Six-plus years ago, Michael Bennett was not a Sports Star of the Year candidate — he was barely recognizable to the Seattle sports fan. He was an undrafted, unwanted rookie defensive lineman, dropped from the Seahawks roster at midseason without playing a down. There were no protests.
On Oct. 10, 2009, Bennett was jettisoned by the local NFL team to make room for veteran Kyle Williams, a freshly healed offensive tackle coming off the disabled list. Bennett was asked to clean out his locker, turn in his playbook and handed the proverbial bus ticket out of town.
Oh, what a little rejection and the cold-heartedness of the waiver wire can do to jump-start a career.
Successfully into a second tour of duty with the Seahawks, Bennett has no hard feelings, just a strong sense of accomplishment. He’s gone from excess baggage to widely considered one of pro football’s most electric and disruptive defensive ends. He’s a Pro Bowl player for the first time, coming off a game-day MVP selection last month in Honolulu, his new hometown.
Wednesday night in downtown Seattle, he was voted Seattle’s Male Sports Star of the Year.
“There are a lot of stars in this town,” Bennett quipped. “I just happen to be the best one.”
At the 82nd MTR Western Sports Star of the Year event, held for the first time at Paramount Theatre and emceed by local TV personalities Steve Raible and Jen Mueller, Bennett took a sweeping bow as the city continued its uninterrupted love affair with everything Seahawks.
“When you get awards from any other place outside your city, it doesn’t mean as much,” he said. “When you get it from your city, it makes a big difference.”
The thickly bearded one was joined in the spotlight by Seattle Reign FC’s Megan Rapinoe, saluted as Female Sports Star of the Year, and the University of Washington men’s varsity eight men’s crew, named the Sports Story of the Year.
The Seahawks were involved in two trips to the podium, the other coming from someone who last pulled on a Seattle uniform 17 seasons ago and hung up his NFL cleats in 2000. Pro Football Hall of Fame member Warren Moon, the former UW and Seahawks quarterback and current radio analyst, was given the Royal Brougham Legend Award for lifetime achievement in sports.
Not forgotten at the event were the SuperSonics, who haven’t played in the city for eight years since the franchise was uprooted to Oklahoma City.
Kevin Calabro, the Sonics radio-TV broadcaster from 1988-2008, received the Keith Jackson Award, given for excellence in communicating sports stories statewide. Calabro currently calls football and basketball games for the Pac-12 Networks and national network games for the NBA.
Ginger Ackerley, whose late husband, Barry, owned Seattle’s NBA franchise in 1983-2001 and helped create the WNBA Seattle Storm, accepted the Paul Allen Award, given to someone who has made a significant or compelling philanthropic contribution. The Ackerleys set up a foundation that has offered early education grants for two decades.
She was escorted to the stage by two former Sonics, Jack Sikma and Gary Payton.
Katie Collier, a UW women’s basketball player, was feted with the Wayne Gittinger Inspirational Youth Award, which honors an athlete who has overcome a major obstacle to inspire others. She did it twice, playing high school ball while undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia, then bouncing back from a first-practice knee injury to become a college starter.
The center of attention, however, was Bennett, who was his usual wise-cracking self, drawing laughs from the Paramount room. He cracked a few jokes about Carolina QB Cam Newton, suggesting he would have jumped on a fumble that the Panthers star avoided in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Bennett had his own distinctive look, too, wearing a custom-made checkered suit over a red turtleneck.
An eight-year NFL veteran, the 6-foot-4, 275-pound defender from Texas A&M was coming off his finest season as a pro, one in which he collected 52 tackles and 10 sacks, and was responsible for two forced fumbles. He played the past three seasons for Seattle after leaving Tampa Bay, his landing place after he was cut by Seattle.
“I never really wanted to leave Seattle,” Bennett said. “The fact I was able to come back and go to a Super Bowl and be on one of the best teams ever is pretty cool.”
A threat to hold out before last season, Bennett slyly sidestepped a question about having another round of contract talks after the second of a four-year contract.
“I’m just going to roll with the punches,” he said.
Rapinoe was singled out for helping the Reign finish first during the regular season of the National Women’s Soccer League, scoring five goals from her forward position, and also helping the U.S. capture the World Cup, supplying two goals in an opening-round victory over Australia. A California native, she is considered one of the women’s game’s most dynamic players.
