Martellus Bennett is a tight end for the New England Patriots. He’s also an author, an animator, a musician, a showman, a fashion designer, and an entrepreneur. And he wants to be more. As he told an audience in Faneuil Hall Tuesday, “I want to be the black Walt Disney.”
Bennett was a keynote speaker at the Forbes Under 30 Summit, talking both about how he approaches his football career and his role as Chief Creative Officer of The Imagination Agency, a multimedia company Bennett started that released a children’s book and interactive app earlier this year.
After his Forbes talk, Bennett chatted with Boston.com about how he came to re-embrace his creative side, why he thinks so many NFL players struggle with life after football, and the biggest misconception people have about football players.
Bennett has always had a creative streak. As a child in Texas, he and his brother (Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett) both pursued a number of interests, with football representing only a small piece of who they were. Both of them also excelled at basketball, while Martellus sat first chair in the trombone section of the school band due to his musical talent. But when you’re from Texas and you’re good at football, the pressure to pursue gridiron glory is fierce.
“They tried to make me choose between basketball and football — I couldn’t do both,” Bennett said. “And they wouldn’t let me stay in band, either, only football and classes.”
Bennett did manage to keep playing basketball, even playing both sports for two seasons at Texas A&M before devoting himself fully to football. But he found the “college education” that so many NCAA proponents claim is a fundamental part of the amateur athlete experience to be lacking.
“Once you’re in college and going to all these classes, you’re trying to think about what you want to do, but football is the emphasis,” Bennett said. “They try to put you in classes that don’t matter because they want to make sure you pass so you can play football.”
When Bennett began his rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys, he used some of his newfound free time to to explore some of the more artistic endeavors he’d left behind, holding art shows, making music, and traveling to New York to learn more about making animation. He likened the process to a snowball effect, building momentum the more he explored his passions.
This year, Bennett released his first children’s book, Hey A.J., It’s Saturday!, based on his daughter, Austyn, and released a companion app in the iTunes store. Releasing the book, which chronicles A.J.’s adventures in her magical kitchen, and launching the app, which is filled with interactive games for young children, was an incredible experience for Bennett.
“I want to be a stay-at-home dad, and create and make stuff, and go to the office when I need to go to the office,” Bennett said, referring to his football career.
Patriots fans used to tales of Bill Belichick spending 18 hours a day at Patriot Place may be surprised to hear that every New England player doesn’t eat, sleep, and breathe football 24/7. But Bennett not only says that’s the biggest misconception football players face, but says it an incredibly unfair standard.
“Athletes are people,” Bennett said. “You wouldn’t go, ‘Hey teacher, why aren’t you working on your lesson plan right now?’ or say, ‘Hey doctor, why aren’t you practicing with your scalpel on that ham on the kitchen table?’”
“Football players are fathers, we’re husbands, we’re entrepreneurs,” Bennett continued. “We want to build companies. In the offseason, how many times can you work out a day? You’re in the gym by 6 a.m., and you’re done by 9. Now what?”
Unfortunately, Bennett says, many players don’t spend any of their time thinking about their post-football careers, especially since the average length of an NFL career is way shorter than anyone realizes.
“Whatever it is they want to do, they should start now,” Bennett said. “If you want to do [restaurant] franchising, you should start learning about it now and getting into it. Don’t wait until your career is done to try to figure everything out. You wanna work for yourself.”
“I think most guys don’t look that far into the future to see what they want to be and what they want to do,” Bennett continued. “It’s all football, football, football, and then damn, it’s too late.”
For someone like Bennett in the business of creative expression, playing in a league where players are fined for wearing non-regulation cleats or violating the incredibly convoluted rules involving player celebrations can be tough.
“The NFL promotes the NFL,” Bennett said. “That’s the company, that’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re not interested in us as people, we’re employees. They’re not interested in our passions outside of football, because it doesn’t make them any money.”
For now, Bennett is focused on doing the best he can with both careers he has. He said he wants to make the Imagination Agency the “Nike and Apple” of the children’s merchandise space, building a great product using the latest technology and packaging it in a way both kids and adults will love. But it’s not just his company Bennett has lofty goals for: He wants to win a Super Bowl, and keep improving both on the field and off.
“I grew up wanting to be Tim Burton and Randy Moss, Michael Jordan and Dr. Seuss, Larry Bird and Professor Dumbledore, Deion Sanders and Willy Wonka,” Bennett told conference attendees Tuesday. “I ask you: What do you want to be when you grow up? You can be anything. The world is your playground.”