By Andrea Kremer, NFL.com
The body is buff -- his arms cut, muscles bulging and toned. His hulking presence still dominates a room. There's no doubt he looks like he could still play. In fact, at just 33 years of age, he could be starting his 12th NFL season.
"In my mind, I could," said LeCharles Bentley, his voice tinged with both resignation and remorse. "But physically, no."
That's when the knee catches your eye. You know it's a knee because of where it sits on his body, but it looks like no other knee you've seen. Sure, it has a zipper, the sign of multiple surgeries. But many former players have the scars. This knee is misshapen -- a constant reminder of how close Bentley came to dying.
When you think of a natural, a quarterback or running back might come to mind. LeCharles Bentley was meant to play on the offensive line. An All-American at Ohio State, he was universally acclaimed for his flawless technique. Very smart and highly motivated, the Ohio native always had visions of ending his career in his home state -- in Canton, walking across the stage to pick up his gold Hall of Fame jacket.
Bentley was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the second round of the 2002 NFL Draft and made an immediate impact, earning Sports Illustrated writer Peter King's vote for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Bentley started his NFL career at guard and moved to center two years later, earning a Pro Bowl selection at each position. After starting 57 games over four seasons, he became a top-rated free agent.
Bentley proceeded to sign what was, at the time, the largest contract in the history of the NFL for a center -- a six-year, $36 million deal, including $12.5 million guaranteed, with his hometown Cleveland Browns.
"I can die happy now," Bentley said at his introductory press conference, wearing a Browns jersey under his sports coat.
He didn't realize how eerily prophetic those words would be.
It was July 27, 2006, the first day of Browns training camp. Bentley got tangled up in a pile of players as he was run blocking. He suffered a knee injury that then-Browns general manager Phil Savage called "one of the worst in NFL history."
"The initial injury was just a basic patellar tendon rupture," recalled Bentley. "Routine. And as a football player, that's what you sign up for. You sign up to be hurt. That's the nature of the game."
Bentley figured he'd undergo surgery and be back on the field the next season. After all, he was just 26. His last game had been the Pro Bowl. His best years clearly lay ahead.
"Young, healthy, felt good about myself," Bentley said. "You move on. But it was the subsequent staph infection that was the true culprit, and why I wasn't able to continue."
Bentley said he contracted a staph infection while rehabilitating his surgically repaired knee at the Browns' training facility. (Around that time, at least six Browns players were allegedly stricken with some type of staph infection.) The infection was the worst opponent Bentley had ever faced. It ravaged his knee.
"Eating it up every single day. Eroding the tissue," Bentley said.
And almost killing him.
"I almost died," Bentley said incredulously. "For 72 days, I stayed in the hospital, and this is the quote that I was given every day when doctors would come into the room to check on me: 'You aren't out of the woods yet.' At that point, throughout my entire body, the infection was rolling free."
He underwent four surgeries, and today, all that remains of his knee is scar tissue under the skin. It took a devastating physical toll on Bentley, but his mental demons were every bit as daunting, especially when doctors told him they might need to amputate his leg.
"At that time, my mindset was, Well I can't play football. There's nothing else for me to do here. I've seen enough," Bentley recalled. "And I would rather, at that time, have chosen to have died than lost my leg. And it was probably one of the most selfish and dumbest things that I've ever experienced in my life."
Bentley said he never actually tried to kill himself, but he had thoughts of wanting to end his life as he faced the mortality of his football career.
"Football was my life," Bentley said. "You wake up every day as an athlete and you aspire to be the best. (I was) in my prime and I had it pulled away. At that moment, it felt as if there was no tomorrow.
"Is there money? Yeah, we got money. People around you that loved you? Yeah, I've got people who love me. But I didn't have what I wanted. And that was an opportunity to be a Hall of Fame football player. It's one of those things, when you're going through it, in life, you don't understand what it's ultimately preparing you for. And that's the challenge of challenges. It's accepting where you are and understanding what's coming next."
For Bentley, the next and most crucial step was to get healthy. To rid his body of the staph infection. He had zero contact with the Browns during this time. ("There was too much negative energy in Cleveland," he said.) He even supervised his own rehab. But his goal remained the same: To get back on the field.
"For two years, every day I'd wake up and tried to figure out how to get better."
Bentley woke up in Scottsdale, Ariz. ... and in Columbus, Ohio ... in Hungary and Romania and Germany. He traveled the world trying to find specialists who could help. It was a "dark time" for Bentley, but there was a silver lining: Rozalia.
He met his future wife in Hungary, and they married in 2008, right after he officially retired. Today, they have four boys -- ages 3, 4, 8 and 9 -- and a baby girl on the way in October.
"She is a huge reason why I was able to get over the mental hump," Bentley said of his wife. "She provided stability in an unstable environment."
Bentley referred to his break from football as a difficult and bitter divorce, but he did achieve one goal before ending that love affair: passing the Browns' physical.
