TAMPA, Fla. -- You know you are getting away from the scripted homogeneity of the Super Bowl when you pass by a table during one of the "personal" interview sessions with 3,000 other reporters and hear a player's voice saying, "My books are didactic."
Having spent this week absorbing the standard Super supply of reflections, brilliant and otherwise, including Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly explaining that "Iraq is fighting because they don't have anything better to do," I knew I had to identify the name that went with the voice.
Elbowing my way past minicam crews, reporters from Japan and an MTV veejay wearing this mesh ensemble I won't attempt to portray, I peaked inside. At the table was a 235-pound linebacker explaining a) why he paints his face to resemble that of rocker Alice Cooper and b) his decision to write children's books about a little green dinosaur wearing glasses.
Then he began complaining that someone in the sports department of The Buffalo News was tinkering with the column he was writing for the paper this week. "They put in fervency instead of frivolity," he said. "Damn copy editors."
This is what I told myself: Open up your notebook. Find a seat.
The linebacker's name is Ray Bentley, and he plays for the Buffalo Bills, No. 50 in your program. Let me try to do him justice. He wears a dark, sweeping, Fu Manchu mustache and a haircut that is military-short except for a ponytail in back. He speaks in basso profundo, smiles devilishly and would seem to be a walking incarnation of linebacking evil.
On the other hand, he has an English degree from Central Michigan and a predilection for Kurt Vonnegut novels, talks non-stop about his four kids, speaks out in public about literacy, wears mascara and eyeliner on game days and has sold 150,000 copies of his children's books. "A unique juxtaposition of personalities, eh?" he said.
No, this is not just another ugly face at the Super Bowl.
Bentley on face-painting teammate Mitch Frerotte: "A clear-cut case of shameless self-promotion. He wants to be a pro wrestler when he finishes football. He makes no bones about it. I wish him well. He'd make a fine 'Doctor Death.' "
Bentley on his own Alice Cooper, game-day, makeup job: "It started in high school. I liked Alice Cooper and my parents hated him, so I liked him even more. We had a game on Halloween. I was in the bathroom, and there were these watercolors there. I did it, everyone went crazy and we won, 41-0. It's been good karma ever since. You should try it sometime. Go home and put on some eyeliner. It makes you feel mean."
Fellow Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett on Bentley: "We have a NTC lot of very crazy guys on this team, but Bentley is the craziest. During the week, he is this mild-mannered man who writes children's books. Then, on Sunday, he puts on his Alice Cooper makeup and turns into a madman."
Yes, a "unique juxtaposition of personalities."
Some background is in order. Bentley is 30, from Grand Rapids, Mich., and played three years in the USFL before joining the Bills in 1986. He was cut once, injured once, came back and worked his way into the starting lineup by 1988. He has never made the Pro Bowl, but he is fast, strong and plays the run particularly well.
It was in 1987 that the idea of writing children's books struck him. Actually, it struck his wife. "I was injured and so was Mike Hamby [his illustrator, a former Bill], and we were lying around the house driving her crazy," he said. "She said we should do something with our time, and suggested we try writing something. It just went from there."
Bentley had written poetry and short stories, so coming up with a plot was no hardship. "My kids helped me," he said. "My son was really into dinosaurs at the time, so that seemed a natural. Then, after we had a story, we had a family contest to name the dinosaur. 'Darby' was the unanimous winner."
Hamby, who ultimately had to retire because of his injuries, followed up with the illustrations. They showed the book to some publishers, but none was interested. Bentley used some of his football money to publish it himself. It was a success. There are now four "Darby" books, including an "environmental coloring book." ("If you're into coloring, this is really hot," Bentley said.) Total sales are inching close to 200,000.
"I won't lie to you -- I get a big kick out of seeing my kids learn to read on words that I've written," he said. "My oldest daughter is 7, and every time a camera crew came to the house to do a story about this, she had to get out the book and read it for them. That's an indescribable feeling."
This is the same person teammates call "a madman"?
He smiled. "The real me is the one who writes the books," he said, "but you won't get far in football being soft-hearted like that. It's a physical game, and you need to get stupid. It's a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing. I have this whole psyching ritual I hide behind. I tie my uniform sleeves so my arms look bigger. I wax them so they shine in the lights. I make sure my hair falls below my helmet just right. Then I paint up."
And, a reporter asked, what is he going to do if one day his kids come home and say they also want to look like Alice Cooper? He enjoyed the question. Remember, in high school he liked Alice even more because his parents didn't. "What I'm going to do," Bentley said, "is show them the proper technique."