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Bennett Grateful For Mentor Like Croom


Every time he sees him, and it will be no different this weekend at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Green Bay Packers running backs coach Edgar Bennett can't help but remember the long, sit-down conversation eight years ago.

It was with Sylvester Croom, now the running backs coach of Sunday's opposing St. Louis Rams, in Croom's office at Lambeau Field - the same one Bennett now occupies.

Back in 2001, Croom was beginning a three-year tenure as the running backs coach of the Packers, and Bennett was embarking on his post-playing career as Green Bay's director of player development.

Thinking he wanted to eventually get back into the on-field game after seven seasons as a running back (five with the Packers, two with the Chicago Bears), Bennett decided to approach Croom, who already had a quarter century to his credit as a major college and NFL coach, about what it would take to break into the coaching ranks.

"I can certainly remember it like it was yesterday," Bennett said. "You start trying to map out and lay out a plan. We talked about the pluses and minuses, and to truly become a coach, if that's where your heart and your passion is ..."

Little did either know it at the time, but that conversation spurred countless more over the next three years and laid the groundwork for Bennett's path as a future coach. It also began an irreplaceable friendship between two dedicated football men who still talk all the time about their beloved sport, their lives, and everything in between.

"He is a very, very deep friend, but also a mentor," Bennett said. "I was very fortunate to have that time with him."

*Three years, side-by-side*

After Bennett made Croom aware of his potential interest in coaching, to say Croom took him under his wing would be an understatement.

Sensing he had a protégé as passionate about the game as himself, Croom made the recent "retiree" an unofficial assistant coach, giving him as many duties as he could without hampering Bennett's ability to successfully perform his role as director of player development.

First and foremost, though, Croom had a message to deliver. Because over the years he had seen many other young up-and-comers who said they wanted to coach but who weren't willing to make the sacrifices, put in the extra time, and dedicate themselves to the details. But if Bennett was willing to do all that, and Croom suspected he was, then he was more than willing to help.

"The thing that I told him was in order to do this, you have to learn 'how' to coach first, in order for people who have been in it long-term to respect what you do," said Croom, who turned 55 on Friday and is now in his 34th year of coaching, 18th in the NFL. "Edgar is one of those guys who listens."

So for three years, from the 2001 through 2003 seasons, he let Bennett sit in on meetings, help with scouting reports and game plans, work with players in practice, and even communicate with them on the sidelines during the heat of battle on Sundays.

Much of their work together was done late at night in Croom's office, after Bennett was done with his player-development responsibilities. Under former head coach Mike Sherman, Croom had the short-yardage and goal-line portions of the offensive game plan, and the two watched game film together, scouted opposing defensive players, and prepared meticulously for the upcoming week of practice.

Bennett filled dozens of notebooks with detailed notes on everything from how to install a particular running-game concept to how to teach a certain pass-protection principle.

"You could see he was really into it," said Croom, who admitted with a chuckle he was learning a lot too, because Bennett was teaching the elder coach how to do his work on the computer instead of by hand like he'd always done. "He came up there and sat in my office with me every night during the week. No matter how late I stayed, he stayed there with me the whole time."

As far as performing the day-to-day work, Croom's underlying message to everything was preparation. Intuitively, Bennett knew that making the transition from running back to running backs coach wouldn't be as simple as it might appear to the outside world, but that point was hammered home with the weekly work on the game plan.

As a player, Bennett remembered showing up for work on Wednesdays after the Tuesday off day and being handed the game plan, and taking it from there. Now, he was seeing that the game plan wasn't just a booklet pulled from an old shelf and dusted off.

"It opened up my eyes to all the little things that they did as far as the preparation before we even got the plan," Bennett said. "Spending countless hours Monday and Tuesday, getting that book ready so we can have a sound plan going into Sunday's game, the detail of it."

Bennett was learning just as much on the practice field and in meetings. During practice, while Croom was observing his backfield charges execute the plays, Bennett was off to the side with the other running backs. He'd give them the play so they could get what's called a "mental rep," thinking through all of their duties relative to the call, be it where to run, whom to block, or how to run a pass route.

In meetings, the concepts were repeated and the key points emphasized through film work. In those meetings, Bennett paid close attention to not only the teaching tools Croom used, but how he conducted himself as a leader.

"Planning what you want to get done on the practice field, the looks you need to show them on the field as well as on film to drive home certain points -- all of that was valuable as a learning experience," Bennett said.

"But there were so many other things. The rapport that he had with his guys and the respect they gave him. It's about character and how he carried himself and how he talked to people, getting them to understand without always having to bark at people or talk down to them. He was always steady and level-headed."

Earning that respect in front of the other coaches went hand-in-hand, and Croom tied it all to preparation and professionalism.

"I'd tell him if you present something to the other members of the staff, an idea or thought, to have it totally researched and thought out," Croom said. "It's the same thing when you deal with the players. When you walk into a meeting and you give them a coaching point or tip, have all your information there and totally believe in what you're saying."

