Cedric Benson spoke his truth.
Of all the football players that have come through the Texas program, he was the one who always spoke his truth — even when it didn’t line up with the usually politically correct sound bites that dominate the current sports landscape. Sometimes his truth spoke to his power on the field, where, statistically he was the second-most prolific running back ever to wear a Longhorns uniform.
Other times, his words ruffled feathers in his own camp. In the end, Benson, who died Saturday night in a motorcycle accident at the age of 36, was a straight shooter who lived by his own rules, and I always respected that part of his personality.
Anyone who had been around Benson for any extended period of time would attest that he lived a life of freedom with few limits. He piloted fancy boats, rode horses and drove nice vehicles. He spun records in local clubs and in recent years dipped his personal pen into the mortgage business.
Benson was a tough dude and those who knew him best were effusive in their praise for the man’s presence on a football field. Roy Williams was a high school rival in West Texas and their battles on the field made for a respectable if icy relationship off the field. Benson told me once his best high high school memory was running over Williams in a Midland Lee-Odessa Permian game.
On his Facebook page, Williams recalled his senior year at Permian when his team held Benson to 99 yards in the first half, a real feat given that Benson was averaging 269 rushing yards per game at the time.
“Tell me how he ended up with the district rushing record of 369 yards at the end of the game?” Williams asked. (You) have to give credit where credit is due.”
Benson’s life off the field was, in a word, complicated. While other fellow Austin-based NFL alumni quietly settled into retirement, he continued to make the wrong type of news. His personal life played out in the headlines and many of us wondered if things would ever quiet down. He lived at the same speed at which he played, with the pedal to the metal. The arrests came far too often and played an unfortunate lead role in his life in Austin following his NFL career.
Local radio personality Rod Babers played two seasons with Benson at Texas and talked of a maturity that Benson seemed to embrace in what turned out to be the final year of his life.
“He was starting to figure some things out,” said Babers. “We spoke not too long ago and he told me he was settling into having a family and doing things in the community. He had just made his plea deal and was instrumental in helping rebuild the house of one of the Austin bombing victims. His life was headed in the right direction.”
Sadly, it all came to an end much too early.
Life presented its own set of issues, but for the guy many of us called Ced B, his talent was undeniable. He ran for 5,540 yards and 69 touchdowns in his UT career, following one of the most dominant prep runs in high school football history. He won three Class 5A state titles at Midland Lee, scoring five touchdowns in each championship game. That included his last one, a 33-21 win over Westlake in 2000 at Royal-Memorial Stadium.
With 32,000 in attendance, Benson marked his impending arrival on campus by running it 40 times for 248 yards on his future home field. The Chaps team that Lee beat featured future UT and MLB star Huston Street.
Benson’s four seasons as a Longhorn included some of the most productive rushing performances the program has ever known. His last two years were spent sharing the backfield with quarterback Vince Young. Benson is the only UT back to post four straight 1,000-yard seasons. And while he didn’t have the same type of success in eight pro seasons, his 6,017 career yards still rank 88th in NFL history.
Here’s what I really liked about Ced B. Whenever we asked him a tough question, he’d answer with wonderful candor. We always marveled at his honesty because it was common knowledge that UT players were coached to give us programmed answers. But Benson was on a short list of Longhorns who misplaced that company memo.
When he was famously asked his senior season what he’d choose between winning a Heisman or beating Oklahoma, he went against the team grain and chose the Heisman.
He didn’t do it to upset his coaches or teammates. Cedric Benson was simply answering a question in Cedric Benson fashion.
He was unflinchingly honest until the end.