HOUSTON -- In a night full of jaw-dropping surprises, one of the most shocking moments occurred after the game, in a quiet Patriots locker room that was emptying out as players left for their celebration party. Martellus Bennett, the team's outspoken, irreverent tight end, conceded that, for once in his career, he was struggling to articulate how he felt.
"I'm at a loss for words right now," Bennett said, speaking softly as he wiped some of the blue paint smudged on his forehead after the Patriots' 34-28 overtime win against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
When New England traded for him in March, sending Chicago a fourth-round pick in exchange for Bennett and a sixth-rounder, some questioned whether the former Bear would mesh with the Patriots' famously restrictive culture. The move seemed ill-advised and risky, like sending a human to inhabit an airless planet.
Over the course of his eight-year career, Bennett had developed a somewhat controversial reputation, clashing with teammates as he journeyed from Dallas to New York to Chicago. In August, he made headlines when he criticized some of those players in an ESPN The Magazine story. He also spoke candidly about issues such as race, culture and politics -- subjects that Patriots don't really talk about, because Patriots don't really talk about, well, anything.
Then the season began, and something unexpected happened: Bennett blended in. While he continued to function as the league's most reliable quote machine, delivering Harry Potter references, bawdy jokes and whimsical analogies (early in the season, he amused reporters by comparing himself to an equilateral triangle, as opposed to the less tranquil isosceles), he never seemed to offend his employers. He didn't scrap with his teammates, and he wasn't the subject of rumors. He charmed the New England fan base with his antics, such as wearing a Pikachu costume to a local children's hospital.
Bennett's wife, Siggi, remembers the skepticism that surrounded the trade. "Everybody was like, 'Um, this isn't gonna work.'" she said. "But it worked beautifully."
In a way, it shouldn't have been surprising. While Bennett might not have been a prototypical Patriot, he was perfectly suited for the team's style of play. He caught 55 passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns over the course of the regular season but spent equal time as a sturdy, reliable blocker, protecting quarterback Tom Brady and paving the way for the team's resurgent running back corps. As a result, his stats sometimes appeared lackluster. In Week 1, when the Patriots beat the Cardinals, Bennett caught just three passes for 14 yards. But offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels praised the tight end for being an "unselfish team guy."
When superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a back injury in December, Bennett performed capably in his absence, even after cracking a bone in his ankle during the playoffs. On Sunday night, he caught five passes for 62 yards.
Before the season began, Bennett said he believed that, contrary to the public's expectations, he'd actually get along well with Bill Belichick because the coach focused solely on football and wouldn't try to impose paternalistic ideals on him. That has mostly proved true. But after the Super Bowl, Bennett said he felt the Patriots organization embraced him not only as a player, but also as a person. "They accepted me for who I am," he said.
Who he is, his identity on and off the field, goes beyond quirky costumes and shareable quotes. During the first week of the season, Bennett and Patriots safety Devin McCourty raised their fists during the national anthem, paying homage to Tommie Smith and John Carlos' 1968 Black Power salute in order to call attention to racial inequality. On Monday, Bennett told reporters in Houston that he wouldn't visit the White House if the Patriots won the Super Bowl because he didn't support President Donald Trump, adding that he felt an obligation to promote social change.
After the Patriots' victory, Bennett was asked during a news conference whether he stood by his statement. He replied that he did and explained that he didn't believe the political variance in the locker room had sown division because "everyone comes from a different walk of life." He said he wasn't worried about owner Robert Kraft's reaction to his decision to skip a White House trip. While many players and coaches would have dodged those questions (and some did last week), Bennett addressed them in clear, confident terms. He sounded like a man who was unafraid of expressing himself.
At the podium, Bennett juggled his 2-year-old daughter, Jett, who was interrupting him a la Riley Curry, on his lap. "You can tell she's a Bennett," he said, laughing. He spoke about fatherhood and how it meant more to him than any trophy. He confessed that "it sucked" that he wasn't able to pull in a game-winning catch. Someone asked him about the Patriots' famous work ethic, and he alluded indirectly to his winding path through the league. "There's a lot of guys on this team that other teams didn't want," he said.
In the coming months, Bennett, who turns 30 in March, will learn which teams do want him. After accruing a solid season as a Patriot, he'll likely enter free agency as one of the top offensive players on the market. He has said he'd love to stay in New England. "I think I learned a lot from being in this organization," he said. Given a starring role on the Patriots' massive stage, he embraced the opportunity to showcase his character. In doing so, he changed not only people's perceptions of him, but also the way people viewed the organization and its willingness to absorb players who marched to the beat of their own drum.
"That's the biggest thing," Bennett said in the locker room, which was about to close its doors for the night. "When you're true to yourself and everyone sees that, they'll accept you." He couldn't stop smiling, but he seemed reluctant to say much more -- not out of deference to the Patriot Way, but because he was in awe of the moment.