a lot of times.,” Bennett said. “Lending a helping hand and giving them a voice and giving them inspiration, that’s really what I’m about.”
Michael Bennett’s status as a role model for the teens in detention goes beyond the political and beyond the professional. He’s a role model on a deeply personal level as well, perhaps in a way he’s not even aware of. Juvenile Division staff say that one of the things that makes Bennett special is how he leads by example with his wife Pele, who almost always joins him on his visits. Hymes-Davis says the example that the two of them set is a great life lesson these teens don’t often get to see.
“One thing that struck me is how he models what a good man is. And I don’t mean that he’s a strong, muscular guy with athletic ability,” she says. “I was struck by how the two of them displayed what it means to have a partnership with someone, and this is what it looks like to be an upstanding man in the community. I think it’s really important that both our boys and our girls are able to see what it means to have that kind of healthy relationship, that kind of partnership between two people.”
On December 7, the Seahawks named Michael Bennett as their nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, in no small part because of his outstanding commitment to his program at King County Juvenile Detention, and the exceptional amount of time he’s invested in his one-on-one mentoring of the youth.
In the Seahawks news release announcing the nomination, Bennett says, “Your longevity in sports is so short, but your legacy is forever. Your legacy has to be what you do in the community, how much you give back and how you use your platform.”
Bennett is creating that legacy by putting his money where his mouth is, but also his time, his story, and his whole heart.
“You know, people are like ‘money, money, money!’ And I learned as a person that there’s a difference between philanthropy and activism—philanthropy is, you give your money and say ‘I did a good thing.’ But activism is you going out and actively helping change people’s lives!”
“For me, that’s what it’s really about,” said Bennett, “and I think that’s what being a human being is about—it’s to try to help other humans reach their potential, and help other people through your words, or whatever you can do to help them. And that’s how I feel about it, I just feel like a servant to other people, to give them opportunities.”