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Bennett marches to different beat

His coach calls him a "free spirit," but native Californian Ben Bennett doesn't go around eating alfalfa sprouts or saying "Hey, dude" any more than he buys the overused label.

So what if he sometimes wears his jock strap outside his uniform during practice?

"There's nothing to it," said Bennett, in his third year at quarterback for the Orlando Predators. "It's not for anybody's benefit."

Except his own. One practice in 1988 he reversed his gear and threw eight touchdown passes the next day.

And there's that other attention-grabber _ his Corvette. "People still make it out that I'm driving a 'Vette and chasing girls. It's unfair to make that assessment."

While Bennett said he likes "nice-looking cars and nice-looking girls," he takes pains to remind all the car is beige, for goodness sakes, and it's 15 years old.

Then again, so seems Bennett. "I guess I've got the Peter Pan syndrome," he said, laughing.

"He has a good time with it; he has fun playing and is like a little kid again," said Tampa Bay quarterback Jay Gruden. "That's what the league needs, somebody animated like that."

Bennett shrugs off his image as the eccentric near-lifer of the Arena League. "I just enjoy myself and I'm not afraid to speak my mind," he said. "People pay the ticket and get the Ben Bennett ride."

He's been cruising in the unconventional league for six years, bringing his team from behind 12 times in the final minute (earning the nickname Cardiac Kid) and accruing the most passing yards of any quarterback.

He did the same thing at Duke, where he graduated as the NCAA's leading passer and the ACC Player of Year. He was picked in the sixth round of the 1984 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons, but soon was released, "taking my shot when I had it," he said.

Since then, he's taken other shots _ as a quarterback with three Arenaball teams (Chicago, Dallas and Orlando), as a college football color commentator (ESPN, Jefferson Pilot), as a bit actor in two movies (The Mallers, Kinjite), and as host of the CBS car-racing show (Crash Course).

In the off-season he does charity work with the physically handicapped. And once in a while, Bennett, who has a dual degree in history and psychology, considers law school.

"Maybe my career hasn't taken the Yellow Brick Road people saw for me, myself included," Bennett said. "But I love the game and I play now the same way I always have. I'm still young and can go another 15, 16 years."

Bennett is 31. Do the math.

Nonetheless, he's carrying the Predators (4-1) into town with a league-leading 20 touchdown passes. He has led Orlando to three of its four victories over Tampa Bay.

But with the Storm at home and boasting the top-rated defense in the league (allowing just 714 yards), Bennett is concerned: "I just want to make sure that I come through this relatively healthy."

Tampa Bay's defense has 33 pass break-ups and 13 interceptions.

"This time we're going to have to put him on the mat," said Storm guard Tony Chickillo. "He's a real good quarterback. He moves around real well and has some good receivers. But if you get your hands up, tip balls and take him out of his rhythm and make him rush the ball, little things like that go a long way."

"He does a good job of knowing where (his team's) weaknesses or where their strong points are," said Gruden. "He just knows what he can and cannot do."

And who he can and cannot be.

"They think, "Here's the kid from California speaking his mind,'

" said Bennett, recalling those who question his quirkiness. "They're thinking I'm some swami-psycho-killer. It makes no sense to me because I'm on the inside."

Tonight's game

Who: Tampa Bay Storm (4-1) vs. Orlando Predators (4-1)

When/where: 7:40, Florida Suncoast Dome

TV/radio: ESPN, tape delay, midnight; Vision Cable, tape delay, 8 p.m. Sunday, 9 p.m. Wednesday; 970 WFLA AM.

Last meeting: The Predators defeated the Storm 46-31 at the Orlando Arena on May 21. Orlando leads the series 4-2 and is the only team to beat the Storm in the Dome.

Key points: D-Day for the Storm. Both teams are fighting for first place in the division, not to mention home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Storm comes into the game with the league's stingiest defense, allowing 134 points and 714 yards passing. The Predators have given up only 139 points. Tampa Bay coach Lary Kuharich sees one key: Bringing a lead into the last 15 minutes of play. "We're a tough team to beat in the fourth quarter," Kuharich said. Defensive specialist Corey Dowden, arrested Thursday for soliciting sex from a police officer posed as a prostitute, will play in tonight's game.

Tickets: 12,500 tickets are available through Ticketmaster and the Dome box office. Prices: $7 general admission, $10 end zone, $15 sideline, $25 gridiron (not including service charge).