Meanwhile, the heart-to-heart talks became more frequent, and the bond between the two only grew stronger. Bennett couldn't have imagined a better scenario to prepare to become a coach, and he was as ready as he could have hoped to be.

"It was special having 'Sly' here, someone who was willing to teach," Bennett said. "He was giving, very giving. Whatever I needed to continue my growth, he provided for me. He was very open, very honest, and helped me become better."

*Moving forward*

In 2004, after 17 years in the NFL with five different teams, Croom headed back to the college ranks as the head coach at Mississippi State, becoming the first African-American head coach in the history of the Southeastern Conference.

At that point Bennett had a decision to make, though it turned out to be more of a passing thought in the end. Croom offered Bennett a chance to join him at MSU, but Bennett's Packer roots were too deep to leave, and he figured he might have a chance at the running backs job here anyway.

Bennett didn't get the Packers job right away, though. Johnny Roland was hired to coach the running backs in 2004, but Sherman expanded Bennett's coaching role while still keeping him in the valuable player-development position. His department had been named best in the NFC in 2003.

After Roland moved on to New Orleans one year later, Bennett took over the running backs in 2005, and he remained in that position through the transition to Head Coach Mike McCarthy in 2006. Shortly thereafter, Croom came for a summer visit to watch some of the Packers' training camp practices and got to joke with his younger pupil that he taught him everything he knows.

"The first thing that came out of his mouth was, 'I knew you were ready,'" Bennett said, smiling.

The smile on Croom's face was even bigger.

"I was so excited and happy," Croom said. "Because I've been in this thing a long time and to know that spending time with somebody really gave them a jump-start to their career, that was very special for me to see him doing well."

There's no doubt Bennett's tenure has been a success. He was faced with a monumental challenge right away in 2005 when injuries decimated the Packers at halfback, and Bennett helped ready a non-drafted rookie from the practice squad, Samkon Gado, to step into the starting role. Gado responded with three 100-yard games.

Not surprisingly, Bennett was prepared for that type of situation, having been put in charge of getting rookies and new acquisitions up to speed while working with Croom. The experience came in handy, as have the numerous notebooks he still references on occasion when installing or teaching a new concept.

The backfield was similarly depleted in 2007 before Ryan Grant, acquired in a trade at the conclusion of training camp and brought up to speed by Bennett, emerged at midseason as a feature back. Grant went on to a 200-yard, three-touchdown playoff performance that season and then rushed for 1,200 yards a year ago.

{sportsad300}Bennett has successfully combined his experience as a player with all the professionalism and preparation he learned from Croom as a coach. When asked what Bennett's best trait is as his coach, Grant pointed to exactly that - his ability to find the right balance between sharing what he learned as a running back to help them shine on Sunday with instilling in players what it means to be a pro during the week.

"The fact that he's been through it, excelled at such a high level, been through the trenches and succeeded, that's great," Grant said. "But he also wants to do everything possible to make sure his players are prepared come game time. His knowledge of the game I think is second-to-none. In the classroom, we're there to learn and we make sure we do study, and it builds great habits.

"I think he's very much underrated in terms of the credit that he gets. But that's the type of person that he is - he's going to go to work every day and he's going to earn everything that he gets."

More than any one player or statistical feat, Bennett takes the most pride in the work ethic and attitude he sees in his running back group. He, along with McCarthy, is always emphasizing team chemistry and camaraderie, and that was in full force this summer, when the Packers had three fullbacks in training camp and all signs pointed to one of them getting cut.

But veterans Korey Hall and John Kuhn not only stayed close friends while perhaps fighting one another for a job, but they helped rookie draft choice Quinn Johnson pick things up as he was learning the pro game. It turned out all three made the team, but it was the atmosphere of the competition that pleased Bennett the most.

"As far as stats and things like that, in my mind it goes beyond that," Bennett said. "It's a process, it's a journey, and it's not just numbers. It's more than X's and O's. Don't get me wrong, we're about winning, but we take pride in keeping it about family. Getting an opportunity to share and teach and communicate, and to try to get the most out of every guy, is fulfilling."

*Plenty to share*

Bennett and Croom still chat regularly, so when one strolls across the dome turf to share a handshake and heartfelt hug with the other on Sunday, there's no telling where the conversation will go.

"We'll probably just laugh," Croom said. "And then go compete."

While the final numbers on the scoreboard will certainly matter to both men, it won't be about whose running backs had the better day or made the biggest impact. Their relationship goes far beyond the coaching-tree connections so common in today's NFL.

"When I was up there once before, I talked to (offensive coordinator) Joe Philbin, and Joe said he was amazed at how Edgar had developed and thought he could be a coordinator in this league one day," Croom said. "I take a great deal of pride in that. We're friends, but it's almost like a father with a son. I'm very, very proud of what he's done as a coach."

And Bennett is forever thankful, for that one long-ago conversation, and the many that followed.

"That's what it's about," Bennett said. "Special bonds like that with one of the guys that obviously was a mentor in my life and somebody that I trust."

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