AUSTIN, Texas -- The electronic door latch buzzes, the fancy glass office door creaks open and standing there staring me in the face are the hollow dark eyes, ratty long black hair and ghostly white tortured visage of Kayako from "The Grudge" -- and instantly, I know I'm in the right place.
"Oh, hi there," I say to the receptionist/soul-sucking murderous demon, "I'm here to see Marty Bennett."
When you agree to chronicle a day during the Chicago Bears' bye week with enigmatic tight end Martellus Bennett, you are essentially volunteering to enter a completely different dimension. (Like the NFL's version of "Being John Malkovich.") And when that day is Halloween in Austin, while Bennett works on several upcoming film and book projects at the amazing Powerhouse Animation Studios, where they tend to take their Halloween costumes very, very seriously? Forget it. You best be prepared for anything.
Besides being one of the game's most talented and productive pass-catchers -- in his seventh season, the 6-foot-6 Bennett ranks second in the NFL to Rob Gronkowski among tight ends with 47 catches -- Bennett also happens to be one of the sports world's most creative and, well, wholly unique personalities. He's an artist, illustrator, writer, fashionista, musician, director, composer, CEO and, oh, about 87 other things, including the key to turning around the Bears' season this week at Lambeau Field.
"The bye week came at a perfect time for us," Bennett says. "Because, man, we really sucked."
Ah, yes, and then there's that: In a league full of cliché-spitting, corporate-shilling automatons, it's refreshing to be around the uncensored and unafraid Bennett, who once compared himself, in the same breath, to Kim Kardashian, Gandhi and a black unicorn. This is a guy who can body slam an overzealous rookie defensive back in training camp, complete one of the most spectacular touchdown catches of the year in Week 8 while upside down and getting mugged by two defensive backs in New England and then waltz into the locker room and spit a rap about his deep love for Cap'n Crunch.
In other words, he was pretty much born to be in the Flem File.
So, I present to you, dear readers, Marty & Me: a day in the life of Martellus Bennett during the Bears' bye week.
It's about 12:30 p.m. when Bennett, dressed in black jeans, a long-sleeve black shirt and what look like one-of-a-kind Nike Air Force 1s, rolls into the small, colorful conference room at Powerhouse Animation with his wife, Siggi; his squeaky, giggly adorable 8-month-old daughter, Jett; and two assistants. In the spring, Bennett was on Twitter crowdsourcing for book and film animators when he connected with Powerhouse Animation director (and Chicago sports fan) Shane Minshew. "All I want to do when he comes here is talk about football, and all Marty wants to do is talk about cartoons," Minshew says with a sigh.
In darkened offices all around us, Powerhouse's animators, two of them dressed as Jules and Vincent from "Pulp Fiction," work on projects from Nickelodeon to "Mortal Kombat" to Mickey Mouse and everything in between.
As the meeting begins, I see that there are five of us with notebooks open and pens scribbling away, and yet even collectively we can barely keep up with Bennett's creative stream of consciousness as he riffs on, and bounces between, about a dozen different projects. "Welcome to my world," laughs Siggi. "Usually it's just me, with Marty waking me up in the middle of the night with five different ideas he wants to talk about."
At times, Marty, shuffling through two black leather-bound notebooks full of doodles and ideas of grandeur, seems to be channeling Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling and Seth MacFarlane -- all at once and all on about 10 Red Bulls. Sometimes he stops midsentence, closes his notebooks and his eyes, puts his finger on his temple and says, "Wait, hold on, I'm checking my files."
Besides the Bears' playbook, Bennett's files contain a rap album or two; a completed book of short stories; a children's book about a tiny man who lives in a beard; an animated short from a player's perspective about the ugliness and stupidity of fantasy football called "Don't Draft Me"; a takeoff on the "12 Days of Christmas"; a children's cartoon featuring Jett and her wild, wavy mop of brown hair; another animated short about a balloon dog that comes to life; one about a pirate ship swallowed by a whale; a new website to host everything under Bennett's Imagination Agency brand; an entire world called Dinosaur Land; and today's main project, a 22-minute animated short film called "Zoovie," about a performing penguin named Cosmo, voiced by rapper Asher Roth of "I Love College" fame.
Cosmo, you see, dreams of doing more than just performing stupid routines over and over for crowds at the zoo. If you didn't quite catch the metaphor, yeah, Bennett is Cosmo and, to him, the bye week does feel a bit like he has been furloughed for seven glorious days from the circus in Chicago. "Football is so restrictive and controlled," he says. "Someone else comes up with a play, and you have to run a specific route and run it exactly the right way or the whole thing breaks down. There isn't a lot of room for creativity. So I need this outlet. I need to get away and refresh my mind. We all do. That's what the bye week's for. And if I don't, things just build up and I get creatively constipated, and that's not good for anybody."
