Like many players before him and many who will follow, Travis Benjamin has speed and ability borne from the muck and sugar fields near his home on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee.
Belle Glade is in the western end of Palm Beach County, in Florida, some 44 miles from Palm Beach itself. But Belle Glade and Pahokee, the tiny city next to it, are as far from the glitz and wealth of Worth Avenue as life can be.
The Glades, as the area is known, is home to sugar-cane fields and poverty. At one time the area was known as the AIDS capital of the country. At other times, it has been home to migrants who work in the fields during harvest time.
In the late fall, the cane stalks are burned, and smoke fills the sky. That’s when the locals head to the fields and partake in a right of passage that goes back decades. As the fields burn, the rabbits flee the fire and smoke, and young men chase the rabbits that escape from the burning fields. There they hone the speed, quickness and agility that are the hallmarks of future NFL players.
It sounds corny, but it happens. And the list of NFL players from the Glades is long -- and will continue to be as long as sports is a way out for so many in the area. Those who get out succeed. Those who don’t can be led to the same self-defeating cycle of drugs and crime that capture so many.
“It’s very important,” Benjamin said of the long-held practice of chasing rabbits. “It’s a great tradition.”
Benjamin remembers chasing the way the rabbits ran … stopping, starting, darting back and forth, all at rapid-fire pace. Benjamin says he caught 20 in one day, and he’s seen another gentleman catch 60 or 70.
“It’s nothing to it,” Benjamin said. “And once you go out there and you know the tendencies of what the rabbit's gonna do, and you know when they’re gonna come out, it’s a great feeling.”
It sounds as if he studied video the way the Cleveland Browns study opponents, but Benjamin studied something more important -- those who came before him.
“You catch 'em and sell 'em or catch 'em and eat 'em,” Benjamin said. “They kind of taste like pork chops to me.”
There’s something in the dark muck that produces the sugar cane, because it produces a number of football players greatly out of proportion to the combined populations of around 24,000. Among them are Fred Taylor, Santonio Holmes, Anquan Boldin and Andre Waters. When Inside Sports magazine was founded, one of the stories in one of the first issues was written by Gary Smith and detailed Rickey Jackson and Remuise Johnson, two Belle Glade stars, one of whom made it in the NFL, the other who went on to become a minister in Boynton Beach.
“Playing ball is a high priority for us,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin now has a nickname that takes him back to the Glades. The Browns have had a Flea, an Ice Cube, a Turkey and some Dawgs.
Now they have Travis Benjamin, the Rabbit.