-- This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Aug. 22 College Football Preview Issue. Subscribe today!
MICHAEL AND MARTELLUS Bennett tend to perplex people. This becomes clear when we stop for lunch at a West Hollywood café, the kind of crunchy, actressy place that serves food on wooden boards. The brothers split up as soon as they walk in. Michael circles a display of expensive sweets ("I don't eat American chocolate," he sniffs), and Martellus hovers near the entrance, offering health and safety advice to customers as they leave the restaurant. "Wrap it up," he counsels a man walking out the door. The guy stares at him, trying to deduce why a stranger is telling him to wear a condom.
We find a table on the patio, and the brothers sit next to each other. If not for their massive builds -- Michael is 6-foot-4 and Martellus 6-foot-6 -- the two NFL stars could easily be confused for LA hipsters. They're both wearing ripped black jeans and designer T-shirts and have soft beards that frame their chins like fuzzy halos. Michael, who is stouter, says his facial hair is supposed to be disorienting. "I always wanted to look like: 'Is he homeless or is he rich?'" he says. "That's my No. 1 goal."
A waitress approaches and asks Michael whether he ordered the roast chicken. "Don't be racist," he says, a joke that causes her hands to tremble a little as she sets down the plate. (He did, in fact, order the chicken.) "What kind of salt y'all got? Himalayan salt?"
Martellus dips a spoon into the bowl she has placed in front of him. "This is a heavy-ass soup," he says. "Can I have some more tortilla strips? I like that crunch."
The waitress asks whether they want anything else.
"World peace," Michael replies.
"Awesomeness," Martellus says.
This is a lesson that everyone who encounters the Bennetts eventually learns: At any given moment, they might be screwing with you. Take, for example, our conversation about Jerry Jones. As Martellus finishes his soup, he tells a story about the time he visited the billionaire's mansion for tea and perused Jones' selection of fancy cutlery. "Once you get rich," he says, "you start collecting weird s--- like silverware."
When I ask the brothers what they would collect if they were as wealthy as the Cowboys' owner, they respond at the same time and without skipping a beat: "People."
"I would have somebody who has my blood type and my kidneys -- stuff like that," Michael says. "They would just be on deck. I'd be like, 'My kidney's failing -- it's time!'"
Martellus wags his finger at an imaginary organ donor. "Oh, is that water, Jimmy? It better be!"
"It's time for your heart," Michael says. "I'm sorry -- it's gotta go."
I scan both of their faces, attempting to confirm that they're kidding. Martellus picks up his spoon. "This soup is so good," he says.
THOUGH DOZENS OF siblings have made it to the NFL, it's rare for two brothers to play at an elite level. The Barbers did it. So did the Mannings and Pounceys. The Bennetts, both former Pro Bowlers, belong in this club. Martellus, who is 29 and was traded in the offseason to the Patriots, led all tight ends in catches in 2014. Michael, who turns 31 this fall and plays for the Seahawks, is one of the NFL's best pass rushers.
Their performance has brought them name recognition -- but it's their comments that have catapulted them to notoriety. The brothers speak with a loose candor, addressing Black Lives Matter, the NCAA and inequity in the NFL as easily as offensive schemes and multiple defensive fronts. Michael is famous for his outré sound bites: He has compared the Panthers to an attractive cousin and disclosed his personal sex schedule. In New England, reporters accustomed to the anodyne Patriot Way are fanning themselves over Martellus' colorful quotes.
"I'm not gonna go up there and give a Russell Wilson answer," Michael says.
In a league in which the powers that be stamp out quirks like inspectors on a factory line, the Bennetts have remained, unapologetically, themselves. And so it is that I'm spending three days in Los Angeles trying to understand just how they've done it -- how they've not only survived in the NFL but prospered.
At lunch, Martellus turns to Michael. "Do guys ever come up to you and say, 'Man, you said that? I wish I could say that ...'"
"All the time," he replies.
"They think it's weird that we're ourselves," Martellus says. "I think it's weird that you're trying to be something you're not."
AS WE CRAWL through the city, making our way from Hollywood to Burbank in an SUV, the brothers peer out at the sunbaked pedestrians. Martellus lives in Chicago but comes here often for work; Michael, who spends the offseason at his home in Hawaii (his wife, who is Samoan, has family there), is visiting for a few days. He finds LA hilarious. When we pass a long-haired rocker idling on the sidewalk, Michael swivels his head. "He's wearing one of them Kanye shirts," he says. "The ones that go down to the ankles."
