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NFL Legend Martellus Bennett on His Weird, Wild, and Kid-Friendly Future

The newly retired NFL legend wants to make kids happy by being himself. Sounds like a plan.

When Martellus Bennett announced his retirement from the NFL last month, he did so in his typical, off-beat way: He tweeted out a beautifully drawn cartoon of his animated self crossing over from the drab world of football into the colorful world of imagination. The 31-year-old veteran tight end and two-time Super Bowl champion, who had put in years for the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Chicago Bears, New England Patriots, and Green Bay Packers over the course of a decade-long career, clearly wasn’t torn about his decision. He was ready to do what he’d been wanting to do for a long time. He was ready to focus on inspiring children.

Bennet was never coy about his non-football aspiration. His production company, The Imagination Agency, has been staffed up for a few years and his fun new children’s book, Hey AJ, It’s Bedtime!, is not his first. The difference now is that, instead of being an eccentric football player talking about starting a theme park, he’s the head of a company that seems like it might someday — after a few more books, podcasts, and apps — actually do that. The man who nicknamed himself the “Orange Dinosaur” is focussed on doing something altogether new and altogether unique.

Bennett, ebullient and eager for the next thing, came by the Fatherly office to chat about writing and illustrating children’s books, the sensitive issue of gun control, and what’s next for The Imagination Agency.

Why did you make the decision to retire?

There’s never a good time to follow your dreams, right? It always feels like, ‘Aw, I’ll go do it later.’ At some point, it was just like… ‘Alright this is the tipping point. I’m just gonna go do the other things I dream about.’ It was not like physical or mental. I didn’t really retire, I just moved on.

The whole time I was playing, I was making things. Everybody was like, ‘Are you going to take a break from doing stuff?’ Nah. I retired to create.

How did you balance being an NFL player and being a dad?

Everything comes after my family. Football was never such a priority that my family would get neglected. My daughter and my wife are first and foremost. Everything else doesn’t really matter. The most important job I have is being a dad and being a husband If I could go in the Hall of Fame of husbands, and Hall of Fame of dads, that’d be great.

My daughter and I go on daddy-daughter movie dates at least once a week. We go to the movies. We saw Paddington 2 recently. The writing in that is amazing.

Being a parent and an NFL player, did you see yourself as a role model?

No, I never really looked at myself as a role model. I don’t really like the phrase ‘role model,’ because it’s like… ‘Here’s the role, you should model.’ It deters kids from becoming themselves. I think the best thing we can do for people is be ourselves and teach kids that it’s okay to be yourself.

You don’t have to act a certain way to please other people; who you are is fine. I speak out. If my daughter wants to speak out, she should speak out, too. I see a lot of things in my daughter that I see in myself, so I’ll always just let her be who she is. I think that’s the most courteous thing we can do for someone: Allow them to be themselves. A lot of people don’t want you to be yourself. They want you to have patience, or they want you to do this. They want you to be a specific person. They want you to be who they want you to be, not who you are.

So for me, my whole entire career, I just was being myself. I think that, after awhile, people understood that that’s just who I am. It wasn’t like a façade or me trying to do anything. It’s just, ‘Oh that’s just Marty.’

You were outspoken after cops in Las Vegas held your brother at gunpoint. Your mother is a teacher and you’re a dad. How do you feel about the current gun control conversation and the idea of arming more teachers?

I just couldn’t see my mom with a gun. You know? I could see her running for her life like everyone else would be doing.  It’s like what Peter Parker’s uncle told him, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ You have a gun in your hand. That’s a huge responsibility. Teachers have bad days, right? There are kids who are assholes to teachers. Imagine there are teachers with guns, which gives kids access to more guns. They can take it off their body. Not okay.

I don’t think guns belong in the school. If you want to have police officers in schools, then that’s totally different. But arming teachers…Protecting someone else’s life is not what you’re trained for.

I think you should be able to hunt, but the idea of being able to have an AR-15, just walking through the streets and things like that… I think they should up the ante of what it takes to get a gun. The process of getting guns should be a lot harder. It’s harder to get your driver’s license than it is to get a gun these days! You gotta do test drives, and all kinds of stuff. You have the test, written test, road test. Putting more guns in the street is not eliminating the problem. There’s more guns in the street, you want less guns in the street and less access to guns for certain people.

Shifting gears, where did the idea for the Imagination Agency come from?

Imagination Agency was a company of many names before. First, it was Peyton and Blake, after my nieces. Then it was The Orange Dinosaur, and our tagline was ‘Practical Magic.’ I just like that movement, I just feel like everything we were doing was practical magic. But that name was limiting; if I want to design a building it’s like, ‘Designed by Orange Dinosaur,’ which is funny but not perfect.

I started thinking about what I was doing. Creativity is communication. What conversation do I want to have with the consumer? So I think about it like, for us, the Imagination Agency is like the C.I.A but the T.I.A, you know what I’m saying? What we do is we protect the imaginations of the kids. That’s how I first thought it. Putting the idea together. We built from that and now this is what it is.

What about Hey AJ, It’s Bedtime?

Trying to get a kid to go to bed is one of the most ridiculous things ever, and it’s always like this huge thing going on in their room. It’s always something, so I thought it would be cool to write the story about why they don’t want to go to bed, or they’re distracted by a bunch of awesomeness that’s in their room. That whole story came from my daughter. She’ll have these like dance parties and stuff before bed, which is in the book.

I get my stories from my daughter. The third book in the series (after Hey AJ, It’s Bedtime and Hey AJ, It’s Saturday) is going to be Hey AJ, It’s Bath Time! It’s just about giving her a bath and what happens in the bathtub when I’m giving her a bath. There’s pirate ships, there’s all kinds of games going on and we go to these worlds… These worlds are real for me and her, and I’m pretty sure my wife is looking at us like, “What the fuck are y’all doing?” I try giving her the best bath she could possibly have. If she’s gonna be in the bathtub she might as well have fun in there.

We make up a lot of stuff together, a lot of adventures. I think being a father is probably my greatest adventure. Like just going on this adventure with my daughter together is probably the best thing I’ll ever do in my life.

What’s next for Martellus Bennett and the Imagination Agency?

I have a new animated film I’m finishing up, The Fantastical Adventures of AJ. I’m writing a book for adults right now which I’m pretty excited about. Just making a lot of stuff: recording albums, and a new podcast for kids, a new podcast that’s coming out for adults.

I just wake up and make stuff. Everyday, I’ll try to make at least one or two new things, like complete things. There’s a lot of stuff I’m working on that take a lot of time but sometimes it’s just like, ‘Oh, we should do a painting to feel good about myself, like I accomplished something today,’ and sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, let me write a song. I’m gonna record this song in the studio.’ I just like to make; I’m a maker.