The Super Bowl is not Cornelius Bennett‘s favorite time of year. Just the opposite, in fact. It makes him miserable.
One of the greatest linebackers in NFL history, Bennett was a member of the All-Decade Team of the 1990s, but isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in part because his teams went 0-5 in Super Bowls. With a few rings on his fingers, Bennett would likely be getting far more attention from Canton than he is now.
Photo courtesy of Kevin A. Koski/NFLPA
Though he only played two years in Indianapolis, he had a profound effect on the city and team. His injury in the 16th regular season game in 1999 may well have deprived the Colts of a Super Bowl and dramatically effected the way the team handled end of season strategy for the rest of the Polian era. Bennett was a standout linebacker and emotional core of the Indy defense. He missed the playoff game against the Titans that saw Eddie George rip off a long touchdown run right by the spot where Bennett would otherwise have been.
Of course Bennett’s impact on Indianapolis Colts history also came in the form of The Big Deal. He was drafted by the Colts and sent to Buffalo as part of the trade that brought Eric Dickerson to Indianapolis. He then terrorized the Colts twice a year for the next several years.
His resume is impressive: 5 Pro Bowls, 3 All Pro Seasons, AFC Defensive Player of the Year, 71 career sacks, and a member of the All Decade team. He is currently chairman of the NFLPA’s Former Players Board of Directors and is a non-voting member of the Executive Committee.
I caught up with Bennett at the NFLPA Legends Brunch and talked to him about his time in Indianapolis, Bill Polian, and the Super Bowl. Bennett was warm, thoughtful and jovial even as he discussed painful topics like being on the wrong end of five Super Bowls.
Photo courtesy of Kevin A. Koski/NFLPA
Colts Authority: Cornelius, if you are healthy in 1999, do you hit Eddie George on his long touchdown run?
Bennett: Oh, no doubt about it. That’s one of the few games I do think about from time to time, because I didn’t have anything, I couldn’t do anything about what was going on. That is one of the ones I do think about.
CA: You were such a rock for that defense in 1999. What was it like being part of that team coming together? You were only there a short time, but you had a big impact just in the short time you were there.
Bennett: Actually, I was there two years. We came back the next year and lost in the Wild Card game down in Miami. But that particular year in 1999, it was Peyton’s coming out year, and Marvin’s. The big three. It was the first time everyone got a big dose of the big three we had, with Peyton Marvin and Edgerrin. With those guys being so young, having the chance to leave a footprint there with the Colts meant a lot to me. It still means a lot to me when I watch guys play.
CA: People really do remember you and the injury you had. Your injury affected the way the Colts played out those end of season games the rest of the decade. You had a big impact.
Bennett: It was a tough loss. We had done the impossible that year. It was the biggest turnaround in history at that time. We were on a big roll, and one freak play took us out of the hunt. I can remember all the preparation leading up for us going into the playoffs, the media hype, and the things we had planned going forward into the playoffs. Then one play and it was all over and done with as far as my season for that ’99 year. To have a chance to play against Tennessee…a team I thought we were much better than. Eddie George came out and broke our back with one play, and that’s how football is. My season ended on one play, and one play ended our season as a team.
CA: Do you have any thoughts about Bill Polian, who had a big impact on your career?
Bennett: Definitely. Bill was able to pull the trigger on the deal that got me to Buffalo, and then again at the end of my career, gave me a chance to come to Indianapolis to finish my career. I’m sure he’ll always be remembered around here. I don’t think he has to worry too much about his legend. There comes a point in time in football life that you do have to part ways, like the thing that Peyton is going through. I’d hate to see him in another uniform, but unfortunately, it happens to us all. I was in three different uniforms in my career. You never want to leave, and there’s no good way to do it. But, I hope when time does come for Mr. Irsay to make a decision in March that it’s done in as tasteful a way as possible, in a tasteless business when you really look at it.
CA: How do you feel looking back now on the events of 1987 that took you to Buffalo? You were drafted by the Colts, but traded to the Bills in the Eric Dickerson trade. Many people look at that deal and grimace, because Dickerson had nice years year, but you went on to be a stallwart in Buffalo.
Bennet: I was with some of the Colts players a couple of days ago at a function who were on the 1987 team. Cliff Odom, Jon Hand, Randy Dixon and a few other guys who played for the Colts. They always laugh, “What if?” Harvey Armstrong was one of those guys. What if I had come to Indianapolis? What would the team had been like? But I think it just happened. You know, it was the right time for me and the right time for Eric. Eric came here, and not only did he make a lot of money in the trade, but he was able to move. In those days we had no free agency, but when he came here he was one of the first guys to make over a million dollars. He may have some regrets that he never got to play much winning football, but his pocket book was made fatter. And when I went to Buffalo it gave me the chance to go and excel with a great group of guys up there, so it was meant to be in my eyes that I could come back years later.
CA: It’s hard to talk about yourself, but you were a Defensive Player of the Year. Do you feel like you get the credit or are remembered for just how great you were?
Bennet: Oh, sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. Sitting back here in the green room with all these Hall of Famers, Rod Woodson and I came out in the same draft, and he’s in the Hall of Fame. I told him, “It’s not something I worry about.” I mean my credentials are there. I didn’t have a 100 sacks, but the reason why I didn’t have a 100 sacks is because I could do anything. I could do a host of things on the football field. Am I deserving to be in the Hall of Fame? I think I am. A lot of things I did in my career I was the first to do. So I think one day it’ll happen, and when it does, it’ll be the best time in the world.
CA: Is Super Bowl Week bittersweet for you?
Bennett: It’s definitely bittersweet. I’m leaving when we finish the brunch. I don’t enjoy it like most people do, because I know at the end of the game watching all the confetti floating around, that five times I looked up and the confetti wasn’t for me. So I don’t get excited about the Super Bowl. I come here to do business and leave town. It’s not a great memory for me at all. I don’t pretend to say that I like to enjoy hanging out at the Super Bowl. I’m very minimal in the things I participate in.
CA: Who are you rooting for tonight? You can’t like the Patriots, and you have a hurter with the Giants too.
Bennett: Honestly, I don’t care who wins. I never care who wins the Super Bowl because it’s not going to help my cause. I expect it to be a tremendous football game. The Giants are on a roll. If I have to pick a winner, I’ll pick the Giants. The Super Bowl is about clicking at the right time, and the Giants had a crappy season other wise, but they started clicking at the right time and that’s what it’s all about. There’s no hotter quarterback out there than Eli. He’s there, so barring an early injury to Eli, I think the Giants will win the football game.
CA: Final question, what reflections or thoughts do you have on Indianapolis as a city? How far has it come in the past 10-15 years?
Bennett: This is the first time I’ve been back to Indy since I retired, and I had not been back. It has grown tremendously. I am very impressed. It was always a great sleeper town. It always took you by surprise when you came here, what with the warmth of the people. Downtown is unbelievable. It’s as pretty as any downtown in the country. Lucas Oil Stadium is just something that I wished I could have played in. It’s gorgeous. And the people here…great hosts. I knew that was going to happen because of the Indy 500. They know how to handle big crowds. People worry about that, but I know from being here for two years and going to the Indy 500 that they knew how to do crowd control. It’s going to be a great time.