FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) If Martellus Bennett had his way, people would live in his world.
He describes it as a fun place, where imaginations can run wild and people can feel unrestrained.
And in a way, Bennett has managed to do just that in his first season with the New England Patriots.
Fair or unfair, under Bill Belichick New England has been branded as an organization where individuality is discouraged, and where Belichick’s boiler plate lines like “I’m going to do what’s best for the team” are often repeated by his players.
But while he has integrated himself into Belichick’s football philosophies, off the field “Marty” has been the antithesis of conformity. With locker room jester Rob Gronkowski on injured reserve since December following back surgery, Bennett has stepped right into his role as the most dominant personality in the room.
And yet, somehow, Belichick’s team-first, disciplined environment and the veteran tight end’s quirkiness have meshed.
“Ever since the first day I came here I felt like I belonged, whether it was my teammates who accepted me, or from upper management down to the coaches,” Bennett said. “Not only did I buy into the program, but the whole Patriots organization bought into me.”
Bennett’s locker room sessions with the media this season have been like an amusement park ride with a constantly evolving course, where topics jump from football to philosophy to politics to even his love of bacon.
When players around the league were participating in national anthem demonstrations similar to the one started by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Bennett and teammate Devin McCourty did their own by raising their fists after the anthem concluded .
“I love America. I don’t want to live anywhere else. But there’s still some (messed up things) going on around the world,” Bennett said at the time.
Then there was the time Bennett turned to the business world to explain how the Patriots dominated Denver late in the season.
“I’ve been invested in not only putting in the work that I need to, but invested in my teammates, and right now we’re trying to get out ROI,” Bennett said.
“What’s that?” a reporter asked.
`Come on man, return on investment! You got to get your stocks up baby!” Bennett replied.
How about that time he wanted to get paid in gold?
“I tried to get paid in gold, but they said `No,'” Bennett explained. “I’ll take a check, too, though. As long as it cashes.”
None of it has rubbed Belichick the wrong way.
“Guys are different, but that’s OK,” Belichick said.
That’s because on the field, Bennett has been exactly what the Patriots hoped for. His career-high seven receiving touchdowns led the team during the regular season, and his 701 receiving yards were second to Julian Edelman‘s 1,161 yards. He also has six catches for 36 yards in the playoffs.
He’s not only filled the void created by Gronk’s football absence, but it’s helped him blend into a locker room where Bennett truly is allowed to be the unpredictable “black unicorn” he says is his spirit animal.
“We all have fun in our own ways, but I don’t think anyone can come close to Marty on that,” Patriots defensive captain Dont’a Hightower said.
Bennett says it’s all a function of how his mind works.
“I just like to go to fun places,” Bennett said in describing what makes him tick. “And they’re usually places that I create in my head.”
That’s no joke. His company, The Imagination Agency, creates children’s books and other products for children. The first book, “Hey A.J. It’s Saturday” was written by Bennett, who based the main character on his daughter, Austin Jett.
In addition, Bennett’s created his own cartoon avatar, “Football Marty,” who is featured in his new clothing line. He’s toying with including it in a children’s book. Perhaps the character will go into space, he says, which it turns out is also an affinity of Bennett’s. It makes sense because he went to high school outside of Houston.
The owner of eight NASA hats, Bennett exchanged tweets with the agency when it found out about his interest in the space program. The conversation ended with NASA inviting him to tour its facilities.
But in the end, being accepted for his uniqueness off the field has made the football part easier.
By being focused, and taking to coaching and paying attention to detail, Bennett said he was able to get an understanding of “what is expected and what they want from me.”
Now it has Bennett on the cusp of achieving something he never imagined possible: a Super Bowl title.
“Everyone here believes. There wasn’t a nonbeliever in this room at any time about going to the Super Bowl or what our goal was from the moment I got here in March or April,” Bennett said. “That rubs off on you. Iron sharpens iron and attitude is contagious. A winning attitude is contagious. I definitely got affected since I’ve been here. I’ve got the winning disease right now and I’m enjoying this one. I don’t need the antidote.”
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower