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If Martellus Bennett doesn’t want to visit Trump, so be it

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 07: Martellus Bennett of the New England Patriots celebrates during the Super Bowl victory parade on February 7, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Patriots defeated the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime in Super Bowl 51. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 1000001897

This column needs some background. Here goes:

Eight years ago, veteran sportswriter Bill Gleason called me.

‘‘Telander,’’ he said — he called everyone by his last name — ‘‘there’s an old Bear named Bob Kilcullen down in Dallas, and he says there’s a kid walking across the United States, east to west, a former Army Ranger who went to Notre Dame, speaking to NFL groups and whatnot about unselfishness and greed. The kid’s near Dallas now. Something to do with Pat Tillman, too.

‘‘I told Kilcullen it wasn’t for me, but if you’re interested, here’s his number. Just a word to the wise: Kilcullen will talk your head off.’’

I called, and the old Bears lineman, who is now 80, indeed did chat on about this young man, Rory Fanning, who was full of idealism and passion. But Kilcullen’s verbal enthusiasm touched me, and I decided to check out Fanning.

I called his cellphone. Fanning was already past Dallas, walking toward Arizona, nearly 2,000 miles behind him since his start 10 months earlier. He was resting in a McDonald’s somewhere in the sagebrush.

I flew to Phoenix and met him in the Sonoran Desert, near the Mexican border. I walked for a day with him through the 110-degree heat, and that night we built a campfire in the chill desert air and slept near its glow. We talked from the moment we met until we nodded off, then started our dialogue again the next morning.

It’s possible I never have been so inspired by any person I have met.

After two tours in Afghanistan, Fanning had quit the military because he had been so inspired by brothers — and fellow Rangers — Pat and Kevin Tillman and wanted to preach their concept of questioning everything, of engaging in earnest dialectic, of seeking truth and mental peace.

Pat Tillman, of course, was killed in combat — by friendly fire — and Fanning wanted to honor his comrade by raising money for the Pat Tillman Foundation. Hence, his meandering journey across the belly of America and into its heart, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Years would pass, and Fanning would write a book about his journey, marry, raise a young family, become an editor at Haymarket Books in Chicago and, as fate would have it, ghost-write a book with former Bulls guard Craig Hodges, a native of south suburban Park Forest.

That book, ‘‘Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter,’’ was just released. In it, Hodges recounts how his decision to become a black activist and thoughtful protester shortened his career in the league, even though he won three consecutive three-point-shooting contests during All-Star Weekend and helped the Bulls win two NBA titles.

‘‘I learned early that change was something that happened only if we made it happen,’’ Hodges says in the book.

This all is relevant because Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett, a former Bear, has said he will boycott the team’s impending trip to the White House to meet with President Donald Trump in the wake of its Super Bowl victory. Bennett might be joined by other teammates in this protest against Trump’s policies toward immigrants, minorities and women, but the impetus is Bennett’s alone.

Bennett has been ripped by some and praised by others for this stance. I’m with the latter group.

We often hear that pro athletes have no conscience, no god other than money and self-indulgence. Say what you will about 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, but he didn’t benefit one iota by taking a knee during the national anthem last season. And his charitable work seems to bear out his Black Lives Matter sincerity.

Protests seldom help the protester. They can, however, get you blackballed. Hodges thinks his outspokenness did just that after he visited the White House with his Bulls teammates, wearing a white dashiki and delivering an eight-page letter to then-President George H.W. Bush ‘‘on behalf of the poor people, Native Americans, homeless and most especially the African Americans who are not able to come to this great edifice.’’

‘‘I’m just happy [Bennett] feels the opportunity is there for him to take a stand,’’ Hodges told me on the phone Tuesday. ‘‘There may be ramifications for Bennett, but this is what it’s all about.’’

It’s funny how nobody said much when four Cubs players didn’t go to the White House a month ago to shake hands with President Obama. And few howled when superstar quarterback Tom Brady skipped the Patriots’ meeting with Obama in 2015. Where was Brady that day? ESPN reported he was working out at a gym.

Brady, of course, is personal friends with Trump. So be it.

You make your decisions in life and live with them.

A walk in the desert eight years ago reminded me of that, and it makes me salute Martellus Bennett today.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com