At first, he looked grim.
And then we saw the tears.
They say you can see a person's soul through their eyes, and Saturday when Cedric Benson was chosen by the Chicago Bears as the fourth pick in the NFL Draft, the whole country had a chance to enter a private chamber where the real Cedric Benson lives.
And for the first time in a long time, Cedric Benson didn't have to prove anything to anybody.
Ever since he became the most publicized football player in Texas high school history, people have sat in judgment of Cedric Benson. When he put up unbelievable numbers as a prep star at Midland Lee, folks wondered if he had the speed to do that in college. As he was scoring five touchdowns in the state championship game, seasoned media observers opined that he probably didn't have the breakaway speed to play running back in college.
"He'll probably have to be a fullback," they said.
And Cedric just kept running.
Always, he kept running. He developed into what some NFL scouts called the best blocker among the tailbacks in the draft, he caught 69 career passes and the only time he ever missed a game with injury came after he tried to make a saving tackle on an interception return and collided with big Mike Williams.
He could prove them wrong on the playing field, true enough.
But the biggest judgment, and the most painful, was the one he couldn't change.
The numbers spoke for themselves on the field. He was one of only a five players in NCAA history to rush for over 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons and ranks sixth on the NCAA all-time rushing list. ESPN's draft expert Mel Kiper said one long-time NFL GM called him the best "red zone" he'd ever scouted, meaning that when the Longhorns moved the ball to the other team's 20 yard line, he had no peer in power and drive toward the end zone.
When Cedric Benson hugged his mom and the tears came Saturday, it was the fulfillment of a dream--the dream of a little kid in West Texas who believed that one day, his gift from God to play football would make a difference in his life.
Too often, we see coaches and players as "things" rather than people. Cedric Benson grew up with real values as a real person. That is why it hurt so much when people judged him, because they were questioning his character. And there were times in Cedric Benson's life that his character was the only thing which no one could take away from him.
For young people today, the biggest insult is to be "disrespected." It hurts a lot to know you have value, only to have others question it. You can't prove character. If someone thinks you are a "bad guy," you can't stand on a street corner and say, "I'm really not."
People saw Ricky Williams in Cedric Benson, and when Ricky chose to step away from the game he so dominated early, it surprised the sports world. There were those who thought Cedric Benson would probably follow a similar path. They had the same hair style, they went to the same school, Cedric openly admired Ricky. When Heisman Trophy voters didn't invite Cedric to New York as one of the top five finishers, significant voters acknowledged that Ricky's actions had adversely affected Cedric in the voting.
Fact is, Cedric Benson may have been the most scrutinized football player in Texas history. On the field, and off of it. When he mis-stepped, as any college student might have done, it was national news. When he agreed to a radio interview on a show promoting the Heisman Trophy and was pressured into comparing a game to a lifelong personal dream, he was judged for not being a team player.
And when he was elected captain, and played the entire Rose Bowl game despite hurting his knee on the first play from scrimmage, those were simply routine footnotes, filed right along side all of those 180 yard rushing games and record rushing touchdowns.
In the good times, he got adulation. What he wanted, most of all, was respect.
That is what happened Saturday in New York. He was drafted higher than any Texas running back since Earl Campbell was the No. 1 pick in 1977. Pro football franchises do not spend millions of dollars on gambles, and bad guys don't show passion and emotion, unless it is part of an act.
What we all saw, through some obvious pain that Cedric is willing to put behind him, was something very good.
Cedric is right. It is time to "get some things done" in the city by the shore of Lake Michigan, where legacies of running backs are very, very deep.
Most of all, the nation will now have a chance to know what the Longhorn football team has known.
At a Thanksgiving Day team meeting when 36 different Longhorn players, including Cedric, got up and shared deep personal thoughts, the Rev. Gerald Mann urged that they not be afraid to show their emotions.
"They say 'big boys don't cry,'" said Mann. "But big men do."
You do see Cedric Benson's soul through those flashing eyes that now reside under a closely cropped haircut from a guy looking for a new start.
And Saturday we saw one other thing that will serve him better than any of the other great gifts he has as he begins his new journey.
Through his tears, we saw his heart.