She was unable to attend, but in a prearranged video she thanked Seattle’s sports fans for voting for her.
The UW’s crew won its fifth consecutive Intercollegiate Rowing Association national championship — something no other school has done — and the school’s 18th IRA title.
The Huskies held off Pac-12 rival California in the final. The crew consisted of coxswain Stuart Sim, stroke Alexander Perkins, No. 7 Henry Meek, No. 6 Marcus Bowyer, No. 5 Jacob Dawson, No. 4 Ivan Piton, No. 3 Ezra Carlson, No. 2 Michael Evans and bow Eric Ledbetter. For Michael Callahan, it was his sixth IRA varsity eight national championship in his eight seasons as head coach.
“It feels good to be able to use the D-word,” said Ledbetter, when asked about the Huskies’ growing dynasty. “Day to day, we don’t think about it. It’s a day to day grind, and out of it comes results.”
While the rowers mugged for photos, Meek and Bowyer held up fingers that wore four national title rings each.
Moon’s sporting resume is impressive, one that began in Seattle and continues to this day: A 1978 Rose Bowl victory for the Huskies over Michigan, five Canadian Football League Grey Cup championships and nine Pro Bowl selections during his 17-year NFL career, capped by becoming the first African-American quarterback to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Moon, who was chosen as the 1977 Man of the Year event winner for the UW’s Pasadena breakthrough, nearly left the Huskies football program two years earlier while encountering tough times as a sophomore. He was booed a lot, with some of it racially tinged.
“My mom told me, “You chose to go up there and you’re going to stick it out — it could happen someplace else,” he said. “I owe all of my success to her.”
The ever popular Calabro was presented to the crowd by former Sonics coach and point guard Lenny Wilkens, who said the broadcaster had the innate ability to make people feel that they were a part of the action.
“You’re going to have games that aren’t so good, but Kevin sold every game,” Wilkens said.
Calabro described how he wanted just one shot at an NBA announcing job, that he would have been content had he called just one game. Pointing to Sikma and Payton in the dinner crowd, he offered thanks to many for enabling him to find a niche in the city.
“The nineties were an incredible time for sports in Seattle–I just felt like a stowaway on the SuperSonic transport,” he said.
The Ackerleys and their foundation were feted by videos that included several NBA luminaries, including NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Ginger Ackerley spoke briefly to the crowd, paying homage to her spouse, who died in 2011.
“My husband would have loved this,” she said.
Collier played her senior season of high school basketball at Seattle Christian School while undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. She worked through the health scare to earn McDonald’s prep All-America recognition, a first for a girl in the state. Then Collier tore knee ligaments in her first UW practice, but has fully recovered to become the current center starter as a junior.
“It’s just shocking,” she said of the award. “It’s been a year now, and to still be inspiring people is crazy. It’s a huge honor.”
Collier, who was accompanied by high-scoring Huskies teammate Kelsey Plum and family members to the event, also has had to deal with her mother, Ann, recovering from a pair of breast cancer surgeries.
“She’s a true survivor; I’m just Katie,” she said. “(But) I know I can handle things, knowing I’m 22 years old and learning and taking life as it comes.”
Her UW coach, Mike Neighbors, said, “Every time I look at her — wins and losses, ups and downs, life on the road — you can’t help but just go, ‘What am I complaining about? Look at what this kid overcame.'”
The streamlined event lasted just shy of two hours at the stately Paramount, rare for any awards show.
Kenny Mayne, former Channel 13 sportscaster turned ESPN humorist, provided a program highlight when he had two local boys, cousins Braylen Lyon, 7, and Ricky Danner, 5, recreate the fateful play from the end of Super Bowl XLIX, one in which Russell Wilson threw a widely debated interception that sealed New England’s win.
The idea was to exorcise the demon play.
Lyon, who wore a Marshawn Lynch jersey, took a read-option handoff from Danner, dressed in Russell Wilson’s No. 3, and dove onto a mat, presumably scoring the winning touchdown that never was, drawing a delighted roar from the crowd. The Lenny Wilkens Foundation, through the Odessa Brown Clinic, arranged for the youngsters to participate in the skit.
Lyon even upstaged Mayne in the process, drawing another roar when he went off script and said, “It’s all about the action, boss.”