"The same doctor who told me, 'You will never play football again,' cleared me to play football," Bentley said. "I went to practice the next day, took a couple reps, scanned the landscape, and I realized that I had lost the passion. And I retired the next day. Spent two-and-a-half years fighting for this goal, watched practice, realized that I was going to give my life for something that in essence I wasn't gonna be able to do forever anyway. Why? So I went upstairs and I asked the GM to cut me."
Bentley said he realized his chief motivation for getting back on the field was proving to the naysayers that he could do it.
"I can't keep living my life trying to prove a point," Bentley remembered thinking. "When will I start looking to help others?"
It felt like a noble, altruistic gesture at the time, but Bentley's faith was tested as he tried to regain control over his life, a life that had him abusing pain/sleeping pills.
"If you stay at a hospital for so long that you don't sleep, you hardly eat. Yeah, you have pain; physically, it hurts, so they have to help you cope," Bentley said. "And once you are released from that, there's a different type of coping mechanism that you have to find. And I was so accustomed to what I was being given at the hospital. I still wanted it. So there was awhile when I had to go through this detox process."
This is the crossroads in the story where the lead character stands at the precipice, looks over the cliff and has a decision to make. LeCharles Bentley teetered on the brink and could've jumped.
"Either I was gonna sit there and feel sorry for myself, sit in my basement and keep plugging up IVs into my arm and taking antibiotics, or I was going to get off my couch and come up with something that was going to help me," Bentley said. "Literally, one morning I decided, 'I'm gonna open a gym,' because for me as a former player, the weight room and training was always my sanctuary. And for months on end, I would literally sit in my gym by myself and train. And then I said, 'I guess at some point I should start having people come in.' That it would be a good idea, in terms of business, if you wanna generate revenue -- can't just keep working out here by myself. Every day. I was going through a process, and through that healing, I was learning how to make myself better. I was learning as a player what I had and what I had lost. And how to make other players better. And I said, 'Wow, I think I might be on to something here. I'm gonna train offensive linemen. I'm gonna make my offensive linemen better. I'm gonna make my offensive linemen healthier.' "
And thus was born the Scottsdale-based LeCharles Bentley O-Line Performance Academy, what he says is the only facility in the country dedicated solely to the "big uglies." And it revolves around his belief that bigger is neither better nor healthier.
"The football part is easy," Bentley said. "Getting them to buy into the lifestyle is the hard part, in terms of diet, supplementation, understanding how to live your life away from the football field. How to train properly. To make sure that what takes place in the weight room transfers to the football field. For so many years, they've been told one thing: Get bigger. No. You get bigger in the wrong way, you've exacerbated your problems. But now, if I can get you to buy into understanding your diet -- how to sleep properly; when you go out to a restaurant, what to order -- now I'm giving you something that, by default, is going to make you a better football player."
And as much time as Bentley spends teaching his players how to punch with two hands or how to take on Vince Wilfork or Henry Melton -- today's premier D-linemen in Bentley's book -- he makes an equal commitment to sharing his nutritional wisdom.
This past summer, for the first time, Bentley held a camp for college linemen, bringing his holistic approach to the developmental stages. There were 10 campers, coming from UCLA, Ohio State, Toledo and Central Washington. The dozen or so teachers were Bentley's pro clients, like Alex Boone (of the San Francisco 49ers), Max Starks (San Diego Chargers), Willie Colon (New York Jets) and Kelechi Osemele (Baltimore Ravens).
"I've been able to take my knowledge from having played at Pro Bowl levels at two positions and merge that with my acquired credentials as a performance coach," Bentley said. "There's a very broad approach to what I do in terms of training, diet, film study, self-therapy and off-field etiquette. The college camp is a way to get a head start on imparting transitional skills to collegiate players prior to the NFL. And who better to do it than current and former players that are living the lifestyle I prescribe -- on and off the field?"
Notably, the pros spent as much time learning from their mentor as they did working with the next generation. Starks emphasizes the opinion of many: "I think if you had to sum up LeCharles Bentley -- as a player, as a coach, as an entrepreneur -- I would have to say, 'successful transition.' "
So the player who once contemplated ending his life at the prospect of a career-ending injury now stands as a walking testament to transitioning to life beyond the gridiron. And once the season starts, Bentley remains equally busy. He watches film of his clients' opponents and serves as a one-man scouting department. He even has an app for players to access his scouting reports, as well as suggestions on nutrition and supplements. He maintains the camaraderie from the locker room and lives vicariously through his players.
"I'm going to the Hall of Fame. That's a fact. And I won't stop until one of my guys from this, from what I do, walks across that Canton stage and picks up a gold jacket," Bentley stated. "That won't happen for me. Didn't happen. That's OK. But one of my guys will. That is a fact."
Follow Andrea Kremer on Twitter @Andrea_Kremer.