Carolina Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin endured a lot during the offseason – some of it self-induced pain and, more recently, the hurt that comes with the loss of a loved one.
Benjamin said on Instagram he was in a “dark place” following the death of his mother in July. And though he’s still dealing with the loss of the woman he called his everything, Benjamin is moving forward and looking and sounding very much a motivated, in-shape receiver on the verge of a big season.
Asked if he planned to dedicate the season to his mother, Benjamin said: “I’m dedicating every snap, every play – every time I step on the field is for my mom.”
Speaking to reporters Tuesday for the first time since the end of last season, Benjamin talked with red-rimmed eyes about his relationship with his mother, who raised him and his three siblings on her own in Belle Glade, Fla.
Benjamin also addressed his offseason weight gain and the public flogging he took on social media as a result. The last few months have not been much fun for the former first-round pick from Florida State.
“From losing my mom (and) starting in OTAs with the weight problems and with all that – the bullying on social media. But I’m built for it,” he said. “I’ve always been going against something like that. But I’m grinding. My mom raised me right.”
The 6-5 Benjamin, who’s listed at 245 pounds, reported to the voluntary workouts closer to 270. He didn’t delve too deeply into what caused him to gain the weight, but wasn’t thrilled that it became public.
“It’s OTAs, man. It’s voluntary if you really want to speak on it,” Benjamin said. “It’s not my fault they put it out there.”
After the NFL draft in April, Panthers coach Ron Rivera disputed a broadcast report that Benjamin had ballooned to 280, but conceded Benjamin was “a little heavy” and needed to lose weight.
Benjamin got the message, arriving for the start of training camp at 243. He had a strong preseason, pulling down eight passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns and earning the respect of teammates for his resolve.
“For him to be as functional as he is ... he shows a lot of strength mentally to come back from what he’s done and what has happened in his life,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “He’s come back in great shape, playing with a chip on his shoulder and just playing with a purpose and that’s all you can ask.”
Benjamin said having friends like Newton and Joe Webb, cut by the Panthers on Saturday, helped him get through the tough times after his mom died. Benjamin said Christine Benjamin did not have a lengthy illness, and her death was unexpected.
Benjamin, two years removed from ACL surgery, said he feels great physically – much like he did during his 73-catch, 1,000-yard rookie season in 2014.
He credits his stellar preseason play in part to one of his final conversations he had with his mother.
“That’s why I go hard. I’m just playing for her,” Benjamin said. “That’s the last thing she told me on the phone when I last talked to her.”
Newton predicts 2017 will be the best year for Benjamin, whom he calls “Benji.”
“I’m not just saying that to blow smoke,” Newton said. “Everything that he’s done for everything, he’s positioned himself to make that come into fruition.”
In the spring the Panthers exercised their fifth-year option on Benjamin for 2018, expected to be worth around $8.5 million. Another 1,000-yard season would likely put Benjamin in line for a long-term contract, but he insists he’s not “money-hungry.”
With his $7.7 million rookie contract, Benjamin’s mother was able to retire. He paid for her to take vacations, and she often traveled to Charlotte to watch him play.
Benjamin hoped to buy his mom a house someday. And though he won’t be able to now, Benjamin said she’ll stay at home in his heart.
“That was my everything, man. Through thick and thin, she raised me. She was always there for me,” he said. “If I ever needed someone to talk to or had a bad game of if the media was getting on me or social media getting on me, my mom was always there.
“I lost somebody dear to my heart.”