- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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It was never easy to pick a side regarding the short and sad Bears career of Cedric Benson.
He cried on draft day, and while some admired his honest sentiment, others later used it as a reason to question his toughness.
He was the fourth pick overall, but he didn't really want the Bears to draft him, and the Bears, seemingly set on Thomas Jones as their featured back, never acted as if they wanted him.
Benson was a contract holdout that first year and missed his first training camp, but he was hardly the first player to do so and hardly deserved the cold reception from teammates.
He was always honest but sometimes didn't know when to shut up, like when he said he expected to start by the third game of that rookie season.
He sprained his knee in midseason and hurt his shoulder the next year, but even when he was healthy, he was never a starter his first two years, and by the time he got a genuine vote of confidence, it was too late.
He was released by the Bears in June 2008 after his second alcohol-related arrest in five weeks, but he was ultimately cleared in both incidents.
Sometimes there just isn't a convenient reason why a player with the physical tools and the athletic gifts is a bust with one team and busts out with the next. Sometimes it was a bad fit in the first place. Sometimes it takes a while for a player to be mature enough to handle a pro career.
Benson, in typically candid form, said he isn't out to prove anything when his 4-2 Cincinnati Bengals face the 3-2 Bears on Sunday.
Slipping this week from first to third on the list of the NFL's leading rushers -- and second in the AFC -- Benson is averaging 4.2 yards per run and leads the league in carries in his second season with the Bengals. Like a lot of running backs, he thrives on getting more carries, which he did not get in Chicago. But quarterback Carson Palmer and other teammates refer to his "will" and "drive" as much as his talent.
Benson said he isn't sure why he has been so much more successful in Cincinnati than in Chicago, but he sure has some ideas.
"Maybe here they wanted it to work," he said. "Maybe here they're more inclined to making it work. I don't know. I came to this team when they needed a lift. I as well needed a lift and I came here and provided it. So maybe they saw something in me that I believe very few people [in Chicago] saw."
He also said he has no doubt he was blackballed after leaving the Bears and not being picked up by the Bengals until Sept. 30 of that year. "Oh yeah, no doubt, of course," he said. "I heard all the rumors that were said [to be] coming out of Chicago.
"Even the Bengals told me all the things, like they would call and inquire about me and get nothing but negative things -- that I didn't work hard, that I was, I guess, a prima donna wasn't focused -- anything negative they could say here was said. I'm sure that contributed largely to me not getting picked up right away."
But Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said that Bears coach Lovie Smith, a friend of Lewis', "convinced" him that Benson would stay out of trouble and prosper in Cincinnati. And Smith said that no one in the Bears organization blackballed him.
It is not a stretch to say that Benson has been the Bengals' savior, that a threat in the running game was just what Palmer and Chad Ochocinco needed.
"Ced has settled in," Lewis said. "He loves football. He's from Texas; he grew up competing in football. That's what he loves and believes."
Benson led his Texas high school team to three straight state titles. At the University of Texas, he worked his way up to sixth on the all-time NCAA rushing list. He was arrested twice in college, once for marijuana possession (though Benson was let off when a friend took the blame) and once for criminal trespass. In that case, he escaped jail time because the Texas prison system was overcrowded; he ended up serving only a half-game suspension.
Benson never knew athletic disappointment before coming to the Bears. After he arrived in Chicago, it seemed he would never know anything else. But he admitted Wednesday that he has worked hard in Cincinnati, and it sounds as though he has grown up off the field as well.
"Knowing what I know now, looking back on it, if I could change anything, I would not pay attention to anything I had no control over, whether my opinion mattered or not," Benson said. "I would just stay focused on my job, my task that was asked of me on a weekly basis and my individual performance and outcome and contribution to the team."
Clearly he is still somewhat bitter at Jones' obvious popularity in the Bears' locker room compared to the relative cold shoulder he received.
"Once upon a time I would have liked to have known [why], but I don't really care anymore," he said. "But I couldn't pinpoint it. I remember there being a lot of talk about the holdout and things like that. It's quite ridiculous in this business because it's not just in football and I'm sure many players on the team had holdouts [at some point]."
He has succeeded in Cincinnati largely because the Bengals needed him but did not count on him. He said he has wondered why the Bears ever drafted him in the first place.
"You know how in drafts, teams always want you to agree to something before they pick you or they're probably not going to go with you?" Benson said. "There was a bit of that going on before I was picked, and I never agreed to anything but still managed to get picked there.
"I didn't know much about the Bears or their running game or anything prior to that, but I believe there was somebody or a very small group of people who saw the potential in me but I think a much bigger group that wasn't really for me."
There was a very long pause when Benson was asked whether the Bears' offensive staff, besides Smith, supported him.
"I think maybe the offensive line staff saw a lot of things and appreciated me, but for the most part, I don't really think so," he said.
If there was a rock-bottom for Benson -- the point at which a boy who feels sorry for himself finally becomes a man who owns up to it -- it was in September 2008.
"There were times when I was sitting at home on the couch, reflecting on everything, and couldn't believe where I was at -- jobless, fourth pick, first round," he said. "I was kind of down on myself, but I knew that would get me nowhere, and all I wanted to do from that point on was move forward.
"So I accepted the situation and found a way to learn from it and be somewhat thankful it happened and move forward."
You don't have to feel sorry for Benson or relieve him of responsibility in order to sort out what has happened to him since, just as it isn't fair to pin all the blame on the Bears for the first-round bust he turned out to be.
"Nothing is 100 percent," Smith said. "But eventually good football players find the spot that's perfect for them. We've had players who have left here and gone on and done good things, just like some of our key players right now were somewhere else and it didn't work out and they found a home here. That's just life in the National Football League."
Sometimes things just don't work out the way they should. And then they do. And in Cedric Benson's strange career, you are left with a man who has grown, who is still growing. You don't have to feel good about it as a Bears fan, but it is something to see.
"Oh man, you can't put into words how good it feels," he said of being among the elite runners in the league. "I mean, this is what I've worked for, this is what I've dreamed about when I've dreamed about being a professional player. Dreams are coming true, and it's a wonderful feeling, and I will promise you I will take full advantage of it at all times."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.