"I feel like I'm the Kanye of the NFL," Martellus says.
We're driving toward the office of an animation company called Stoopid Buddy Stoodios. Martellus, who has already self-published an animated short and a children's book, has been collaborating with the company on a stop-motion television show. When I ask how he finds the bandwidth for it all, he says that while playing in the NFL is physically taxing, your average player actually has a ton of free time: "If I wake up at 6 a.m. to work out, I'm done at 10 a.m. Most guys play video games all day."
Michael, for his part, is interested in politics (he supported Bernie Sanders during the primaries) and loves cooking and travel. He has three daughters and coaches their basketball teams. He runs a foundation that promotes healthy eating, and he has a garden in Hawaii. I ask him what he grows there.
Martellus leans over and interrupts: "DEEZ NUTS!"
Interviewing the Bennetts is a little like being an audience member at an improv show, occasionally called on to offer prompts. They don't just finish each other's sentences, they anticipate them; the brothers share several volumes' worth of inside jokes. Michael's wife, Pele, says they have operated in perfect sync since she met them in high school. "Everyone who didn't know them thought they were twins," she says.
Martellus, in fact, is 16 months younger than Michael. He was born after the family relocated from Louisiana to San Diego, where their father, Michael Sr., was stationed on a naval base. When their parents divorced in the early 1990s, their father raised the kids by himself. "As far as I can remember, I was always with my dad," Martellus says. "He exemplified what it means to make sacrifices for your family." After several years of being a single parent, the Bennetts' father remarried and moved the family to a town outside Houston, where he got a job working in IT for Enron.
As boys, the brothers were inseparable. They spent summers on their grandparents' farm in Louisiana, where they fished, hunted birds with homemade bows and, according to Michael, "body-slammed cows." In Houston, they cruised around in a go-kart, weaving through traffic to get to Taco Bell. When Enron imploded from massive accounting fraud and Michael Sr. lost his job, the boys helped their dad install computer systems for local schools, crawling through walls and running cables. They slept on a bunk bed together. They played football together. On more than one occasion, they tag-teamed their childhood enemies together. "It was never one-on-one," Martellus says. "If you fought Michael, I'd appear out of the smoke like Batman."
Though both brothers played starring roles on their high school team -- at one point, they terrorized quarterbacks as bookends on the defensive line -- Martellus was the more sought-after prospect. He was a five-star tight end recruit and a nationally ranked basketball player coveted by the likes of Duke. During his senior year, Martellus at first declared for the NBA draft but instead signed on at Texas A&M, joining his older brother, who had deferred college for a year because of a filing error.
The Bennetts can recall only one time in their lives when they felt isolated from each other. When Michael was 10 years old, his appendix ruptured. He was rushed to the ER for surgery and ended up spending several months in the hospital, undergoing multiple operations. "I had to relearn how to walk again," he says. "It was a really tough time for my family because I was such a young kid and they had another son at home."
As Michael tells the story, I glance at Martellus, who usually seems bemused whenever his older brother speaks. Instead, he's tensed up. I ask whether he was afraid when Michael got sick. "At that age, we played all the time," he says. "You go to the hospital and you try to get him to play ..."
Martellus stops talking and bows his head for a moment, wiping tears from his cheeks. His brother squeezes his shoulder, then bows his head too. A minute or so passes before the younger brother speaks. "I wasn't afraid ... I just didn't know," he says, his eyes wet with emotion. "He couldn't do anything."
It took Michael over a year to fully recover from his surgeries, which left him with a deep, L-shaped scar. Martellus says the experience brought them even closer. "It was tough on me because I never really had -- to this day, I don't really have friends, because I never needed friends," he says.
"I always had my brother."
ONE NIGHT, WHILE we're eating dinner at a fancy hot dog place (if you're wondering whether the Bennetts made lewd jokes about the sausages -- what do you think?), I ask Michael, who's famously critical of the league's overpaid passers, what he thinks of Jay Cutler.
"Worst quarterback in the NFL," he says.
"I'd be open and he'd throw into double coverage," says Martellus, who spent the past three seasons as Cutler's teammate in Chicago.
