When Cornelius Bennett walked on the field at Rich Stadium in 1987, he wasn’t sure what to expect. The highly regarded linebacker out of Alabama went second overall in the draft to the Indianapolis Colts, but was dealt to the Bills shortly before the trade deadline after not being able to agree to a contract with the Colts. At the time, it was a mega-deal that also involved future Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and multiple high draft picks.
Before the trade, Bennett had never been to Buffalo. He stepped out of the tunnel for the first time wondering if the fans would even know who he was. They did. And they let him know it loud and clear.
“I didn’t know I’d be recognized, especially because the trade had just happened less than a day before,” Bennett said. “The warmth and welcome from the fans from that moment is something that I have carried with me and still carry with even now when I come back to Buffalo. The love from the fans is truly amazing. I think every person that has played in Buffalo has the same feeling.”
Bennett, known fondly as “Biscuit” throughout his college and professional days, left an indelible mark on the team and the city. His infectious smile and affable personality on the sideline and around town is something Bills fans have always appreciated.
That, and his uncanny ability to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Throughout his time with the Bills from 1987 to 1995, Bennett was elected to the Pro Bowl five times, voted AFC Defensive Player of the Year twice, and played in all four of the Bills Super Bowl appearances. He reached another Super Bowl during a two-year stint with the Atlanta Falcons, and ended up back with Colts from 1999 to 2000. His football career had come full circle, and that’s when Bennett knew it was time to walk away.
“During a practice of my last year [with the Colts], it honestly felt like a movie script," he said. "The sun was going down, and I happen to be looking at the sunset. I’m down on one knee on the practice field and here I am watching the sun go down and right then and there, I just knew I’d be satisfied if I never played again.”
At the end of the 2000 season, Bennett walked away from the game of his own accord. He says he doesn’t miss football, and that he took a year away from the game entirely just to heal mentally and physically. After that, he decided to get involved with the NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA) and worked hard to make a difference for players past and present.
“I’ve been actively involved with the NFLPA for about 13 or 14 years now,” Bennett said. “I liked being involved in the conversations that were happening as far as taking care of players long after their career is over. And I’m very proud of having helped to secure funding for the Legacy Benefit and the pension plan.”
Under the 2011 collective bargaining agreement between the NFLPA and the NFL owners, the Legacy Benefit secured more than $6 million to increase retirement benefits of former players who played in the NFL prior to the 1993 season. In addition to their monthly pension, they receive an extra payment.
Bennett says he always understood the value of a dollar and how it can go a long way in life. He confesses that he was a “miser” during his playing days and made it a priority to save his money and invest well, living by the simple financial philosophy that if you take care of your money, it will take care of you.
“I have the luxury now of waking up whenever I want and do whatever I want to do. People ask me if I get bored,” he said, laughing. “I don’t. I play golf. I do a lot of charity events. And I spend most of my time with my family.
"The beauty of having all this free time to do what you want to do is that you get to spend it with the people that mean the most to you. Until all of my kids move out and go to college, it’s all about family time. The best thing about having kids for me is being able to take them to school and pick them up. Being able to watch them grow up has been a tremendous experience for me.”
Every now and then, Bennett makes a trip back up to Buffalo. He was here last spring to meet with new head coach Sean McDermott along with a gaggle of other former Bills, including Steve Tasker, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith. They’ve stayed close since their dynasty days, exchanging daily group texts that Bennett says they joke about turning into a tell-all book someday. He’d like to get back up for a game sometime soon, he adds, but it’s hard to get back into the mentality of it because he’s been so removed from football.
“I want to get back for a Bills game eventually," he said. "It’s special there. To me they are the greatest fans in the NFL.”
In the meantime, Bennett is content to sit back and watch his son, Kivon, play defensive tackle for the University of Tennessee. The freshman is intent on carving his football path at a different SEC school despite his father’s legacy and Bennett is fine with that. He gets to travel to each game, relax and cheer on his son from stands.
For him, life doesn’t get much better than that.