On a cool March evening under a clear Spanish sky, he slides out of a rickety wooden chair in a cozy café in Barcelona's Plaza Real. The gangly and goofy American can feel the rubbernecking stare of the natives. He's 6'5'' in a land where men are an average of 5'9''. He wears gray suede Pumas with an orange stripe in a land where people seldom wear tennis shoes. He orders toasted ham and cheese and a beer using butchered Spanish ("Oon bikini ee oon Guinness, poor fevoor") in a land where people speak a language called Catalan. Clearly, Drew Bennett does not belong.
So, what else is new?
Forget for a moment that Bennett, in Spain visiting his younger brother Mark, who's a student there, is a white guy playing a position dominated by black guys. Disregard that he's a former backup UCLA quarterback who's now the Tennessee Titans' No. 1 wide receiver. Ignore the fact that he's gone from his childhood home in the Bay Area to Nashville, from the cradle of conservation to a place where recycling means buying another Harley. All of it pales in comparison with the mother of fish-outta-water scenarios: making it in the NFL as an undrafted free agent.
Every year, roughly 250 players are selected in April's NFL draft. Even before the last pick is announced, a feeding frenzy begins, as teams round up an extra 15 or 20 undrafted collegians to fill out minicamp and training camp rosters. Some GMs hope to find the next Priest Holmes. But mostly these free agents are seen as little more than warm bodies, their sole purpose being to fill in while veterans catch their breath. "From day one it's an uphill battle," says Lions QB Jeff Garcia, who went undrafted out of San Jose State. "You don't get the same looks, you don't get the same repetitions."
Especially not at wide receiver. "One-on-one drills become like your Super Bowl," says Broncos wideout and former undrafted free agent Rod Smith. So how does a receiver who comes into camp 12th out of 12 on the depth chart-a guy not even given a uniform number in the 80s-get noticed? He cheats, of course. "You're not going to catch anybody's eye by beating the 12th DB," says Bennett. So as a rookie in 2001, he'd cut in line during one-on-one drills, or purposely let someone else go ahead of him. The scheming belied his laid-back California nature, but it was the only way to ensure that his daily reps-all two of them-were against top defenders. "There were lots of times," he says, "when I contemplated just packing my stuff up and going home."
Bennett's voice is raspy, and higher than you'd expect from a man who's 6'5''. It's what enables him to do a pitch-perfect impression of Joe Pesci from My Cousin Vinny. Bug-eyed and rubber-faced, the 26-year-old movie freak is a cross between Jim Carrey and Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, and often just as goofy. One afternoon in Spain, while browsing the gift shop at L'Aquarium de Barcelona, he corralled a six-foot stuffed penguin and began slow-dancing with it, cheek-to-cheek, while singing Michael Jackson's You Are Not Alone.
It was his sense of humor that helped him survive his first training camp. The fact that he was a four-sport athlete at Miramonte High in Orinda, Calif., just outside Berkeley, or that he had 4.5 wheels and a 42-inch vertical leap, or that he once finished the LA Marathon on three hours of sleep after deciding to run it on a drunken whim the night before, was irrelevant. He'd only occasionally played wide receiver at UCLA. And it showed.
For his first blocking assignment, 19 Crack, the kid nicknamed Sunshine by his teammates was responsible for blocking 265-pound Pro Bowl defensive end Jevon Kearse, a.k.a. The Freak. "It was a disaster from the get-go," says the 206-pound Bennett. "I wasn't sure of the cadence, and he went right by me and blew the play up." On another occasion, after countless reps on runblocking duty with the second team, Bennett finally got in for a pass play. He lined up at slot receiver and was supposed to run a corner route. Eager to make an impression, he exploded off the line, ran 12 yards downfield, darted to the corner and turned around to find … everyone standing flat-footed, laughing. He'd jumped the snap count. "The first day of jam drills," says Titans GM Floyd Reese, "Drew didn't get off the line once."
Things weren't much better off the field. At meetings, offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger -known for being about as warm and fuzzy as a bowling ball-would talk directly to starters Derrick Mason and Kevin Dyson. Once they understood the play, Heimerdinger would move on to the next one. Meanwhile, the undrafted guys would sit on their hands and keep their mouths shut. "If you didn't get it," says Bennett, "tough."
About the only thing Bennett did get was snacks. Despite the fact that his signing bonus was a paltry $3,000 (average for an undrafted rookie) and that he was barely netting $300 a week, Bennett was charged with making sure that the receivers' meeting room was always fully stocked with eats. "Guys like Mason and Dyson had been in the league for like four or five years, making all this money," says Bennett, "and there I am in the store agonizing over whether I should buy Kroger-brand licorice because it's cheaper than Red Vines."