If there's an unspoken rule in the NFL against roasting other players, the Bennetts break it every day. What follows is a non-comprehensive list of their takes on various figures in football:
Martellus: "Eli? He's cool. He's like a normal white guy you see at the park trying to teach his kids how to play soccer and you know he can't really play soccer himself."
Martellus: "If a QB went 7 -- 9, he'd never be able to find a job."
Michael: "Make sure he's in the NFC West."
Michael: "I've got more sacks than he's got touchdowns." (This is accurate.)
Martellus: "I've caught more balls than he's completed." (Also accurate.)
Martellus: "Joel Osteen."
Michael: "Tom Cruise. I feel like Pete Carroll is like Benjamin Button. He doesn't want to get old. He's getting younger every year. What is going on?"
Martellus: "That's what money does."
Michael: "A--hole. Nah, I'm just joking -- you can't say that. Overpaid."
Michael: "Dominant player."
Martellus: "Corny. Half of the NFL is corny, though."
Michael: "People love J.J. Watt, but they don't really like J.J. Watt, know what I'm saying?"
Michael: "The greatest quarterback in the NFL."
Martellus: "Vicious. Competitive."
Michael: "A real Joe Montana."
Martellus: "The silver fox you never get to see but you hear about. You only get to take one photo, and you have to stay outside for a year just to get it."
Martellus: "I hated Jason Witten. I appreciated his game, but I always hated him."
Michael: "Probably the quarterback I like to hit the most."
I ASK MICHAEL later what it feels like when he sacks a superstar like Newton. "It's like lovemaking," he says. "Every season, it comes to that one climax. It's like" -- Michael pauses, rolls his eyes back into his head and emits a noise that sounds like the throaty gasp of a goat that's just been slaughtered.
"All of the other rushes are like foreplay," Martellus says. "You finally get to the bedroom."
"Yeah, you get to the bedroom," Michael says. "Take it off."
His brother looks at him. "That's a good analogy."
"That's a great analogy," Michael says.
WHEN MARTELLUS BENNETT was 12 years old, he started his first business. He hired a crew of local kids to mow their neighbors' lawns -- he made them sign actual contracts, he says -- then paid them in burgers and fries. He then used those profits to buy cheap candy, which he sold back to the same kids. His father says he would sometimes come home and find that Martellus had sold off the family's bicycles and toys. "He was a hustler," he says with a laugh.
These days, the Bennett brothers are blunt about their shared belief that they're underpaid. (Michael, playing under one of the most team-friendly contracts in the league, has been trying to persuade the Seahawks to rework his deal.) But when they talk about wealth and NFL salaries, it's clear they're less concerned with money than power. "If you're a player, the only thing you own is your likeness, and your likeness has a date on it," Michael says. "The only way we can be sustainable is to make our own companies."
Martellus points out that football contracts, which are short and non-guaranteed, pale in comparison to the deals handed out in the NBA. "Do you know what the NFL stands for?" he asks.
No Fun League? Not For Long?
"N-----s For Lease."
It might seem hard to sympathize with this idea -- the notion that a pair of brothers who have both made more than $20 million playing football could be dissatisfied with the system that's enriched them. But consider: Michael and Martellus were raised by a good man who lost his job because of the bad actors above him. They've seen hundreds of players rise and fall with little to show for it, while the suits who profit off their bodies stay in the same place. They know what it means to be labor instead of capital. "Growing up, black people never owned anything," Martellus says. "I want to build. I want to make."
He turns to Michael. "How many black owners have there been in the history of the NFL?"
"Zero," Michael says. "We're check getters, not check writers."
As we roll through Burbank, the palm-tree-studded suburb where Stoopid Buddy Stoodios is based, the conversation turns to the NFL Players Association. The brothers believe the union hasn't been sufficiently innovative in tapping new revenue streams. "Why are we not hiring people who used to work at Microsoft, at Google, Apple?" Michael asks. "We can't be athletes thinking the way athletes think. We need people who are like: I used to work at Nike. Let's go to China and create our own shoes."
"That's my problem with the NFLPA," Martellus says. "I feel like they're always playing defense and not offense. They're never making progressive moves."
"We could be like the WWE -- they started their own channel," Michael says.
"We could make our own movies."
"We could make our own show."