This short, which was started in July, is almost at the end of pre-production, and Bennett plans to premiere it in Los Angeles in March. His release schedule for all of his current projects extends into the summer of 2016. At one point after watching a rough draft of "Zoovie," someone Googles the requirements for Oscar submissions. While I wouldn't put it past Bennett, that's probably a stretch for this piece. It's cute, if not a bit formulaic and derivative, but it does have a handful of undeniably clever, inspired moments -- one of them involving a romantic scene framed by a pair of hippo butts.
About halfway through "Zoovie," there's a montage of Cosmo backed by a great, catchy pop-punk song that could have been a single for New Politics or 5 Seconds of Summer. When it hit me about halfway through -- Bennett wrote it and recorded it -- all the cynicism left my body and I just sat their shaking my head. (I guess everyone needs a bye week from the No Fun League now and then.)
This is not some jock's vanity project.
Bennett is the real deal.
"Football is small," he says. "When you compare how long we play this game, it's just a small part of our lives. This, right here, this is what I want to do with the rest of my life."
Inside the conference room when the timing for the premiere of "Zoovie" comes up, Bennett vetoes anything earlier than the spring.
"I fully plan on being in the playoffs," he says.
Later, I ask him if he really believes that. I mean, the last time we saw the Bears they were getting eviscerated by the Patriots. And we all know where I stand on Jay "Goldilocks" Cutler, especially when the chips are down and the team needs a leader.
"Our season isn't anywhere close to being over," insists Bennett. "We still have five division games left. Five. There's no reason we can't still win the division and make the playoffs. We play the Packers. We play the Vikings and the Lions twice. But I think the Packers game will tell us a lot, tell us everything.
"There are guys, and I've seen it, there are guys in this situation [on other teams], and coaches too, who are already packing it in and shutting it down and already in offseason mode, like, 'What beach or what club or what golf course am I going to?' That's why the Packers game will tell us a lot. That's what I want to see: Who's coming back with that mentality that we could still make the playoffs, and who's already packed it in and already thinking about partying and hitting the club in the offseason?"
There's a man in my beard.
I know it sounds weird.
These are the opening lines to Bennett's new children's book, and when it comes time to talk about the art for the cover there's a long, exhausting debate about, of all things, the style of the beard. As in: Is it like a sea captain's beard? A lumberjack's? Or more like a wizard's?
"Details," Bennett says when he can see people rolling their eyes. "It's all about the details. Paying attention to details will get you 20 extra catches a season."
For example, that incredible TD catch against the Patriots? Bennett is supposed to clear things out for Alshon Jeffery and then run a corner route. But he and Cutler have an understanding: If Bennett gets pushed too far inside and can't get deep enough to make it a corner route, he'll turn it into a fade and Cutler will read his depth and body language midroute and throw him a jump ball instead. Details.
Bennett led the Bears with six catches for 95 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots. He started out the season with 20 catches and four TDs in the Bears' first three games, but that grab against the Pats was his only score in the next five games.
"I love Matt [Forte] and Alshon and Cutty and [Brandon] Marshall, and I love to compete with those guys and against those guys. But I understand, really, with that kind of talent, I'm the fourth option, man," Bennett says. "I want the ball. I want it. But you can't ask for it or demand it. I was in a locker room with [Terrell Owens] when he did that -- it just doesn't work. It doesn't look good. I want to prove I'm the best; I love to compete. But if they need me to block all day long, I will. Right now I'm trying to be the nicest guy in the locker room. That's my thing -- at least for right now."
On top of everything else, Bennett also happens to be a collector and connoisseur of rare toys and pop art. He has sniffed out a cool toy store in the area. So while the rest of the group orders lunch from a nearby Chinese restaurant, he and I jump in my rented SUV and drive over for a look.
As we pull into a strip mall north of Austin, I'm telling him my theory of Marty: that he's actually just a normal, creative guy who happens to stand out because the NFL is so buttoned-down, unimaginative and regimented. He's not weird. It's the NFL. "I love the NFL. I love going to work every day," he insists. "The players who understand how short their time is are the ones who have the most fun. Knowing how short our time is in this game is what makes me enjoy it even more. I'm not gonna play football until I'm 50 -- like Drew Brees."
As he's talking, Bennett spots a rare 4-foot fiberglass Hello Kitty sitting in the store's display window. At first I think he's kidding. (This happens a lot with Marty.) He jumps out as soon as I'm parked, though, and as we walk in for a closer look -- we must look like the oddest crime-fighting/toy-shopping duo on the planet -- he turns to me and whispers, "Let's go 'American Pickers' on their ass."
We make one loop of the store, Bennett finds out who's in charge and then he says, "How much for the Hello Kitty?" When the woman throws out a price of several thousand dollars, Bennett barely blinks. It takes them a while to realize he's for real, and by the time they do, it's too late -- Marty's got 'em. In the meantime, I do my part by refusing to reveal who he is (for fear they'd gouge him on the price) and trying to drive the price down by BS'ing like I'm some sort of expert on rare, fiberglass Japanese toy art. "Oh, it's got a ding on the back of the head and the bottom's a little rough. Not sure about the colors either; I've seen better. Do you have papers for it?"
