JERSEY CITY, N.J.
Even now, even here at the top of the world, he can close his eyes and go back. Even after all this time, even after moving a continent away, he can recapture the feeling of owning tomorrow.
It was Oct. 3, 2011, and Michael Bennett played for a different team in a different place and a different time. Back then, he was a Buc, and to be honest, it felt as if it would last forever.
Tampa Bay played the Indianapolis Colts that Monday night, and the energy surged through the defensive line and, for once, all things seemed possible. The Bucs won that night, 24-17, and Bennett had two sacks, and the young defensive line was outstanding, and all things seemed possible.
That, of course, was before the Bucs threw Bennett away.
That, too, was before the Seattle Seahawks came along and claimed themselves a star.
"Everything worked out for the best, didn't it?" Bennett said, grinning widely.
He is Seattle's now, a favorite piece of a fierce defense on a fabulous team. These days, it is another crowd that feeds off of Bennett's passion. These days, it is another team that benefits from the defensive end's sudden burst toward the opposing quarterback. These days, it is another city that finds life in Bennett's gyrating sack dance, one he describes as "two angels dancing while chocolate is coming from the heavens on a nice Sunday morning."
How good has Bennett been?
Consider the way Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman puts it.
"Michael Bennett might have been our most valuable player," Sherman said. "When you consider the number of snaps he had and the number of plays he made, he might have been the best player on our defense."
And the Bucs, with their sad pass rush, couldn't have used any of that?
It is funny how life works out sometimes. This time a year ago, Bennett was waiting for a call from the Bucs that never came. He had led the team in sacks, after all. He was only 27 years old.
And the Bucs?
Well, they liked Da'Quan Bowers.
All together now: Oops.
Instead, Bennett signed a one-year contract with the Seahawks, where he became a pass-rush specialist.
He had 8½ sacks, and he forced four fumbles, and he recovered three, and he returned one for a touchdown.
"Mike is a phenomenal player," said fellow lineman Red Bryant. "He's one of the best DE-slash-DTs in the NFL. He plays like it's supposed to be played. On any given Sunday, he can take over a game. Not many players can do that."
Still, it was only a few months ago that Bennett twisted in the wind. He said he was never able to find out why the Bucs didn't want him.
"It was frustrating," he said. "I was there from the beginning. You put so much into it, and you play through injuries. When it doesn't work out the way you want it to work out, you do feel a certain kind of hurt.
"I thought we had a young defensive line. I thought we were getting closer to winning."
So, who got the last laugh? In this case, the last sack?
"I don't want to be that guy," Bennett said. "I wanted to see the Bucs win. Gerald McCoy is my best friend. We talk four times a week. I was pulling for A.C. (Adrian Clayborn) in his comeback."
Ah, but what about coach Greg Schiano?
Maybe you heard. A report this season included quotes from Bennett about how bad it was to play for Schiano. "Like playing in Cuba," Bennett supposedly said.
"I didn't say that," Bennett yelped Wednesday morning. "I didn't. Someone else said that.
"I wanted Coach to be successful. I didn't think he got enough time as it was. He's a hard guy, but if you talk to him one on one, he's a lot better guy than people think."
Still, when you consider what Bennett left, and where he wound up, it's hard to feel badly for him. Think of it as being thrown off a dump truck and landing in a diamond mine.
Now, Bennett faces the end of another contract. He wants to stay in Seattle, of course. But who knows what the future holds?
"Either way, this will always be a special year for me," he said. "I got my biggest chance, and I played with great players."
Sometimes, that pays off in ways you wouldn't expect.
Last month, for instance, Bennett was in a hurry, and he wanted lunch, and he had a restaurant named Cactus in mind.
He called ahead, but he was told no reservations were available. Sorry.
So Bennett hung up, and he called back. This time, he told them the reservation was for "Russell Wilson."
When Bennett showed up, a table was roped off and waiting.
Surprise. He wasn't the Seahawks quarterback, after all.
Bennett laughs when he tells the story. No, he won't try the same thing in New York.
"Here, you'd have to say you're Barack Obama," he said.
In the meantime, Bennett does have some plans for Sunday. That's when he'll try to get past a good Denver offensive line and get to quarterback Peyton Manning. How successful he is may say a lot about how effective the Seattle defense will be.
If he's successful, there may be a spot for him at the table, after all.