Martellus Bennett was in Japan when Bill Belichick called. The legendary New England Patriots head coach wasn’t surprised to find Bennett in such a far-flung locale. “You’re always somewhere,” Bennett recalls a bemused Belichick telling him. It was February 2018, and the veteran tight end had just reached his second straight Super Bowl with the Patriots; Belichick, Bennett says, was calling to talk about his plans for the next season. Most players would have seized the opportunity to make a pitch for playing time. Bennett told his coach he’d have to get back to him. Something was happening.
Bennett had undertaken the solitary, 10-day trip to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka in search of illumination. His tumultuous 2017 season had begun with a new team, the Packers. Green Bay is a famous football town, but Bennett found it worse than inhospitable. “The way you feel the coldness when you walk into a freezer, you could feel the racism there,” he told me recently. He finished the season back in New England, but injury kept him off the field during the team’s playoff run, which ended in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Now, as he toured Tokyo (with a guide who had been recommended by the Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who, even in Japan, knew a guy) and explored the Tenryuji Temple and Shinto shrines, Bennett found the clarity he sought. “It hit me,” he said. “I do not love everything that I do. In fact, I hate more about it than I love.” Rather than continue playing, Bennett hung up his cleats.
In recent years, fellow tight ends Jason Witten and Rob Gronkowski have retired from football only to find themselves unsatisfied with their second acts; both quickly returned to the familiarity of the game. Bennett, by contrast, hasn’t missed it for a moment. He had laid the groundwork for a second career while still in the NFL. For all of the speed and brutality of the sport, the life of a professional football player is marked by long stretches of tedium. During endless team meetings, Bennett was never without his sketchbook, in which he would invent characters and build universes for them to inhabit. “I had to learn how to play football, how to run routes, how to catch,” he said. “No one has ever taught me how to be creative. It’s just who I am.”
It’s a testament to Bennett’s talent—on the field, and in his sketchbook—that such an avocation was permitted inside Belichick’s famously allbusiness locker room. Bennett presented some of his sketches and storyboards to the entire Patriots roster; Chris Long, a former teammate, told me he’s “a big admirer of his creativity.”
Bennett was also known on the team for his commitment to social justice. Beginning in 2016, he was one of a cohort of players who advocated for police accountability, a group that included Colin Kaepernick as well as Bennett’s older brother, Michael. The issue has since gained traction, but at the time it was a lonely cause, and one that came with real costs.
Bennett, who is now 33, remains a critic of the NFL, a league he regards as infected by racism, even as it has belatedly made a show of embracing social-justice issues. But in his second career, he’s trying to address racial disparities in a different industry: children’s entertainment.
Bennett is the author of four books for children, which he writes as well as illustrates. His goal is to tell the kinds of stories he struggled to find during his own childhood: stories about Black characters going off on fantastical adventures, which too often have been the exclusive province of white characters written by white authors. In June, Bennett signed a deal with Disney to create an animated series based on his Hey A.J. series, which follows the escapades of his daughter, Austyn Jett Rose. It was a coup for Bennett’s still fledgling enterprise, and a meaningful one, given the scope of his ambition. “I don’t ever want to be remembered for playing sports,” he told me. “I don’t want anyone to bring up Super Bowls. I want them to say, ‘Oh, and he played football.’ ”
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