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There will be pregame pleasantries and postgame conversation this afternoon in the RCA Dome.

But for three hours, Cornelius Bennett will be focused on making life miserable for his former teammates from Buffalo.

From 1987-95, Bennett was a fixture in the Bills' defense. He arrived in Buffalo as part of a blockbuster three-team trade with the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Rams, and proved to be worth the fuss. Consider his four Pro Bowl appearances and the role he played in Buffalo's four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

Today, Bennett is the starting strong-side linebacker with the Colts. The team that shipped him off to Buffalo when contract negotiations hit a serious impasse finally got their man on March 1, 1999 -- 3,960 days after it drafted him second overall in 1987. The veteran free agent departed Atlanta following three productive seasons -- and another Super Bowl appearance -- to return to what was expected to be his NFL home all along.

"They say your life pretty much goes full circle, and here we are (in Indianapolis)," Bennett said.

"It's great in a sense because this team is headed in the right direction and I'm back with (club president) Bill Polian. We kind of started out together as far as making names for ourselves.

"But it's scary also. I never thought something like this would transpire. Once you leave a place, you never expect to go back. But here I am, 12 years later. And to be welcomed with open arms is a strange, but great feeling."

Strange, but great. That also will sum up Bennett's feelings as he steps on the field today. He's entering his 13th NFL season and will be making his 174th career start. But it will be the first time he's squared off against the team he used to call his own.

"To have a chance to open up the season against (the Bills) is something I'm looking forward to," said Bennett. "It's my first time to play against guys I love as friends . . . Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, Ted Washington, guys that are left from when I was there.

"We're friends for life. But now it's competition. (Today) we'll shake hands before and after, but while the game's going on, we're enemies."

Bennett said he's glad his first meeting with the Bills will come in the RCA Dome rather than Ralph Wilson Stadium. His return trip to his old stomping grounds won't occur until Jan. 2.

"If we were playing (in Buffalo) the first time I probably would have gotten a little emotional," Bennett admitted.

The Colts hope Bennett plays with unbridled passion this afternoon. He was one of the key figures in a busy offseason that saw Polian give a defense ranked 29th in the NFL a year ago a major overhaul.

"He's been to five Super Bowls, is one of the top linebackers in the National Football League and one of the great winners in the history of the league," said Polian.

"We're one of the younger teams in the league and we're going to need some good, strong veteran leadership," coach Jim Mora added. "I believe Cornelius will provide that for us."

He has, taking rookie Mike Peterson under his wing in the same manner Bills' veteran Darryl Talley looked out for Bennett back in 1987.

But while Bennett brings invaluable experience, he also brings talent. His team-high 121 tackles a year ago in Atlanta helped spur the Falcons to their first Super Bowl appearance. Over his career, Bennett has averaged 14 starts, 97 tackles and five sacks.

"I've got some years left," said Bennett, who, at 34, is the oldest player on the Colts' roster. "Just go back and look at some of the tapes of the past seasons and you'll see I'm still one of the best in the game."

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