Cornelius Bennett signed a free agent contract with the Atlanta Falcons. (AJC Photo/Marlene Karas) 3/96

Whatever happened to: Cornelius Bennett

What he did: On both the college and NFL levels, Cornelius Bennett was one of the best linebackers to play the game in the 1980’s and 90’s. He played in five Super Bowls, though he lost them all, including the Falcons’ only trip to the big game. Those five losses are an NFL record he shares with Glenn Parker, a teammate with the Bills who also played with the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, a loss to Baltimore.

But few will ever blame Bennett, a tremendous pass rusher, for those losses. He was one of the main reasons those teams made it to Super Sunday.

Bennett grew up in Birmingham and was one of the nation’s top recruits in 1983, also starring on the basketball and baseball teams at Ensley High School. He was recruited by Paul “Bear’’ Bryant but he retired after the 1982 season and Bennett signed with the Crimson Tide a month after Ray Perkins was hired as the new head coach.

He immediately made an impact in Tuscaloosa, becoming just the second of Alabama’s three-time All-Americans, joining linebacker Woodrow Lowe. During his senior year in 1986, he made a memorable sack against Notre Dame early in the season in a game in Birmingham, crunching quarterback Steve Beuerlein. The play was captured in a popular painting immortalized as “The Sack’’ and is still talked about frequently at Alabama.

Bennett finished with 287 tackles and 21 1/2 sacks at Alabama and would go on to win the Lombardi Award (top college lineman or linebacker) in ’86 as well as being named the SEC player of the year. He was seventh in the Heisman voting as well.

On draft day in 1987, he became Alabama’s highest draft choice since Joe Namath in 1965 (top AFL pick), going to Indianapolis on the second overall pick behind Vinny Testaverde (Tampa Bay). But Bennett never really wanted to play for the Colts and after two parties couldn’t come to contract terms, he was dealt to Buffalo in a three-way trade that moved running back Eric Dickerson to the Colts and running back Greg Bell to the Rams.

It made huge headlines. The New York Times called it “the trade of the decade” and Bennett began his eight-year stint with the Bills, making five Pro Bowl appearances (three All-Pro teams) and leading them to four straight Super Bowls from 1990-93.

He later signed as a free agent with the Falcons in 1996, playing in Atlanta for three years including the Super Bowl team in ’98 which lost to Denver 34-19. That season, Bennett was a major part of the “Dirty Bird’’ team that upset Minnesota in the NFC Championship game after entering an 11-point underdog.

Ironically, Bennett, nicknamed “Biscuit” from his days in Birmingham, finished his career with two seasons in Indianapolis, retiring after the 2000 season. He had 72 1/2 sacks in 14 NFL seasons and forced 31 fumbles. But perhaps even more impressive is that he recovered 27 fumbles and returned a fumble, interception and blocked field goal all for touchdowns.

Where he lives: Now 50, Bennett lives in Hollywood, Fla., with his wife Kimberly of 19 years. He has two daughters, Arianna and Kimmeko, and a 16-year-old son Kivon, who is a top recruiting prospect as a defensive lineman at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale. He already has been offered by Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama.

What he does now: Bennett says he plays plenty of golf and wears shorts “at least five days a week.’’ He hosts a charity golf tournament every year and was the chairman of the NFLPA’s former players board of directors, working on issues and concerns of fellow NFL alumni.

On his years at Alabama: “I was hoping to get a chance to play for Coach Bryant and didn’t get a chance to play for a SEC title or national championship. But there were some awfully good memories from there. And what they are doing now is incredible. You can’t turn on the TV and listen to them talk about college football without them talking about Alabama.’’

On the win over the Vikings for the NFC Championship: “That was magical. I remember how cold it was in Minnesota and when we got to the stadium on the morning of the game, I think we saw newspapers already printed that the Vikings were headed to the Super Bowl. It did not sit well with us. They wouldn’t admit it but I think they truly looked past us.’’

On his Super Bowl appearance in Atlanta: “That team was a special group of guys. I just remember how crappy the first year and a half at Atlanta was but you could see a transition midway through the second year with Dan Reeves. Something clicked when we went up to New England and won. We really didn’t have many true superstars. We had just a bunch of blue collar workers on that team. I think we led the league in sacks that year and it was a big part of it. The way I looked at the game was, it was also a chance to represent all the players from the Super Bowl teams in Buffalo. If we would have won, I would have put a stone in my ring for them.’’

On whether Eugene Robinson’s arrest the night before the game affected the outcome: “I think the only person affected by that was Eugene. I know it didn’t bother me.’’

On losing five Super Bowls: “Well, the big thing is I got there. Of course, I would have liked to won all five of them. The way I look at it is about the relationships I made and the teams I was on. When it comes down to it, the friendships, the relationships are the big things. That is what you take with you the rest of your life.’’

On why he moved to Florida: “I know I played in Buffalo and Atlanta has pretty warm weather but I hate cold weather all together. My wife wants to move back to Atlanta but I am a year-around, short-pants man.’’

On his son’s opportunities in college football: “He’s only 16 and is 6-3 and 260 pounds and a lot of schools want him. He has a lot to learn but he has a chance to be some kind of player. I am proud of him’’

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