Travis Benjamin born on fast track to NFL

BEREA, Ohio -- If Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden didn't know the legend of "Muck City" before arriving in the NFL, he's receiving an education in it, courtesy of teammate Travis Benjamin.

Nicknamed for its fertile black soil, Belle Glade, Fla., and neighboring Pahokee produce sugarcane, sweet corn, peas and pro football players in abundance. Benjamin is among the natives who grew up chasing rabbits from the burning fields of cane at harvest time, a pursuit that strengthens legs and sharpens instincts.

Like many pro players from the rural parts on the shore of Lake Okeechobee, the wisp of a receiver is blessed with quickness. While rookies must adjust to the speed of the NFL, the NFL sometimes need to adjust to the speed of the blazers from Muck City.

"He's the fastest guy I've ever played with," said Weeden, who has underthrown a sprinting Benjamin on at least three occasions in the first four games. "He can really fly. I'm throwing routes to him where I have to shorten my drop to get it to him. I've never had a guy who can stretch it vertically that well. I'm not going to lie -- it takes some getting used to."

The Browns are hoping Benjamin becomes the latest from Belle Glade and Pahokee to excel in the league. The two towns, whose combined populations don't exceed 25,000 residents, are home to Santonio Holmes, Anquan Boldin, Fred Taylor, Andre Waters and Pro Football Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson. Benjamin's alma mater, Belle Glades Central High School, has placed 30-plus players in the NFL.

"The competition level is so high there," Benjamin said. "When we weren't in school, we were playing football or basketball from sunup to sundown. We'd go 'cross town and play the kids over there.

"When I went to [the University of] Miami and was playing against Florida State, I was facing some of the same kids from back home."

Belle Glade is two hours north of Miami and nearly as far from the trappings of pop culture. Belle Glade Central football coach Roosevelt Blackmon, who had a brief NFL career, said the nearest movie theater and mall are 30-plus miles away.

A sign welcoming visitors to Belle Glade reads: "Her Soil Is Her Fortune." Blackmon disagrees. He believes it's her people, a statement Benjamin co-signs.
"We always had players coming back telling us we could make it," Benjamin said. "I've talked to Santonio Holmes and Fred Taylor a lot. They gave me the mind-set and the words I needed to get to the next level."

Hair-raising speed
When Benjamin reaches full flight, his long dreadlocks dance on end. He's a Medusa in an orange helmet and a scary sight for the opposition.

The Baltimore Ravens got a peek Thursday night as Benjamin -- who hasn't cut his hair since middle school -- raced 40 yards on a fourth-quarter punt return in place of a concussed Josh Cribbs. Browns coach Pat Shurmur said jokingly the rookie will catch grief from teammates for allowing himself to get knocked out of bounds by the punter.

But the coaching staff continues to find ways to incorporate his speed into a lineup with a dearth of playmakers. Benjamin has run a few reverses, including one that carried for 35 yards. He also has five receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown. His snap count has risen dramatically in the past two games, and opponents must account for his big-play potential.

"There's a little bit of a fear factor with him," said Browns quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple, who served as Benjamin's offensive coordinator for two seasons at Miami. "Nobody likes to get beat deep. You see the way they play him, there's a respect factor there."

At 5-10, 175 pounds, Benjamin gives away an inch and 25 pounds to Browns place-kicker Phil Dawson. His 12-year-old sister Chasaty stands 5-8. His older brother Troy is 6-2. If Benjamin is bothered by his stature, he doesn't show it.

"God gave me the speed I needed," Benjamin said. "I'll take the speed over the height any day."

Playing in Belle Glade plied him with the confidence he could compete at the college and pro levels despite his slight build.

How good is the quality of Muck City football? Benjamin won a state title in 2006, but so did almost everyone else in the surrounding area. Pahokee, Belle Glades Central and Belle Glades Day -- located within a 10-mile radius -- all won championships in the same season.

Three years later, Holmes, of Belle Glades Central, and Boldin, of Pahokee, met in Super Bowl XLIII as Pittsburgh defeated Arizona, with Holmes capturing MVP honors.

"There is a great sense of pride in those communities," Whipple said. "They like to say they've come from there, and the legacies that have been passed on over the years are special."

The soil might be Belle Glade's fortune, but few residents share in her wealth. Poverty and crime are prevalent. Prior to Super Bowl XLIII, Holmes told reporters of his youth: "Either you're going to sell drugs or play football. Play sports or stand on the corner."

Benjamin said his mother, Cynthia Stewart, raised a family that stayed out of trouble. She sometimes held multiple jobs to provide for her three kids. Stewart continues to work, he said, as a deputy office for Palm Beach County.

Her son was a model high school student, Blackmon said, and that his biggest error in judgment has been accepting $140 in extra benefits from a former Miami booster that cost him a one-game suspension last season.

"My mother is my inspiration," Benjamin said. "She gave me a mind-set that the only way you get where you want is with hard work. We never wanted to let her down."

Rabbit season
Benjamin doesn't believe he owes his quickness to rabbit hunting in the smoke-filled sugarcane fields, but he's one of the countless numbers to partake in a tradition that dates at least to the 1940s.

He lived about a five-minute walk from the fields and estimates he caught 10 rabbits over the years. Benjamin said he knows of at least one teen who bagged 30 in a day. Some believe the ritual is the secret behind the success of so many players. Benjamin concedes one needs agility and timing to capture the darting bobtails.

"It is a special feeling when you catch that first one," he said.

Benjamin ran track in high school and college, but Whipple contends the Browns' receiver is "football fast." It's about more than accelerating in straight lines -- Benjamin did run a 4.36-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine -- it's about making tacklers miss.

He is one of six Hurricanes to finish his career with more than 2,000 yards in receiving.

"Everyone talks about being fast, but you've got to make plays, and Travis made them at Miami," Whipple said. "He had that ability to make big plays in big games using his speed."

Whipple recommended the Browns draft Benjamin not only for his ability, but his character and unselfishness. A kid who grew up chasing rabbits didn't mind serving as one at Miami as his deep speed opened up intermediate routes for others.

It's too early to say whether Benjamin develops into a dependable pro. Receivers of his proportion must demonstrate their durability at every level. He must also be able to catch balls in traffic as well as beat defensive backs along the sidelines.

Lots of kids from Muck City have proven they can reach the NFL. Benjamin wants to show he can stick.

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