This, by the way, makes Marty roar with laughter now and periodically throughout the rest of the day.
Eventually, just like those guys on "American Pickers," he bundles two items and talks the store down to a price he thinks is about 50 percent of the actual value. (Sure enough, later, while inside the sound booth, Bennett will hand me his phone and nod at the screen. It's a page from eBay, showing that a similar Hello Kitty just went for more than $7,000.)
"Boy, you two guys really took us by surprise," says the giddy woman at the cash register, practically shaking as she runs Bennett's credit card.
Marty & Me have just turned a 10-minute trip to a toy store on our lunch break into a cool profit. We practically run back to the car, like we just robbed the place.
"Yeah," says Bennett, as a wry smile unfurls across his face. "That's how I roll."
My favorite parts of the day, besides the heist at the toy store, are the moments when Bennett's eyes go wide, he smiles and then just blurts out bits of his black unicorn philosophy. Like when he held a piece of chocolate under Jett's nose so she could smell it. "I think we teach kids what is delicious, instead of letting them decide for themselves," he says. (I'll be damned, it kinda makes sense.) Later in the day when Jett was playing with another baby, Bennett blurted, "This is a Martin Luther King Jr. moment right here!"
Here are a few more of my favorite lines from the Tao of Marty:
• "No red-white-and-blue color schemes. I'm mad at America right now -- taxes."
• "Boogers. Boogers. Boogers. What rhymes with boogers?"
• "Children's books are literally the only thing in the world you can and should judge by the cover."
• "Let's make this character Hispanic. I love Hispanic people and there needs to be more cool Hispanic people in cartoons."
• "Sometimes, I hate being around athletes."
• "I'm 99.9 percent sure on this. I'm like a condom."
• "Colt McCoy? When my brother [Michael, who plays defensive end for the Seahawks] knocked him out of a game in college we started calling him 'Cart' McCoy."
• On fantasy football: "I want to go to a real estate office in Chicago and yell at people, 'You only sold one house this month? Come on, man, I need you to score more points! You suck!'"
• "I see a lot of athletes who show up at the end of a project and slap their name on it, and that disgusts me. I see those things and I go, 'Man, get out of here, you don't know anything about art, music or movies.' Everything you see with my name? It started from scratch inside this brain."
• After flubbing a voice-over line, Marty yells "OH JESUS S---!" into the mic. He puts down the script, comes out of the booth and for the next few minutes we have a deep, theological discussion about whether or not Jesus ever, ya know, went to the bathroom. Conclusion: Yes, Jesus pooped.
• "Personification, man, that's my thing. I'm sitting here, right now, trying to imagine what these chairs would talk like if we brought them to life."
• "My business plan with all this stuff is, once we make it awesome, then I'll figure out how to sell it."
As the office thins out and the work continues into the night, during a short break in the sound booth, Minshew, the director from Powerhouse, puts the Bulls-Cavaliers game up on the large screen TV in the conference room. The creative team has been at it for 10 hours already, but Bennett never even looks up at the game, even when Derrick Rose twists his ankle and we all hold our breaths. Instead, his face remains buried in one of his notebooks, reworking the lyrics and arrangements to his "Zoovie" song and working on verses for another children's book, sketches for his company's logo and probably eight other projects that just popped into his mind.
He's the same way in the Bears' locker room and on team flights.
"I am so far past the point of caring if anyone gets what I do or if they approve -- I don't give a s---," he says. "But my teammates, most are supportive and interested. They're always like, 'That's pretty cool. How do you think up all this s---?' I've got so many characters in my head, sometimes I get confused between the people I know and the ones I've invented. So there have been a few times, like with Jay [Cutler], where I'm walking around in the locker room or at a meeting reciting some verse or a poem or some character's name and he's like 'Man, Marty, what the f--- are you talking about?"
It's well past 10 p.m. now, and most of the Chinese food and Halloween candy is gone. The hallways at Powerhouse Animation are dark and deserted, but the streets of Austin are beginning to spill over with Halloween revelry. But the work in the sound booth continues until close to midnight as Roth, Bennett and a string of others record the finishing touches on their voices for "Zoovie."
With no more breaks until the end of the football season, everything needs to get done now. And it's long, tedious work that often requires dozens of takes on the same simple line of dialogue. "It was a monkey in a long-sleeve sweater!" took 23 takes. I counted. Later, when Bennett struggles with another line of dialogue, he pleads with Minshew to move on: "I'm supposed to be nervous and awkward? But I've never been nervous or awkward in my whole entire life."
The soundproof booth is hot, too. After 90 minutes, Bennett emerges, soaked in sweat but smiling.
"That's a wrap," Bennett shouts, joyfully, hugging the script pages close to his chest. "Can you believe it? We've got ourselves a f---ing movie, man!"
Bennett seems relieved, proud and, somehow, recharged.
His bye week is all but over. In eight hours, he'll be on his way back to Chicago and back to the Bears.
Where an even tougher project awaits his expertise.