For better orworse, Bensonapproached issues head-on

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AUSTIN, Texas — The end came far too soon, much too sadly and probably, if we’re being honest, a little too predictably.

Cedric Benson, a true star in every sense of the word, died Saturday night in a tragic, fiery motorcycle accident in the hills of West Austin.

At age 36.

But then the outstanding Longhorns running back was always in a hurry to get somewhere and didn’t always follow the safest or best-prescribed route. He did things his way and met his problems as he did his would-be tacklers: head-on.

And too often he paid the price. On Saturday, the ultimate one.

This was a young man who arrived in our city with as much fanfare as one would expect from a high school football superstar at Midland Lee who scored an amazing 15 touchdowns in three state championship games alone. That’s a career for most, but three games for Benson.

And he found glory in Austin as well, rushing for 5,540 yards to put himself in the same company as Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams before embarking on a pro career as a first-round draft pick of a Chicago Bears team that historically personified the same toughness he exhibited all his years.

Benson won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back as a senior in 2004. He didn’t win the Heisman Trophy as those other two Longhorns did, but he was every bit as good. And deserving. Few have run for 1,000 yards all four seasons of their college careers. Few have run over as many tacklers as he did. He fearlessly stiff-armed defenders as he did precaution in life.

He was tough. He was rugged. He played with a ferocity few others have. He wasn’t holding anything back, and that’s how he lived his tragically short life as well.

Trouble, in fact, seemed to find Benson more often than not, whether he was looking for it or not.

It came in the form of frequent clashes with the law, off-the-field incidents and an NFL career that also was cut short by injury. During one of his many appearances at the courthouse, it was revealed he once was unable to recite a portion of the alphabet to an arresting officer because he said he “couldn’t because I played eight NFL seasons.”

Maybe he wasn’t thinking straight Saturday night. Or thinking at all, because he embraced recklessness.

When he was defending himself after one of his precious rottweiler dogs attacked and injured a young woman, our courthouse reporter Ryan Autullo saw both sides of his complex personality.

Autullo mentions how engaging Benson was in their friendly conversations, yet on the day that a story about his trial ran in the American-Statesman, it was an angry Benson who charged up to him.

“He walked up to me with a purpose,” Autullo recalled. “We had run a picture of him getting tackled by Troy Polamalu, and he asked, ‘Why would you run a picture of me getting tackled?’ That’s not really a negative, I told him. I don’t know how mad he was or if he just wanted to blow off steam, but he was mad.”

He played mad. And he lived mad.

Benson was accustomed to being in a courtroom. He’d been charged twice with driving while intoxicated and once with boating while intoxicated, but was never convicted any of those times. Always on the edge.

Benson just always seemed to have so much more to offer but always seemed as if he sought a rush and didn’t always use the best common sense. He never seemed to find peace. Or want it. That was part of his drive.

He was always pushing, whether it was legal limitations or the pile on the football field.

Cedric Benson was always a personal favorite. He had one of those irrepressible smiles that would light up a room, and he always had a little mischievous wink when you were in his presence, as if he had his own little private joke working.

When I showed up at his locker for the NFC championship game where his Bears mauled the New Orleans Saints, he lit up like a schoolkid and we talked for half an hour. We visited again in Miami the week of Super Bowl 41 in 2007, which didn’t go the Bears’ way.

As would often be the case in his too-short life, Benson suffered a knee injury in the first quarter, lost a fumble on one of his two carries and sat out the rest of the game.

Sitting out a game — or life — wasn’t Benson’s way.

He crushed it. And himself in the process.

Drama always followed him around, and he made as many headlines off the field as he did on.

He was always a little too honest, too candid for his own good. None of us will ever forget his direct answer to the question on ESPN Radio of whether he’d rather beat Oklahoma or win the Heisman. Cedric contemplated the dilemma and answered as only Benson could.

“Personally, I’d say I’d rather take the Heisman Trophy. Because there’s a lot of things that come along with winning a football game. You know, if I could win the football game entirely by myself, both offense and defense, punt returns, kickoffs, kicking field goals, everything, then I’d take the win over OU. But for me personally, the hard work I’ve been through growing up as a kid, and the dream I’ve had, I’d love nothing more than to win the Heisman.”

But that same week, when I followed up and asked if he’d take the Heisman over a national title, given the choice, Benson answered, “A national championship, by far. That’s the greatest thing in college, a ring that says you’re No. 1.”

He was No. 1 in candor.

I defended him then for his honesty and wrote that probably most college players would prefer the Heisman but very few would have answered the same way. Benson didn’t fret the backlash. He could take the punishment. In a shame, too much of it was self-inflicted.

In many respects, he had more promise than production. But oh the potential he had.

Benson crushed it on the football field, but that was the easiest part.

“He was always on the edge,” said John Butler, who befriended and mentored Benson.

“It makes me feel so sad after just burying Lam (Jones in March),” said Butler, who began teaching at the University of Texas in 1974 as one of only three black professors on campus. “There’s no sense to it. Cedric was one of the family to me. Just a huge loss.”

We’ll miss you, Cedric.

Kirk Bohls writes for the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman.

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