But what he gave in candy, he got back in knowledge. Bennett constantly peppered Dyson and Mason with questions about how to play wide receiver in the NFL. That's what you do when your dad is a Berkeley-bred lawyer and your mom's idea of a Christmas gift is Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner . The lessons were simple: always keep your feet moving forward. Never veer more than two yards off the path of your route. Stutter step to get the defensive back off balance, then get your shoulder past his hip. Not surprisingly, the cerebral Bennett-who scored 1260 on his SATs and was heavily recruited by Princeton-was a quick study. "Soon, he was beating half the DBs he faced," says Reese. "And then he was beating everybody except our top guys."
Not that it really mattered. "Front-office people want to look like geniuses," says Smith. "They spend millions of dollars on draft picks, which is why, as an undrafted guy, the only way you're going to get an opportunity is if somebody ahead of you either doesn't perform or gets hurt."
Or both. With Mason, Dyson and third receiver Chris Sanders sitting out a meaningless scrimmage, and with drafted rooks Justin McCareins and Eddie Berlin nursing injuries, Bennett had his chance. His study habits had already helped him move from 12th to seventh on the depth chart in less than two weeks. Now, playing as the slot receiver, he hooked up three times with Tennessee's thirdstring QB Billy Volek, who had been udrafted the year before after a stellar career at Fresno State. Even though it was just a scrimmage, Bennett's performance earned him playing time in the second half of the Titans' first preseason game. That night against the Bears, he caught four of the five balls that came his way, including one where he ran the wrong route. Didn't matter. Volek found him anyway, the same way an immigrant finds a fellow countryman and offers him a home-cooked meal from the motherland. The game after that, Bennett played the third and fourth quarters and caught another pass. When final cuts rolled around a couple weeks later, Titans coach Jeff Fisher decided to keep seven receivers, including Sunshine. Finally, Drew Bennett belonged. Kind of.
When it comes to job security, seventh receiver in the NFL ranks right up there with freelance earthquake forecaster. That's why, while many of his fellow rookies were buying multibedroom houses, Bennett was combing the rental section of the classifieds, circling anything that read "One Bedroom" and "Month-to-Month." No matter what kind of place he landed, he'd still be far from home. He'd been raised in the bluest of blue states by a pair of ex-hippie conservationists. He was spoon-fed a steady diet of Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Now here he was living in the reddest of red states, being force-fed country music and having to constantly explain what those different-colored plastic bins were doing in his apartment. "The place was pretty much a dump," says McCareins. "But he's such an easygoing guy, he always had five or six buddies hanging out there."
A month into their rookie seasons, McCareins and Berlin were injured, and Bennett found himself getting 25 snaps a game as the third receiver. He caught 24 passes that season, 33 the year after that, 32 in 2003. He'd become the consummate third receiver: deceptively fast, big target, precise route-runner, sticky hands. "He made a lot of clutch plays in clutch situations," says Fisher. "And he's never been a guy who's unraveled at critical times."
When McCareins was traded to the Jets before last season, Bennett was promoted and rewarded with a three-year, $6M deal. Even then, through the first half of the season, Bennett didn't feel as though he belonged. "I'd be lined up thinking, don't drop the ball, don't drop the ball," he says. "I don't care what sport it is-if you think like that, you're gonna suck."
But Bennett didn't suck. In fact, through seven games, he matched his career high of 33 catches. Then, during a Nov. 14 game against the Bears, something clicked. With the Titans down 14-10 midway through the fourth quarter, Bennett pulled a double move on safety Mike Green and caught a 47-yard touchdown pass. The Titans lost the game in overtime, but, Bennett says, "from that game on, every time I lined up, I was thinking, throw me the ball. I'm going to beat this guy."
And he did. Teaming up with his practice buddy Volek-who replaced an injured Steve McNair in six of the Titans' last eight games-he caught 38 passes for 741 yards and 10 touchdowns. In back-to-back games against the Chiefs and Raiders in mid-December, Bennett had 25 catches for 393 yards and five TDs. He'd finish the year with 80 receptions and 1,247 yards receiving, third in the AFC, as well as a rep as a game-breaker. When the Titans faced the Broncos on Dec. 25, it was Bennett, not Mason, who drew All-Pro corner Champ Bailey. "I was like, wow!" says Bennett. "That was a huge wake-up call for me."
He's due for another this coming season. His success in 2004 was a result of his chemistry with Volek. They're both guys from California who happened to land in Nashville as undrafted rookies. They'd been third-stringers together. They'd been second-stringers together. Last year, they were starters together. Volek's three kids refer to Bennett as Uncle Drew. "Billy and I just click," says Bennett.
What remains to be seen is if McNair and Bennett can match that magic.