I ask Michael, a backup player representative for the Seahawks, how he would strengthen the union. He notes that unless indispensable stars -- quarterbacks, in particular -- take a lead role in organizing players, the NFLPA will never build enough leverage to pressure the league in negotiations. "In the NBA, LeBron James, Chris Paul ... they're at the forefront," he says. "There's no Peyton Manning standing up for the rest of the players. He's a great player, but what has he done for the league?"
When we park outside the studio, the brothers are still volleying moneymaking ideas back and forth. As soon as we walk inside, Martellus wanders off to greet the artists and animators in the office, who seem unstirred by the towering NFL player in their midst. Near the door, a giant robot stands sentry, thrusting its metallic crotch toward the front desk. Michael runs up to it and reciprocates the gesture.
We head upstairs, where the studio has prepared elaborate 3-D mock-ups of two characters that Martellus dreamed up for his television show, which he hopes to pitch to a major network. As he explains the premise -- The Gridiron Guild is about a young boy, Blitz, who plays football with otherworldly creatures -- Michael sits near us, fiddling with a Rubik's Cube. "This is gorgeous -- this is an artgasm right here," Martellus says. He leans in to examine the Blitz figurine, which is holding a walnut-sized football. It looks like a tiny version of him. "If I don't make black characters, who will?" he says. "In Frozen, there's not one black character in Arendelle. I don't even know where Arendelle is, but there's gotta be a black person somewhere. One of us made it over there, goddamn it." When Martellus and I rise to leave, Michael tosses the Rubik's Cube, completed, onto the table. We look up, surprised. "You can't always pay attention to greatness," he says.
THE BROTHERS MEET up in the morning at Unbreakable Performance Center, a small, private gym in Hollywood where several NFL stars train in the offseason. As Drake thuds over the speakers, a few players mill around, twitching to the beat. I hover near Texans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, who has a sweet smile and is roughly the size of a Sub-Zero refrigerator. We watch Michael perform a peculiar exercise, pumping his groin against a resistance band while he lies on his back. "This is why athletes have so many babies," he says between grunts.
After an hour of lifting weights, one of the trainers orders everyone to gather around him. He puts his hands on his hips. "One thing we're not gonna allow here is guys not doing good technique," he barks, pantomiming the wrong way to do an exercise.
Most of the players nod, but Michael seems irritated; as the trainer lectures the group, his eyes narrow and he crosses his arms, shifting from foot to foot. Finally, he erupts: "If you've got something to say -- say it to my face," he says to the trainer, who seems surprised. An awkward silence falls over the gym. Martellus, behind me, rises from a bench, trying to make eye contact with his brother. A few minutes later, once the group has dissipated, he approaches Michael, briefly resting a calming hand on his arm.
Since they were in college, the Bennetts have heard it whispered: They're difficult to coach. Michael, in particular, was known for butting heads with the staff at A&M. "If he feels like he's being slighted -- or that he's right on an issue -- he's gonna be honest about it," says former college teammate Red Bryant, now a defensive tackle with the Arizona Cardinals. "If he wasn't as talented and didn't make the plays he makes, he wouldn't be able to be as opinionated and colorful." And yet in 2009, Michael went undrafted, in part because of his coaches' reviews.
I ask the brothers if they think they're hard to manage. "I've clashed with coaches," Michael says.
"I've always been very coachable," Martellus says. "I mean, there was that one time I made the song 'Throw Me the Ball, Coach' ... but that was just the chorus."
Regardless, Martellus, who declared for the draft the year before Michael, was taken in the second round by Dallas. But he languished on the bench behind indestructible veteran Jason Witten, averaging only 1.5 catches per game during his first three seasons. When the Giants offered Martellus a one-year deal and the chance to start, he bolted. That year, he put up more yards than he did during the previous three seasons combined. "New York changed my life," he says. "When I got there, they gave me a list of art museums. They gave me a list of places I should see, places I should eat. ... I found a balance of life outside of football." The next season, he signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Bears.
The Bennetts maintain that, contrary to the beliefs of certain traditionalists, they play better when they're given the freedom to improvise, both on and off the field. Michael found that equilibrium in Seattle. "A lot of white coaches want to be fathers to black players," he says. "Pete Carroll's not like -- 'You gotta tuck in your shirt.'" He shakes his head. "Do you know how much easier it is to work for somebody when you can be yourself? Why do you think Google, Apple and Facebook are so successful? When people can be who they really are, they do so much better." The Seahawks, he says, are the Google of the NFL. "They let you be you."
