Bennett had been a football star at Peterson High School in Sunnyvale, Calif., a drop-back gunner with an accurate arm who was recruited by 127 colleges before he settled on Duke. At Durham, playing four years, he completed 820 of 1,375 passes for 9,614 yards, breaking McMahon's NCAA record for most yards passing in a career. He was cocky, glib and colorful. He had a yellow-orange sun, the size of a quarter, tatooed on his fanny. "It signifies California," he would say. While many expected him to shine in the pros, he never got close.
After being drafted by Atlanta of the NFL in the sixth round in 1984, Bennett signed instead with Jacksonville of the USFL, at $175,000 a year, but was cut in 1985 when the team signed Brian Sipe. "They told me I was too expensive to be a backup quarterback." he says. The Falcons signed him two weeks later, but at times he appeared more determined to embroider his reputation as a playboy than to be a football player. "I made the mistake of having too much fun in Atlanta," he says. So the Falcons let him go. The next year, he made a run to be a backup quarterback in Houston, but he was cut there, too.
Out of the game for a year—he ran a health club in Houston for a living—Bennett surfaced briefly last year during the strike. He had a cup of coffee with Dallas and Cincinnati, but when the strike was over, he was gone. His experience as a replacement player did do one thing for him, though. "It rekindled an old flame," he says. "I said, I love this game too much not to be playing it.' "
He had seen Arena Football—eight men on a side playing indoors on a 50-yard field—and figured he would try it. "I thought, Maybe this is my niche," he says. When he was not among the 200 or so players invited to try out for Arenaball last spring, he had to plead with league officials for an invitation.
It was his performance in Arenaball that led to Tobin's call. The timing was perfect. The week before, Bennett had finished his first full season as a color man on the Atlantic Coast Conference's game-of-the-week telecast, and he was doing nothing when Tomczak got hurt. When Tobin reached him later that Monday night and raised the issue of money, Bennett said, "Just offer me something, I'll sign."
He had no illusions when he arrived at the Bears' training complex on Nov. 29. The Bears were preparing for a Monday-night game against the Rams. "All they want me to do is bail them out in case of an emergency. I am a worst-case scenario—me on the field, actually playing, would only happen if Harbaugh went down."
Last Thursday, his first full day of practice, he warmed up in the cold by himself. He drifted toward McMahon and Harbaugh, who were playing catch, but they said nothing to him. It seemed an awkward moment. To a group of players, he said at last, "Hey, anybody want to play catch with the new kid in town?"
"I will," said linebacker Jim Morrissey. Linebacker Ron Rivera soon joined Morrissey, and Bennett began firing bullets to them. There was much good-natured needling, some directed at his having played Arenaball. At one point, guard Tom Thayer said to him, "If you get in, we're going to turn the teams sideways and play the width of the field." He was in a tough spot, and the Bears were sympathetic. Tomczak offered him shoes: "I'm the same size as you. Need some, let me know."
Of course, Bennett doesn't know how long he will be around. McMahon reportedly was almost ready, which would drop Bennett to third string, and Tomczak could be back by Dec. 19, the last game of the season, or at least by the start of the playoffs. If all three quarterbacks are healthy, Bennett will be gone. But for the moment this was the break he had been waiting for.
"All of a sudden," he said, "I'm on the fifth floor and on my way up.... I can't put into words how happy I am to be here."