Denise Benn vividly recalls the day her oldest son, Trulon Henry, began nagging her to play football. He was 6 years old, nowhere near the 6-foot-2, 225-pound wrecking ball he'd one day become. But already, it seemed he had found his life's passion. So Denise diligently took Trulon to practice each day, dragging his younger brother, Arrelious "Rejus" Benn, to the Boys and Girls Club. It wouldn't be long before the inevitable happened: Little brother — now a rookie receiver with the Buccaneers — wanted to emulate big brother.
"Trulon begged me to play," Denise recounted recently. "So, I let him play, and of course Rejus and I were at every practice and every game. When (Rejus) was 5, of course he started asking to play, too."
And so began a passion for football that still burns intensely. And in a twist, nearly two decades later, the little brother would reignite his older brother's desire for the game, inspiring him to continue his playing career even after a life-altering mistake and the prison sentence that ensued.
"He's kind of like my older, younger brother," Arrelious says of Trulon.
• • •
Trulon grew up to be a high school standout in Washington, D.C., playing alongside close friend and current 49ers star Vernon Davis while garnering interest from major colleges. After graduating, Trulon intended to address his academic shortcomings before qualifying for NCAA football, then move on to what he hoped would be a successful college career.
But Trulon got sidetracked, his detour leading to a bank branch in a Safeway supermarket that he and an uncle robbed at gunpoint in 2003. They were caught, convicted and sentenced.
Life would never be the same for Trulon and the family he left behind.
The oldest of five brothers and the default father figure now was banished to a West Virginia federal prison for four years, dealing the close-knit family a severe blow. Arrelious, who grew up admiring and aspiring to be like his older brother, was especially crushed.
"I felt bitter toward him," Arrelious says. "I was like, 'Why would he do that to me?' "
Given Arrelious' attitude, his mother's requests that he join her on those hours-long car rides to visit Trulon were predictably unappealing.
"It was hard to see him like that," Arrelious says.
Besides, the visits never went as planned.
"At the beginning, our visits consisted of arguments and me crying," Denise says.
But Arrelious, who was in his early teens when his brother was arrested, became more willing to visit just as his football career began to take off. Meanwhile, Trulon started to think about life after prison.
And Denise was getting bright ideas. Why couldn't Trulon play football again? She planted the seed. Arrelious provided the motivation.
"What really got Trulon thinking about it was when Rejus started getting all those scholarship offers," Denise says.
Arrelious ultimately chose Illinois, where he went on to become an All-America wide receiver. The Bucs chose him in the second round of April's draft, and he will be their starting flanker in today's game at Arizona.
Just as Arrelious had been motivated by his brother years earlier to pursue football, the same thing was happening all over again — with the roles reversed.
"I turned the tables on him," says Arrelious, 22.
After sentencing, "I was like, 'Man, forget football,' " says Trulon, now 26 with a wife and infant daughter. "When you love something and it gets taken away from you, you kind of don't want anything to do with it.
"But my mom asked me if I wanted to play again, and she used Rejus as an example. That's what relit the fire inside me."
Denise brought newspaper clippings about Arrelious during her prison visits. Soon, Trulon was able to watch his younger brother light up Big Ten defenses on television. It wasn't long before his mind was made up.
Upon Trulon's release, a friend of a friend vouched for him, and he was given a second chance at College of DuPage, a junior college in Glen Ellyn, Ill., ending a series of dead ends in his quest to find a school that would believe in a convicted felon.
Trulon arrived as a player with unrefined skills. He left a star.
Just like years earlier, he had Division I opportunities. Trulon picked — who else? — the Illini. Now he's a starting safety as a junior at Illinois, fifth on the team with 44 tackles with two interceptions after Saturday's win over Purdue.
When Arrelious watches him play, emotions wash over him.
"I get chills," he says. "He's at the same college I went to, wearing my old jersey (No. 9). It just feels good."
• • •
Why Trulon decided to commit the crime isn't totally clear.
Denise, a single mother, went back to college and got an information technology position with the Department of Transportation to help make ends meet, but she figures maybe he was trying to help her.
But to the family, "why" isn't terribly important anymore. What is notable is the fact that out of something so unfortunate came so much progress.
Trulon's mistakes kept Arrelious on the right path. His world consisted of football, school and family. He figured his loved ones had endured enough heartache.
"I pretty much learned from his mistakes," Arrelious says. "And I basically took the attitude that, 'Man, I have to go get it. I have to go out here and do what I have to do.' I had three younger brothers, and I had to be a role model for them."
The youngest three, John (18), Nathaniel (17) and Daniel Robinson (14), all play football and appear to be paying heed to Trulon's lessons, too — the ones he set before and after prison.
Meanwhile, Denise is beaming. Her weeks consist of junior varsity games on Thursdays, varsity games on Fridays, Illinois games in Champaign — when possible — on Saturdays and the occasional Bucs game on Sundays.
"I think I'm getting burned out," she says, joking. "It's exhausting, but I love it."
But the family never tires of talking about Trulon's story. Which, given its nature, is a bit surprising.
Why the openness?
"I know there's somebody in a cell right now feeling hopeless," Trulon says. "If they read this or even just hear this story, it could give them some inspiration."
That's something Trulon and Arrelious have plenty of. And when either needs a dose, they look no further than to each other.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.