Martellus Bennett hauled in 447 receptions during a Pro Bowl career that included winning a Super Bowl with the Patriots during the 2016 season, but none of those receptions mean as much to him as the one that he’s getting in this moment from students from the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School and the Franklin D. Roosevelt K-8 School.
He’s beat-boxing, providing the impromptu track for the chorus of a musical mnemonic device he’s dreamed up on the spot. It’s his way of reinforcing the message of encouragement and broader horizons he’s been delivering to the group of black male students from the two Hyde Park schools. The students respond, chanting the words Bennett has written in his new book “Dear Black Boy” repeatedly — “Win black boy, win! Win black boy, win!” — over the melody from his mouth.
On Wednesday, the 32-year-old former NFL tight end spoke to more than two dozen students at the Museum of African American History in Beacon Hill, presenting his illustrated book and inculcating the idea that young black boys shouldn’t let society limit their dreams to athletic glory.
The powerful themes of Bennett’s book — empowerment, encouragement, ambition, and opportunity — combined with a hallowed setting where Frederick Douglass once spoke linked the past, present, and future of black America.
We reside in a society that glorifies black athletes and entertainers, and presents those outlets as the only means of acceptable success for black boys. That same culture that worships black athletes also demeans and dehumanizes them. They are told to shut up and dribble or shut up and tackle. They are pigeonholed and put down for expressing themselves as other citizens do. They’re told they should be grateful that they’re paid boatloads of money to play a game, as if that’s some sort of trade-off for their liberty, implied consent to sacrifice their individuality, and agreement to abrogate their rights.
Bennett, who retired from the NFL after 10 seasons and two stints with the Patriots, isn’t about any of that. He never has been. He prizes his creativity and imagination more than the athleticism that allowed him to reach the pinnacle of professional football. He is an author, illustrator, animator, musician, app creator, intellectual, and general dreamer. In 2014, he founded a production company called The Imagination Agency. It’s that path that he wants others to follow.
“My ultimate goal with this book is for somewhere down the line, for a black boy to be accepting an award and to say, ‘I read this book by Martellus Bennett that made me feel I could do anything, so I decided to become a film director,’ or whatever they decide to do,” Bennett told the Globe. “That to me would be the most fulfilling thing ever.”
In an op-ed he wrote for the Washington Post in February, Bennett expressed the motivation behind his book. “Black boys shouldn’t have to feel that being good at sports is the only way to be cool — or to be valued by the world,” he penned.
Amen to that.
Bennett’s book was actually adapted from a letter he wrote for The Players’ Tribune in 2016 following the controversial shooting deaths of black men Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of law enforcement officers in July 2016. Bennett’s book uses sports metaphors to try to inspire young black boys to think beyond being the next LeBron James or Odell Beckham Jr. and to aspire to be the next great doctor, lawyer, or tech company founder.
It includes, “The low-hanging fruit is what the world prefers you to reach for, but we must climb the tree,” and “The game of life is the one game they don’t think you can win.”
Ten percent of the proceeds from Bennett’s book will be donated to nonprofit organizations aligned with the book’s mission and message.
Bennett is in town to do readings of the book. He was scheduled to be at Trident Booksellers and Cafe on Thursday night, and Frugal Bookstore and the Harvard Coop in Cambridge on Friday.
A 6-foot-6-inch, 275-pound ex-football player is not the archetypical children’s author, but Bennett loves defying stereotypes and expectations.
As Bennett told the boys, “I feel like society rolls us a ball and says, ‘Good luck.’ They don’t see the full potential we have as humans.
“I want them to see all the possibilities. To change the way society sees us, we have to change the way we see ourselves.”
That message resonated with 15-year-old Gordan Gaston, a student at the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School.
“He showed a lot of enjoyment and happiness towards being black,” said Gaston. “He’s like a very inspiring person. He encouraged me to push more.”
Bennett, who told the kids about recording a song with Snoop Dogg, knows he has the cachet to reach kids who might otherwise tune out the message of branching out that he’s delivering.
“I was able to break it down because I dress like them. I talk like them. I look like them, so it’s easier for them to relate to me. It’s just like they can see themselves in me,” said Bennett, whose first two children’s books featured a female character inspired by his daughter.
Bennett’s aim is the boys shedding self-imposed limits that they’ve subconsciously inherited from society and that are reinforced in the black community.
One of the greatest impediments to success for the middle school-age and high school-age kids that Bennett addressed is negative peer pressure that portrays doing well in school as being uncool.
“I think we need to celebrate the geniuses the way we celebrate the athleticism,” said Bennett. “If a kid walks into a barbershop that is good at sports, everyone is like, ‘Oh, this is such and such. Man, he’s got a mean jump shot. He’s going to be great. He has potential.’
“If a kid walks in that is an honor roll student, no one is like, ‘Man, this kid is a genius. He is going to really do well. He’s so smart. This kid is going to change the world. He’s got a mind on him.’ ”
Bennett has never allowed himself to be put in the box of just an athlete. He was in the band and was a mathlete at Alief Taylor High School in Houston.
His eclectic and iconoclastic nature led him to clash with the culture of conformity in the NFL, where individuality is virtually a sin. Bennett said he almost retired his third year in the league while playing for the Dallas Cowboys because he felt his individualism was being trampled. One day, he just didn’t show up. He credited former teammate Jon Kitna with helping him persevere.
Still, Bennett had to deal with being labeled a problem player as teams conflated his diverse interests as a lack of interest in football.
“They want a smart football player,” said Bennett. “They don’t want a smart human being.”
You would think Fort Foxborough would be the worst place for a renaissance man like Bennett. Austere coach Bill Belichick often preaches that he wants players who place high importance on football, and the Patriots practically give their players personality lobotomies. But Bennett praised the Patriots Way of Life.
Nate Ebner and Tom Brady were among those who took interest in the drawings and stories he would do on flights. Belichick showed Bennett’s animated film to the team on family day. The Patriots Pro Shop carried his books. He felt supported, not stifled.
That’s why Bennett is confident that his outspoken brother, defensive end Michael Bennett, acquired by the Patriots in an offseason trade, will fit in just fine in Foxborough.
“A lot of people were worried about when I came here. They were like, ‘Oh, he has a personality, so that’s terrible,’ ” said a sarcastic Bennett. “But, nah, I think he’ll do fine because he’s a really good football player, and what they really care about the most is performing on the field and playing football. He is going to do that very well.”
Don’t expect Bennett to join his brother, though. He told the kids that he used football as a “side hustle” so he could fund and pursue his creative interests.
“I used the game,” he said. “The game didn’t use me. They’re still calling me.”
These days, Bennett is focused on scoring with a different crowd.
“To me to be able to have that message to say, ‘You’re more than an athlete; you can do more,’ and then be the writer and the creator of it that’s the most powerful thing I could possibly do with it.”