Clears up what he ran in meets this past season and his times are very impressive:
MANKATO – Michael Bennett drove past Buck Hill once, twice, maybe three times in early June. Finally, on June 20, the Vikings running back went Nike on himself and said, out loud, “Just Do It!”
So he circled his blue Hummer around to the parking lot of the Burnsville ski slope, looked around and “sort of sneaked onto the hill.”
Bennett had watched an NFL Network special on Jerry Rice, who, like other NFL greats before him, credits a rigorous hill training regimen for part of his success and longevity.
“Jerry Rice is 41 with 21 years in the league,” Bennett said. “That really just showed me the way. Granted, it’s at receiver, not running back, but still, 21 years is a lot of years for a guy. He got it all through hard work.”
Bennett, 26, has no illusions of playing another 16 seasons. “I’d like to play five to seven more, but let’s get real,” he said during a break in training camp.
No, Bennett’s primary motivation for training at a higher level – figuratively and literally – is all about one season. This season. The season he figures the Vikings will need him most and, although he doesn’t mention it directly, the season his five-year, $6.2 million rookie contract expires.
“I’d like to finish my career as a Minnesota Viking,” Bennett said. “So it’s time for me to hit some more home runs, like I did in 2002. That’s what I miss most.”
The injuries begin
In 2002, Bennett had 25 runs of 12 yards or more. He has had only 15 since March 2003 when he suffered a stress fracture in his left foot while doing speed work on a treadmill.
“All of my struggles the last two years go back to that … treadmill,” Bennett said. “When I did it, I didn’t think it was a big deal. I walked around on it all day. But in the middle of the night, I woke up because I thought someone was trying to cut my foot off. That’s why I won’t go near a treadmill to this day.”
Bennett’s foot was healing nicely in the summer of 2003 when the 6-inch titanium rod that was implanted for stability snapped during a workout. “The doctor said, ‘It’s impossible to break titanium,’” Bennett said. “But that’s the kind of power I deliver to the ground.”
The foot had to be surgically repaired again. Bone marrow was taken from Bennett’s hip, mixed with protein and injected into the foot to promote healing. Bennett missed the first eight games of 2003, finishing with only 447 yards.
Last summer began like this summer, with high expectations. But Bennett injured the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the Vikings’ third preseason game.
The ensuing surgery cost him five games and his usual explosiveness over the remainder of the season. He finished with career lows in rushing yards (276) and average (3.9).
Back on the track
Bennett’s reaction was an all-out push to make his lower body virtually indestructible. In addition to being a regular in the Vikings’ offseason conditioning program, he returned to Milwaukee and his track roots. The former Big Ten sprint champion from Wisconsin trained with Demi Omole, the Badgers’ current Big Ten 100-meter champ.
Bennett also joined the Milwaukee Striders, an inner-city track club run by Joe Sims, Bennett’s high school track coach at Milwaukee Tech. Bennett ran in meets in Florida, Texas and California and, according to Sims, finished first in the 100 twice and second once.
“Michael ran a 10.21, a 10.15 and a 10.19, and those are automatic times, not hand-held times,” Sims said. “Michael came in wanting to see if he still had it, and I think he surprised himself. He’s faster now than he was in high school, or at Wisconsin. That’s crazy to say, but it’s true.”
Converting that track speed to the football field is a priority for the Vikings.
“We’ll have more explosive runs this year, not only because Michael’s healthy, but because [tight end] Jim Kleinsasser and [right tackle] Mike Rosenthal are healthy again, too,” offensive coordinator Steve Loney said. “Those guys are the edge of our offense. If you are going to be strong in getting to the edge, you have to have strength in your running back, tight ends and tackles.”
Running track helped Bennett’s speed. But he wanted more strength in his legs.
Hello, Buck Hill.
“I’ve seen that hill,” said backup running back Mewelde Moore. "I was going to Hom Furniture in [Lakeville] and I was thinking, ‘Man, if you can get on that thing, you could really blow chunks.’ "
Bennett would run to the top of the hill, walk down a set of stairs, run up the stairs and walk down the hill. Then he’d do it all again. And again…
“I always wanted to run up the hill and steps 10 times,” Bennett said. “But I would fall short at about six.”
Vikings strength and conditioning coach Kurtis Shultz recommends hill training.
“Walter Payton did it, and I used to do it with Ray Lewis when I was his [personal] trainer,” Shultz said. “It worked for them.”
Bennett said he usually was “ticked off” when he ran Buck Hill.
“Normally, I go fishing to blow off some steam,” Bennett said. "But this offseason, I’d go run Buck Hill.
“I’d be ticked off because I was watching tapes of my games going all the way back to when I first started at age 7 with the Clarksdale [Miss.] Bandits. There were all these home runs. But then I’d look at the past two years, and there was nothing.”
In 2002, Bennett became the only player in NFL history to record runs of 60 or more yards in three consecutive games (62, 78, 85). He hasn’t had one longer than 28 since.
Vikings coach Mike Tice named Bennett the starter and feature back heading into training camp. With Onterrio Smith serving a yearlong drug suspension, Bennett’s main competition in camp is Moore.
“I wouldn’t call this a make-or-break year for me,” Bennett said. “But it’s a year I need to stay healthy. With an up-and-coming star in Mewelde Moore and now [rookie] Ciatrick Fason, time is not going to wait for me. With my injuries and everything, I can be here today and gone tomorrow if I don’t start hitting some of those home runs again.”
Mark Craig is at email@example.com