A new age father-daughter bond
Inspired by his daughter, Martellus Bennett is on a mission for all athletes and kids of color to be their whole and authentic selves
When Martellus Bennett was a kid, no alarm clock was necessary on Saturday mornings. His body clock knew: If he slept in, he’d miss his early morning cartoon lineup.
The future New England Patriot, then living in his hometown of Houston, would jump from bed, stomp downstairs to the kitchen and fill a bowl with Cap’n Crunch and milk before placing himself in front of a TV. He watched Pokémon, Tim Burton films such as Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands — and the 1971 Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder.
These Saturday morning rituals inspired a quirky 2013 rap, and also inspired a new book and app project he worked on with his 2-year-old daughter, Austyn Jett Rose Bennett. It’s called Hey A.J., It’s Saturday, and this Father’s Day weekend, Bennett will be doing a very mini, all-Boston tour with the vibrant project. Says Martellus Bennett, 29: “I don’t think we just have to be one thing.”
One of the other things @martysaurusRex is: a speaker, and a testy and talented tight end freshly traded by the Chicago Bears for a draft pick. He refers to himself and his new colleague, fellow Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, as Batman and Robin — and Bennett says he doesn’t mind being Robin.
Still, there’s more to Bennett than eight seasons with iconic organizations like the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Chicago Bears. More to him even than leading all tight ends in receptions (90) in 2014. “Adults see that you have a talent, so they feel like that should be your dream,” he said. “I was so good at sports, I think that not just my parents, but society forced the dream of being an athlete on me.” His Twitter bio reads: Visionary Architect. And Bennett said he’s been wanting to share more of the non-football side of himself with the world for years.
The book, which he wrote and illustrated, takes young readers on weekend adventures via the perspective of a toddler. “This is … a way of me paying tribute to my awesome childhood Saturdays. I want A.J. to see that black kids can go on adventures, too … I wanted to give her and other kids … a chance to see a character that was just … universal. The book is about the adventure, and not their skin tone.”
The A.J., It’s Saturday project was conceived right after A.J. was born to Bennett and his wife, Siggi, in March 2014. The 2014-15 season happened to be one of Bennett’s best seasons on the field.“I’m a better player when I’m truly happy,” he said. “And I’m truly happy when I get to hang out with my family, I get to create and I get to play football. When I do those three things, I’m totally balanced.”
Bennett is now chief executive officer of his The Imagination Agency — and he’s graduated from Cap’n Crunch to fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on sourdough. When asked why he didn’t focus more on his imagination over sports, Bennett responded with a question: “Why should I have had to? Why couldn’t I do both,” he said, “or more?” He was after all first-chair clarinet in band as a teenager. But Bennett was also on his way to being 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds. And smart about the game of football. “Having another Pro Bowl tight end on my side, it couldn’t any be better,” Gronkowski said in the spring. Gronk also noted: “He … brings a lot of football knowledge to the game in the meeting rooms.” However Bennett got there, football is his main path — and he wants the various sides of himself to merge, more often.
As a part of a recent TEDx talk, which Bennett described as being “as nerve racking as a game,” he asked the audience to reconsider how they view athletes. He also talked about his interest in design, drawing, writing and animation. Plenty of players pursue nonathletic dreams, especially in the offseason. But Bennett wants to model this kind of freedom so even more players feel like they can experience their off-the-field passions.
Because while Bennett loves being on the gridiron, the way he sees himself — and the way he wants his daughter to see him — is as someone who explores all of his interests. As a matter of fact, when Bennett tells A.J. he’s “leaving for work,” she often thinks it’s to work on Hey A.J., It’s Saturday, which he said is the first in a forthcoming series of books.
“I want her to do anything she ever dreams of,” Bennett said. “I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, and tell her she can be anything she wants to be, if I don’t … become everything I want to be.” It must be working. Throughout the conversation A.J. often entered her dad’s office, chatting him up. On one occasion, his daughter came in to show him that she could fly.