Since moving to Seattle, Michael -- once seen as a tweener, too small to play tackle but too slow to play end -- has thrived. To offensive coordinators, he's a mathematical problem that lacks a solution, attacking quarterbacks from different points on the line. Martellus says he swells with pride whenever the scouting report on his brother is distributed before games. "Sitting in those meetings, preparing to play against him -- that's been the coolest thing in my career," he says. "You try not to smile."
Earlier this year, after an injury-riddled season with the Bears, Martellus was traded to the Patriots. The pairing seems like it could be a train wreck; Foxborough, where players rarely speak candidly to the media, is not exactly known for its open discourse. (Even Gronk, for all his high jinks, typically gives inoffensive quotes.) But Martellus insists he's thrilled to be in New England, where he'll play the Seahawks in November. "I've been in the league for nine years now, and I've only been on two teams where the guys were a team: the New York Giants and now with the Patriots."
"That's why this season is so motivating -- he's on the Patriots, I'm on the Seahawks," Michael says. "What's better than both of us going to the Super Bowl in Houston ... and us beating them?"
ON MICHAEL'S LAST day in Los Angeles, the three of us gather on the roof of a hotel in Beverly Hills, at a restaurant that feels transported from a Connecticut country club; we're surrounded by old men dressed like Thurston Howell on Gilligan's Island and women wearing sunglasses with grapefruit-sized lenses. A few overdressed children are stabbing at fluffy omelets. Michael, who is wearing shorts and a baseball cap that says "Savage," sits down and surveys the scene. "I don't know where I'm at," he says. "I feel like I'm at a place where black people don't come."
When a group of people squeezes by us, a tall, model-thin woman bumps into Martellus. She whips around; it's Elizabeth Berkley of Saved by the Bell and Showgirls fame. "Sorry!" she says. "I was hugging my mom."
Martellus flashes a brilliant smile. "I thought you wanted to hug me."
Michael orders a bowl of sweet potato fries and a ginger beer. After the waiter brings him his drink -- the poor guy obliges when Michael instructs him to fill his glass exactly one-third full -- we talk about legacy. Michael says he doesn't care about making it to the Hall of Fame. "Success is measured in so many different ways," he says. "To me, success is being super happy and enjoying your family. You look at these people who have so much money" -- he gestures toward a nearby table, at a few of the aforementioned Thurston Howell look-alikes -- "and they can't even be themselves." (About an hour later, the table will ask Martellus for a photograph.)
Michael pokes at his fries. "When I win, I watch a movie with my daughters when I get home," he says. "When I lose, I watch a movie with my daughters when I get home."
Martellus, who has a daughter, says football is easy compared with fatherhood. "The game on Sunday is just like the week before," he says. "But I might go home and my daughter don't like purple no more -- she likes blue." He laughs. "I'd rather be a great dad and an OK football player instead of being a great football player and a sh---y-ass dad."
I ask the brothers what advice they would give to young guys entering the league. "Every time I sit down with them at the lunch table, I ask: 'What do you like to do?'" Martellus says. "You know what half of them say? 'I have no idea.'" Because compliance is so deeply embedded in the culture of football, he says, players never learn to cultivate a sense of self, and they're lost when the sport leaves them behind. "When we're done, we can't get jobs. We don't know s---. We don't have interests, we don't have passions. Football is the only thing we've done our entire lives."
Michael nods. "Athletes -- your whole life you're pointed a certain way. You don't know who you are."
Of course, it's also possible that some athletes do know who they are but are afraid to reveal themselves to an unsparing public. In the NFL, talent begets freedom of expression.
After a couple of hours, Michael gets up to use the restroom; it's getting late in the afternoon, and he has to catch a flight back to Honolulu. A few minutes later, he returns, a sly grin on his face. He glances around the restaurant, clearing his throat a little. "That bathroom's so clean, you gotta wash your hands before you go in there!" he tells Martellus, loudly so that the tables around us can hear him. A few feet away, Elizabeth Berkley laughs. And with that, the brothers rise and part ways, leaving a trail of starstruck yacht owners and befuddled waiters in their wake.