BEREA — The thrill of drafting a blazer met with the reality of why Travis Benjamin was available to the Browns in Round 4 of the April draft.
It seemed clear the day Benjamin set foot in Berea. He could run with anyone in the NFL — and brother did his new team need speed.
But as spring practice moved along, a regular theme developed.
Every time Benjamin dropped a ball, he would howl in dismay. This made him all the more conspicuous, because when one turned to see who was howling, it would be the man with the longest hair on the team — he says he hasn’t had a real haircut since seventh grade.
He howled a lot.
Flash forward to summer. Six days into training camp, the howling has stopped. The ball is sticking to Benjamin’s hands.
His speed hasn’t gone anywhere, aside from straight into plans for the 2012 season.
Somebody asked head coach Pat Shurmur after practice how fired up he is about plugging those legs into game plans.
“I’m very eager, of course,” Shurmur said. “I think he has really established himself.”
Benjamin is listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds. He might weigh 175 after drinking two large milk shakes.
“When you look at him you say, ‘Well, OK, how is he going to be in traffic?’ ” Shurmur said. “But he’s distinguished himself these last couple days catching the ball in traffic.
“On a couple of pivot-in routes, he’s working back to the ball where the corner was hanging on his back, and he reached out in a physical way and caught the football with his hands.
“He shows some things that you need to see. I hope his development continues.”
Benjamin is a former track star who has run sub-4.3 40s. He wasn’t a high draft pick partly because he isn’t very big, partly because his stats at Miami Hurricanes wideout were, to use a term often applied by former Hurricanes coach Butch Davis, “just OK.”
He was a four-year letterman who left Coral Gables with 131 catches for 2,146 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Benjamin grew up in Belle Glade, Fla., located on one of the biggest freshwater lakes in the country, surrounded by muck plains in which boom crops of sugarcane are king in the local economy.
His role model was his mother, Cynthia Stewart.
“She worked two or three jobs at a time,” he says, “while taking care of me and my brother.”
He was never very big. His sport was always football.
“Everybody in Belle Glade played football,” he says. “I started when I was 6 or 7 ... backyard football ... tackle football.”
He didn’t regard himself as blazing fast until high school, but then, his town has always been rich in athletes, some of whom could outrun him until he got older.
Glades Central High School has churned out pro football players. Fred Taylor had a career that will get him Hall of Fame consideration. One of Butch Davis’ draft picks with the Browns, James Jackson, is a Glades Central guy. So is Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes.
“I was in junior high when Santonio was a senior in high school,” Benjamin said, “but I know him. I’ve followed his career. Everybody was excited when he made that catch to win a Super Bowl. I remember watching the game at home.”
Benjamin hasn’t heard of the famed Canton-Massillon game, but he has been part of arguably Florida’s biggest high school rivalry — Glades Central vs. Pahokee (alma mater of Ravens wideout Anquan Boldin). The game is known as the Muck Bowl. It has drawn as many as 25,000.
The Glades Central Raiders have won six Florida state championships. Benjamin and Damien Berry — now in his second training camp as a Baltimore Ravens running back — were teammates at Glades Central and then Miami.
One of the peculiar amusements known to Belle Glade youths is chasing wild rabbits.
“Yeah, I chased rabbits,” Benjamin says after a practice on the Browns’ sprawling, four-field complex. “We did it on a field that was probably the size of these fields.
“Yeah, the rabbits are really fast. Yeah, I’ve caught a rabbit.”
It’s a long way from Belle Glade to Berea, but Benjamin is starting to make himself at home. One of the regular sights in training camp has been rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden working on deep throws to the slender burner.
Benjamin says he was not demoralized by the dropped passes of spring ball.
“By the end of OTAs,” he said, using the code name for spring ball, “I thought it went good.
“I spent the break in Coral Gables, just training. There were a lot of players training there. (Miami alum and NFL All-Pro) André Johnson was there.
“I wanted to come back here in shape and ready to do a good job in camp.”
Ask him to name the fastest player on the team. He smiles.
Who are the fastest cornerbacks he is practicing against?
“Buster (Skrine) and Joe Haden,” he says.
Skrine, a Round 5 draft pick last year, is a another former track star. They have become friends.
“We never talk track,” Benjamin said. “Speed is important, but in football, it’s all about technique.”
For his new team, it’s all about hope ... finding something and someone who can help change a bad run.
Watching Benjamin run by defensive backs and make tough catches makes this clear enough: He is definitely someone to watch.