|Memory of Leon Bender still fresh
By Len Pasquarelli
EL CAJON, Calif. -- For nearly five years, Antoinette Bender's heart has ached because she was robbed of the opportunity to ever see her son in an NFL game, stripped of that longtime dream of watching him perform in a Super Bowl while playing in the silver and black of her favorite team.
And then the league put Super Bowl XXXVII practically in her back yard on Sunday evening and, in so doing, unwittingly plunged a dagger deep into her chest and twisted it there. So while the rest of the country sits in front of big screen televisions to watch what is being hailed as one of the greatest matchups in Super Bowl history, a game that parlays the top-ranked offense and the No. 1 defense from the regular season, Antoinette almost certainly won't be among the international viewing audience.
Instead, she might make the five-minute drive to the cemetery where Leon Bender is buried, and whisper to her late son about how proud she would have been seeing him run onto the field Sunday evening.
"I was just over to the cemetery the other day so I don't know if I'll go back (on Sunday) or not, but I might, because it usually gives me some comfort," said Antoinette Bender. "When I go, I talk a lot to Leon, an awful lot. Even after five years, there are still things I need to say to him. I wished that I was saying them to him this Sunday, just before he left his hotel, to go play in the Super Bowl. I don't know who dreamed about it more, me or him."
This should have been the greatest week of Leon Bender's life. Playing in a Super Bowl game in his hometown, in front of family and friends, starting at defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders.
Playing in the final season of his five-year, $3.45 million contract, perhaps looking forward to unrestricted free agency. Making a comfortable living for his wife, Liza, and for their daughter, Imani.
Mention the words should have been to Antoinette Bender and they elicit only a long, sad sigh, the kind that accompanies resignation, or a pain that simply cannot be assuaged even by the passage of time.
A second-round choice of the Raiders in the 1998 draft, Leon Bender died on May 30 of that year, just five weeks after his name went off the master draft board on the 31st overall selection, less than two weeks after the former Washington State star got a contract that paid a $1.2 million signing bonus.
Preparing for an afternoon workout, Bender suffered an epileptic seizure at the Marietta, Ga., home of Terry Bolar, his agent and his friend. Found by Bolar on the floor of his guest-suite bathroom, Leon Bender was cold before the ambulance even pulled out of the tony subdivision.
And just like that, without ever having taken a single snap at the NFL level, Leon Bender's career was over. And so was the dream of Antoinette Bender to travel to every Raiders game, to watch her baby, to become an unofficial and extended-family member of a franchise she admired for years.
There is yet another onetime Oakland defensive tackle, former first-round pick Darrell Russell, who won't suit up for Super Bowl XXXVII. Banished by the NFL for a year, the result of his multiple violations of the substance abuse policy, Russell recently applied for reinstatement to the league and his case should be heard in coming months.
If things had worked out differently, Russell and Bender might be shoulder to shoulder for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, not Sam Adams and John Parrella. But where Russell brought on his own demise, a victim of personal excess, it was cruel fate that ended Leon Bender's career.
"He never had a chance," said Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, who ironically was head coach in Oakland when Bender was drafted. "It was completely out of his hands."
Indeed, it was, since an autopsy revealed no drugs or alcohol in Bender's system at the time of his death. Every screening, in fact, returned negative. And the Cobb County (Ga.) medical examiner's office finally confirmed that the cause of death was an epileptic disorder.
Bender had been treated for epilepsy since childhood. He was reportedly on medication at the time he died, but that remains somewhat murky, although Raiders sources said medication had been prescribed. The team was aware, of course, of Leon Bender's condition.
"A fluke," Bolar said of his client's death. "A tragic fluke."
Bolar and some associates have created the Leon Bender Foundation, to help educate young people about epilepsy. So far, the advances have been relatively small, the foundation an up-and-down proposition.
There is no telling just how good a player Bender, only 22 at the time of his death, would have been by now. At 6-feet-5 and 300 pounds, and with good natural strength and good-enough quickness, he possessed the tools to have grown into a very solid defender. There was an undeniable lack of maturity, both physically and emotionally with Bender, but the Raiders scouts liked his enthusiasm and love for the game.
"He was just a big kid who wanted to play football," said longtime league personnel director Ken Herock, part of the Raiders' scouting staff when the impressionable Bender was being evaluated. "Was he the most polished guy you had ever seen. No, he wasn't, not at all. But he wanted to be good. He wanted to please people. We knew, from talking to people at Washington State, that he was very coachable. And he was a hard worker, so, who can tell where all those things would have taken him?"
The question, of course, is both rhetorical and moot.
But in her modest home, with some of her son's memorabilia surrounding her, it is a question Antoinette Bender has asked herself virtually every day for nearly five years now. This week, for a reporter, she pulled out an old photograph of Leon when he was two years old. She dusted it off carefully and recalled how she had conned Leon into posing for it by rewarding him with a bag full of bubble gum.
It is, with photographs of Leon in his Washington State uniform, one of her favorite pictures. His cheeks bulging, Leon is grinning, and Antoinette just muses thinking about the prodding that preceded the wide smile.
"A good boy," said Antoinette, who works two jobs, one of them at a drug rehabilitation center. "A good boy with good intentions. I can go maybe a few hours without thinking real hard about him. And then sometimes, I'll just be driving down the freeway, and something will remind me of him. Just out of the blue, it will be there, and there I am crying again. I guess there's always going to be a piece of Leon around."
Antoinette Bender hasn't had any contact with Raiders officials this week. No one has called to offer her tickets. She isn't bitter about that, since her favorite team has bigger things with which to contend, like a Tampa Bay defense that was the highest-rated unit in the league in 2002.
She hasn't thought a lot about football in recent days, because Imani and two of her other grandchildren are coming for a weeklong stay, and she is plotting a gala birthday party for all three of them. In a way, she is pleased to have some sort of preoccupation, she said.
Last month, Antoinette and her nephew, David Brantley, attended the Rose Bowl game. It was an enjoyable time for both until the in-stadium video and message screen showed a replay highlight from the 1998 Rose Bowl, and there was the familiar No. 91 making a tackle.
"We never looked at the screen again," said Antoinette Bender. "For the rest of that game, we stared straight at the field, nothing else."
Last Sunday, she and Brantley secured tickets for the AFC championship game, with the Tennessee Titans facing the Raiders for a trip to Super Bowl XXXVII. As the public address announcer called the starting lineup for the Raiders, and the players came out of the tunnel, Brantley suddenly began to weep uncontrollably.
"He said he was just looking to see his 'dog' come out of the tunnel, 'cause he felt like Leon was there, ready to play," Antoinette recalled. "And we just both started crying like babies. People sitting around us must have thought we were crazy or something. I mean, crying at a football game, there's no way you can explain that."
And so on Sunday, while her beloved Raiders are attempting to capture their first Super Bowl championship since the 1983 season, Antoinette Bender is planning to be otherwise engaged. No sense sitting in front of the television, or in a seat at nearby Qualcomm Stadium, and explaining her tears. There is, she said, just too much history to relate. There are, Antoinette Bender feels, too many people who wouldn't understand anyway.
"I feel cheated," Antoinette Bender said. "Not because Leon isn't here to be playing in the Super Bowl, although I would have loved to have seen that. But because Leon isn't here, period, you know? It's a loss you just don't get over. I am not the same woman I was five years ago. Not even close.
"It's like someone tore out a piece of your heart and this week that piece just seems bigger than ever."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.