BamaMag.com: Everyone knows about the start of your nationally-recognized football career at Alabama. Do you remember when you started playing football?
Cornelius Bennett: No, not really. I learned how to play football in the sandlot following my two older brothers, especially my older brother Curtis. We would just play neighborhood football. Our neighborhood against another neighborhood. Our street against another street. But the first time I played organized football was my freshmen year in high school (Ensley in Birmingham).
BamaMag.com: And once you started playing football, what held your interest?
CB: I just wanted to be like my big brother Curtis who earned a scholarship to go to Alcorn State University. He left there and ended up going to Alabama A&M. I just wanted to follow in his footsteps. Although he was a quarterback, I did not see myself being a college quarterback but I just wanted to follow in his footsteps and play college football.
BamaMag.com: Were there other players you admired when you were young? I heard you say your brother. Were there players that you watched on television?
CB: My big brother was a big Dallas Cowboys fan so I grew up being a Cowboys fan. We watched those great teams of the 1970's…Newhouse, Staubach, Dorsett. As I started getting a little older, I started playing tight end so I wanted to emulate Billy Joe DuPree, who I thought was a fine tight end in his day.
BamaMag.com: Would you discuss your recruitment by The University of Alabama? Do you remember the assistant coach who recruited you?
CB: Of course. I was not heavily recruited until late in my junior year when my high school coach, Steve Savarese, switched me to running back about the seventh or eighth game of the season. People started to stand up and take notice of this big, strong, fast kid. Ken Donahue from The University was the guy who was in charge of recruiting me. I had a chance to meet with him several times on campus, at school and in the home. Then I had a chance to meet Coach Bryant–once on campus, and he also came to my home, which is a thrill of a lifetime. And then after Coach Bryant retired, Ray Perkins came in and sealed the deal.
BamaMag.com: What other schools were involved and seriously considered?
CB: Auburn. I only took three trips. My first trip was to Tennessee. My second trip was to Auburn and my last trip was to Alabama. I turned down the other two trips just because I knew that it was Alabama. Somewhere in all that, I went down to Auburn. Pat Dye kind of finagled me into committing to Auburn. I was committed to Auburn for about two weeks, but my heart was really at Alabama all along. Auburn just showed me such a great time. That's what a recruiting trip is all about. If I had played for Coach Dye, my career would have been just as good because he's a fine person. I like him a lot. And if you see us interact, you might think I played for Coach Dye. He had a fine program at Auburn. At Alabama, I thought we did a good job. We didn't win any championships during my time at The University but we had some great football teams and produced a lot of guys who became professional football players.
BamaMag.com: So the reason you attended Alabama is because your heart was there?
CB: No doubt about it. Reggie King, the former All-America basketball player at Alabama, grew up across the street from me. So he was like a surrogate big brother in a sense. He played at Alabama in the mid '70s there. My sister, Reggie, and my brother were classmates. They all played baseball together. I'm one of the few people in the world who knows how he got his nickname, "Mule". "Mule" King didn't come from playing basketball. It came from playing baseball. He was a great baseball player growing up. His mother and my mother were best of friends. I mean lifelong friends, so we always attended the same church. So anybody in our neighborhood wanted to be like "Mule" as far as Alabama was concerned. That was the college of choice. I really wanted to follow my brother's footsteps. He was a quarterback in the '70's and being a black quarterback in the '70s, he wasn't getting a lot of looks by major universities. In my book my big brother was the best quarterback in the city. You go back to Birmingham now and you ask about "Boo Boo". They called my brother "Boo Boo" or Curtis Bolden at Jackson-Olin High School. Guys that remember him from the '70's will tell you how good a football player he was.
BamaMag.com: What were your first impressions when meeting Coach Bryant?
CB: The first time I met him was in his office. Same story that anybody that's ever been to Coach Bryant's office. The depth chart was on the board, the desk was there and the couch. Here I am 6-3 and Coach Bryant was not a short man by any means. You sit down on that couch and you had to pretty much sit in the middle so I am assuming that over the years with all those big bodies sitting down in the middle, you just sunk down and you were always below Coach Bryant. The in-home visit was a circus. How it got out that Coach Bryant was coming to my home, I still don't know. The whole neighborhood was around. Just to have that memory of people coming out to see Coach Bryant, and I guess myself, also, that is something that I will cherish forever.
BamaMag.com: What were your first impressions of Coach Perkins?
CB: Straight laced. Meant what he said. You could trust his word because you could look him in the eye and he wouldn't lie to you. I think that's what sold me and I know that's what sold my mother. Our relationship to this day is unbelievable. We talk once or twice a month and check to see how one another are doing. He's a person that I relied on a lot as far as helping me to grow as a young man, not only as a football player but he groomed me for what was after college football. He taught me about the rigors of professional football, from practices to meetings, to the financial aspects. He was a great tool that I had and I used him.
BamaMag.com: What are some of your best memories about The University of Alabama?
CB: Just everyday life on campus, away from football. I couldn't imagine college life being any better on any other college campus than it is at The University of Alabama. The student population is great and continues to grow. We had about 16,000 students on campus when I was there and you felt like you knew everyone anywhere you went. People would always welcome you no matter where you were on campus. Fans were always tremendous no matter what kind of season we had. The hopes were always there that we were going to win the big one.
BamaMag.com: What do you feel was your best performance at The University of Alabama?
CB: I felt like every game I played in (laughing). Of course the one game that everyone remembers the most is "the sack", the Notre Dame game. That is the one time in my whole college career that I didn't grade out a winner in a game. I don't think anyone graded out a winner that week. I didn't feel too bad after that one. I just felt like I gave it my all every time I played football, high school, college and the pros. I think that is one thing my contemporaries will say about me, my coaches or anybody that watched me play. They always know that I was out there and gave it my all.
Editor's Note: Arnold Steadham has covered Alabama events for BamaMag.com and 'BAMA Magazine. We will continue with Cornelius Bennett, and will also have Steadham's interviews with Dwight Stephenson, another former Alabama player honored at this year's Walter Camp Banquet.