The interview that knocked Terrell Owens out of football was done by a teenager--he looks like Doogie Howser, acts like Morley Safer--in TO's New Jersey living room. "Actually, it was his cigar room," says 19-year-old Graham Bensinger. "At least that's what his publicist called it." Before interrogating Owens, Bensinger told him, "I'm disappointed you don't have a beach in your backyard." Like others of his generation, marinated in mass media, Bensinger is inured to celebrity publicists and in-house cigar rooms. And he knows, from a memorable episode of MTV Cribs, that Owens has a virtual Waikiki of white sand behind his other mansion, in Atlanta.
So the Syracuse freshman and ESPN.com freelancer, five months removed from high school in St. Louis, was not entirely surprised when Owens, with two cameras rolling, fired his Potshot Heard Round the World, denigrating Donovan McNabb and the Eagles, who promptly suspended their All-Pro receiver. But then, Bensinger is already responsible for more splashes than Barry Bonds, with whom he spoke for 45 minutes in September. His youth is the Trojan horse that gets him in the door for conversations with A-listers like Bonds and Muhammad Ali, to say nothing of hot-button miscreants like Pete Rose and O.J. Simpson, whose manager Bensinger called twice a week for 18 months, goosing the Juice for an interview. While his 155-pound body is screaming "T-ball," his mouth is playing hardball.
As a high school senior with his own weekly radio show in St. Louis, Bensinger asked Simpson if his children ever inquire about the murder of their mother. "I got e-mails that said, 'I hope you die a slow and painful death from cancer,'" recalls Bensinger, as others might recall their first kiss.
As he speaks, Bensinger is in his tiny dorm room at Syracuse, his muted TV tuned to a rebroadcast of the Mike and the Mad Dog radio show. (You know you're addicted to sports media when you watch a radio show on television with the sound off.) Shoehorned into this shoebox is a makeshift studio in which Bensinger records segments for the weekly show he hosts on Syracuse radio station WHEN, whose wattage is inversely proportional to that of his guests. (Last Saturday they included pop star Nick Lachey.)
As an adolescent autograph hound at Busch Stadium, Bensinger "realized I liked talking to players more than getting their autographs." So persistent was he in his twin pursuit of signatures and conversation that one still-active star--whom Bensinger declines to name for fear of reprisal--shouted in his face, "Shut the f--- up!" Bensinger was in sixth grade at the time.
In eighth grade he wrote to 50 former major league baseball players, requesting interviews for his (nonexistent) radio show. Weeks later the phone rang, and his father, Scott, answered. Cupping a hand over the mouthpiece, he said, "Graham, Will Clark is on the phone." Soon, three other baseball celebrities-- Bob Feller, Ernie Banks and Tim McCarver--called. And thus was born G Sport Radio, though nearly every athlete, in trying to recite his promos, earnestly called it G-Spot Radio.
And so Bensinger was quickly ushered into an adult world of G-spots and A-lists and F-bombs. G Sport Radio--essentially, audio interviews uploaded to the Internet--led to a weekly radio show in St. Louis, on which Dennis Eckersley told him last summer that he'd bet that Mark McGwire took steroids, a comment picked up nationally by ESPN Radio.
On a family vacation to Vail, Bensinger drove to Eagle, Colo., to cover the Kobe Bryant legal circus. As a sophomore he was in San Diego for Super Bowl XXXVII, where he talked to Owens for the first time. The two hit it off, and Bensinger has since talked to TO two or three times a year. So when Bensinger contacted the receiver two weeks ago, Owens--who was otherwise shunning the press--agreed to the hourlong sitdown that led to his seasonlong sitdown. It was Owens who put both feet in his mouth, but Bensinger did get him to open wide and say "Aah," asking if his 100th touchdown reception had been sufficiently celebrated by the Eagles and if the team would be better off with Brett Favre at quarterback. (By now Tibetan yak herders know how Owens answered.)
Bensinger returned to Syracuse as its most famous freshman since Carmelo Anthony. He missed five days of classes while he made a victory lap of TV appearances and discussed his future with ESPN executives. He was even invited to speak to an upper-level journalism class at Syracuse.
All of this (missing classes, making SportsCenter) echoes the life of a young star athlete. We might have guessed that when teenagers started jumping to the big leagues, other teens--with other gifts--would be gazing at them from the other side of the TV, dreaming up questions.