For four years, Martellus Bennett played for the Dallas Cowboys waiting for an opportunity to prove what he believes in his heart: that he is one of the NFL's very best tight ends.
But Bennett was denied, not by his own ability but by the man in front of him. Jason Witten is selected to the Pro Bowl as routinely as some players strap on shoulder pads. He's played in seven in a row. In the four years the two players were teammates, Witten never missed a game and caught 348 passes for 3,926 yards and 20 touchdowns. Bennett sat out only four games but had just 85 receptions for 846 yards and four scores.
When his contract expired, Bennett took advantage of his freedom and signed with the Giants, a championship team that would showcase his talent and help elevate him into the discussion of elite tight ends.
On Wednesday night, the Giants will open their 2012 season against Bennett's old friends, the Cowboys. It's a game Bennett has looked forward to for months. Witten? The status of the ironman who missed only one game in his first nine years – and none since he was a rookie in 2003 – is uncertain because of the spleen injury he suffered in Dallas' preseason opener.
"It is kind of ironic, because Witten is a guy who never missed a game or practice when I was there," Bennett said. "So the day when I'm not there, he may be out for the first game, which is very ironic. And irony is a part of life. It's kind of weird not seeing him out there if he doesn't play. I wouldn't be surprised if he picked his spleen up and held it in his hand and tried to run routes. That's the kind of guy he is. He's a warrior and there are some things that he did in his game that I have in me, that's built in me. I don't really want to miss games. I never want to miss practice and I think all the guys see that in me. I learned it from Witten. I know it hurts him that if he's not going to be able to play, but if they tell him that he can tape his spleen… I don't know if you can tape your spleen up or put ice on it or stim it. I'm pretty sure if he could hold on to that spleen and play football, he would."
We'll assume that's not going to happen, so Bennett may have to be content with facing a Cowboys team without one of his mentors.
On the first day of training camp, Bennett talked about how much he wanted to beat the Cowboys in a news conference that was flavored with salty language. Since then he's fallen in line with the rest of the Tom Coughlin Giants, toning down his comments and speaking of the team first.
"This week is not really about me going against the Cowboys, it's more so the Giants," Bennett said. "I'm excited to be a part of this team. I was fortunate enough to be a part of two great organizations. With the Cowboys, they're a great organization and to be here with the Giants and get a chance to go out there with these new teammates, the friends that I've made, it's going to be awesome. I'm just looking forward to getting our season started and showing the things that I can do and be a part of this team. They brought me in to help defend this championship and that's what I'm trying to do.
"I'm an enthusiastic person, so I'm super excited about the chances to play ball and a chance to go out there and be the guy and show the world what I've been capable of and what I've been working toward as a football player who has grown and matured as an athlete and a professional. It's been a long time coming and I'm super excited about that more so than just playing against the Cowboys. I'm super excited to show who I am and I'm player I've always been but never got a chance to show."
Reminded that he said he wanted to kick the Cowboys', ah, butts, Bennett said, "I definitely want to kick everybody's (butts). I still feel the same way and I still want to go out here and give everything I got."
Bennett is confident he can help energize the Giants' rushing attack with his blocking and be a reliable receiver for Eli Manning. At 6-6 and 265 pounds, Bennett is a big target with soft hands. In training camp, as he got more comfortable in the offense, he became more productive. Bennett adds a new dimension to the Giants' offense.
"He's a vertical threat and he can run up the field and he's proven to be a good blocker," coach Tom Coughlin said. "I would say for a man that size, it's a different type of threat, he brings an element to the offense that was missing."
Like all Giants pass-catchers, Bennett has made the requisite connection with Manning. He has developed a rapport with the team's great quarterback on the field and is working hard to keep the lines of communication open when they are not in uniform.
"We talk a lot," Bennett said. "I'll text him all the time. Sometimes I text him just to say, 'Hey, I'm happy to be your teammate.' It's like six o'clock in the morning and he's texting me saying, 'Hey, what's up?' We always talk and we always want to be on the same page. I want him to be able to read my mind and my body language. It's like having a new girlfriend. You want to go on dinner dates to get to know her better, have a conversation with her. If he's sitting down at lunch and there are four people sitting at the table, I pull up a chair and make room and sit next to him. I try to be around him as much as possible so that he understands me and the things I'm trying to do. I think he enjoys being around me. He cracks jokes. We crack jokes together and we work hard. I think everybody appreciates the fact that I work hard."
Here's the key question: Does the two-time Super Bowl MVP respond to his early morning messages?
"He usually texts me back something sentimental and powerful," Bennett said. "We have a good relationship and it's growing. He's a great quarterback. He's a great guy. I love playing for him. … I try to be on the same page with him as much as possible."
Now that's a good idea.