Thanks Lovie, From Cedric and Tank

Coach Smith has kept Benson and Johnson's careers going strong

Both men credit Lovie Smith for life lessons. The same Lovie Smith who cut them from the Chicago Bears.

But Cedric Benson and Tank Johnson have nothing but good things to say about their former coach in Chicago.

"He always preached to act like a man, and I truly understand where he's coming from now, and grateful I got to experience that with him,"  Benson said.

He even went so far as to say he wouldn't change history -- the arrests, the suspension, the release -- he would do it all over again EXACTLY the same way.

"I found a way to get back on the ladder and climb back up," Benson said before Sunday's game against the Bears. "I am very grateful, believe it or not, that those things happened to me.  I would do it all over again, because they made me who I am as a player."

Benson looked noticeably different when he sat down to talk Thursday after lifting weights at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.  He was diagnosed with Celiac Disease just before his release from the Bears and has had to learn how to eat gluton free.  He now struggles to keep on weight but has more energy.

"I feel more alive," Benson smiled.

That's something he didn't get to do a lot of as a Bear.  Whether it was two years of "rookie" hazing as a hold-out 4th overall pick or the bravado with which he declared he would beat out locker room favorite Thomas Jones for the starting job.

"It is a business and we are teammates.But teammates do not fall into the same column as friends, " Benson said. "Teammates are one thing, friends another."

It was that kind of outspokenness his Bear teammates cringed to hear. Benson says he was blackballed by those in the Bear organization who said he was lazy, a prima donna, and worse.  He heard about it from everyone in Cincinnati, including coaches, trainers and even equipment guys.

"I'm just glad I'm not that," he said. "I'm just riding the wave right now, I feel as high as I could be."

Bengals teammate Tank Johnson is also optimistic about his future. More specifically, lining up against former teammate Olin Kreutz and the Bears.

"It'll be hard going up against Olin, another Washington Huskie, we have a lot in common," Johnson, a much more well-respected teammate, said. "I love those guys. Those coaches embraced me. To leave under those circumstances was kind of like the feeling when you're having a really good dream and you want to keep it going and then you wake up."

Johnson's nightmare began on December 13th of the Bears 2006 Super Bowl season.  Police raided his home and found a small amount of drugs as well as unregistered guns that turned out to legally registered in Arizona, where he had another home. 

The bad publicity didn't keep Johnson at home. He and a childhood continued to go out. One night, that friend wouldn't come home and he ended up getting killed after a fight in a night club. The dark cloud just kept following number 99.

"I was young and when you're young you think everything lasts forever. I was having fun," Johnson said about the fun that landed him in jail at 26th and Cal in Chicago. "That year when all that stuff transpired was probably one of the best years of my life, reconciling with my fiancee and then it all went up in flames."

The Bears stuck by Johnson through his jail sentence. But a few months later, another arrest on suspicion of DUI was the last straw.  In the Roger Goodell era of "no tolerance," Johnson was released by the Bears.

"Losing my house which I picked out for my family, it was special. That house was special to me. To take that from me was a low moment for me," Johnson said.

The 23-year-old from Gary, Indiana, said he experience made him realize he doesn't want his kids seeing their father being taken away in handcuffs on the evening news.

"Now I value what my kids think of me as their father and I value what my family thinks of me," Johnson said.

Both men say their coach's guidance off the field helped them get through their lowest moments to find resurrection.

"Lovie Smith taught me more about life than I had learned up to that point."

Watch Peggy Kusinski's full interview on U.S. Cellular Sports Sunday on NBC 5.

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