By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
Settling their differences: A few months ago, before he agreed to sell the Browns to Jimmy Haslam, Randy Lerner and former center LeCharles Bentley sat in a conference room together and arrived at a preliminary settlement of Bentley’s lawsuit against the team.
Bentley sued the Browns in 2010 for $25,000 and asked for unspecified punitive damages for contracting a staph infection while rehabbing from knee surgery in the Browns’ facility. The suit claimed the staph infection nearly killed him and charged the Browns with negligence and fraudulent misrepresentation.
The Browns attempted to have the case settled in arbitration rather than by jury trial, and lost on appeal three times. The Browns appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.
At some point, after the lawyers had begun taking depositions for an imminent trial, Lerner met with Bentley. They talked man to man about the personal hell Bentley had been through since choosing to play for the Browns at the height of his career.
There was the torn patellar tendon in his left knee on the very first snap of his very first practice in July of 2006.
There were four surgeries in two years – three to treat the staph infection that developed. There was talk of losing the left leg, of even dying.
There was the indefatigable determination to make it back in uniform – and he did 682 days after the original injury -- only to realize after one day that it was no longer worth it. Bentley never played again. His career, once on a path perhaps to Canton, was over before the age of 30.
“The irony is through the entire experience – how everything came about, how everything was resolved, my relationship with Randy Lerner going forward – I wouldn’t change a thing,” Bentley told me. “I learned so much. That experience will carry me through the rest of my life.”
A revelation: Bentley still keeps a note written to him by a doctor that said: “You’ll never play football again. You’re lucky to walk without a limp. Buy a boat and go fishing.”
It did inspire him to keep chasing the goal of making it back. One doctor medically cleared him to return to work. Then it took another year to pass a Browns physical. He made it back in uniform in June of 2008.
Rain moved the Browns’ minicamp practice indoors on that day. I remember watching Bentley’s every move. He seemed so detached from his teammates on what should have been a very happy occasion. There was no joy in finally attaining his goal.
“What felt different at that time was my outlook on life,” Bentley said. “I had my own personal moment of clarity. When I looked around, I thought of what I almost lost to get back.
“For years, all the people who were around me when I played, they weren’t around when I wasn’t playing. But the day that I passed that physical, they came back. My kids, my family, the people I had forsaken to chase my personal goals – I had left them out. But they were the ones who stayed with me through it all. What I almost lost wasn’t worth the lifestyle that I was pursuing.”
Bentley asked for his release soon as his first practice ended.
“I realized my calling is to help people,” he said.
Moving on: Bentley said his retirement forced him to deal cold turkey with the painful transition to a post-playing career. He had no other choice.
“I learned a lot about myself, about football, about the business of football,” Bentley said. “I am extremely happy where my life is at. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without what happened to me.”
Bentley owns and operates O-line Academy, a training center for college and professional offensive linemen in Avon. He also has an affiliation with the NFL Career Transition Program, which helps players get on with their real lives after their playing careers end.
Bentley’s suit has not yet been officially dismissed from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas docket. He won’t disclose terms of the settlement he and Lerner arrived at except for one.
He said that Lerner has agreed to assist Bentley in funding an endowment at St. Ignatius High School, Bentley’s alma mater, that would provide tuition for six minority students a year for 20 years.
“I think that’s the most important part of the settlement,” Bentley said.
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