In recent years, fellow tight ends Jason Witten and Rob Gronkowski have retired from football only to find themselves unsatisfied with their second acts; both quickly returned to the familiarity of the game. Bennett, by contrast, hasn’t missed it for a moment. He had laid the groundwork for a second career while still in the NFL. For all of the speed and brutality of the sport, the life of a professional football player is marked by long stretches of tedium. During endless team meetings, Bennett was never without his sketchbook, in which he would invent characters and build universes for them to inhabit. “I had to learn how to play football, how to run routes, how to catch,” he said. “No one has ever taught me how to be creative. It’s just who I am.”
It’s a testament to Bennett’s talent—on the field, and in his sketchbook—that such an avocation was permitted inside Belichick’s famously all-business locker room. Bennett presented some of his sketches and storyboards to the entire Patriots roster; Chris Long, a former teammate, told me he’s “a big admirer of his creativity.”
Bennett was also known on the team for his commitment to social justice. Beginning in 2016, he was one of a cohort of players who advocated for police accountability, a group that included Colin Kaepernick as well as Bennett’s older brother, Michael. The issue has since gained traction, but at the time it was a lonely cause, and one that came with real costs.
Bennett, who is now 33, remains a critic of the NFL, a league he regards as infected by racism, even as it has belatedly made a show of embracing social-justice issues. But in his second career, he’s trying to address racial disparities in a different industry: children’s entertainment.
From the April 2018 issue: Vann R. Newkirk II on where fantasy meets Black Lives Matter
Bennett is the author of four books for children, which he writes as well as illustrates. His goal is to tell the kinds of stories he struggled to find during his own childhood: stories about Black characters going off on fantastical adventures, which too often have been the exclusive province of white characters written by white authors. In June, Bennett signed a deal with Disney to create an animated series based on his Hey A.J. series, which follows the escapades of his daughter, Austyn Jett Rose. It was a coup for Bennett’s still fledgling enterprise, and a meaningful one, given the scope of his ambition. “I don’t ever want to be remembered for playing sports,” he told me. “I don’t want anyone to bring up Super Bowls. I want them to say, ‘Oh, and he played football.’ ”
Growing up in Houston, Bennett was a standout athlete, excelling at both basketball (he briefly considered the NBA, and was talented enough to have been drafted) and football (as a senior at Alief Taylor High School, he was ranked the best tight end in football-rich Texas). But Bennett was also big-brained and quick-witted, with interests that stretched well beyond athletics. His mother, Pennie, was a middle-school teacher. His father, Michael, was an IT tech at Enron. Martellus was an honor student and a first-chair trombonist in the school band. As a hobby, he and his father would build computers from scratch.