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Star-crossed running back Cedric Benson earned respect in the end

The Bears’ first-round pick in 2005, who died at 36 in a motorcycle accident Saturday night in Austin, Texas, struggled in Chicago but still found success in the NFL.

Chicago Bears v Cincinnati Bengals
After three disappointing seasons with the Bears, running back Cedric Benson had the best game of his NFL career against them — rushing for 189 yards and a touchdown with the Cincinnati Bengals in a 45-10 victory over the Bears on Oct. 25, 2009 at Paul Brown Stadium.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

When Cedric Benson was projected as a top-five pick in the 2005 NFL Draft despite red flags about his character, the Bears turned to an inside source to get the real scoop on the prolific rusher from Texas. They asked wide receivers coach Darryl Drake, who was an assistant at Texas in Benson’s first three seasons in Austin before taking the Bears job when Lovie Smith was hired in 2004.

“We basically had a guy live with him for three years,” then-Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel said at the time. “That gives us an advantage over everybody else. Darryl was very, very close to the kid. So we know the kid.”

In a bizarre coincidence that has left the Bears’ extended family reeling in shock, sadness and mourning for the second time in a week, Benson died at 36 in a motorcycle accident Saturday night near Austin — seven days after Drake died unexpectedly at 62 at Steelers training camp in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

The Bears organization and former teammates expressed shock and paid respect to Benson after news of his death broke.

“Woke up to the horrible news of Cedric Benson’s passing,” former teammate Thomas Jones tweeted. “My heart aches for him and his family. Sending love, peace and blessings their way. Gone way too soon my brother. Rest well young King. You will truly be missed.”

Truth be told, Benson was an enigmatic figure in Bears history, an emotional, complicated, misunderstood, star-crossed personality who had an unfulfilling three-season tenure in Chicago.

Benson was drafted fourth overall by then-general manager Jerry Angelo after a prolific career at Texas, where he rushed for 5,540 yards and 64 touchdowns. But a 36-day contract holdout — the longest in modern Bears history — led to a slow start. And an awkward dynamic on the field and in the locker room with Jones, who had signed a four-year, $10 million contract in free agency the previous year, complicated matters.

Benson never really fit in with the Bears, as a running back or as a teammate. He rushed for 647 yards and six touchdowns in 2006, a season in which the Bears reached the Super Bowl. But by then he was in the shadow of Jones, whose once-stalled career blossomed the moment Benson arrived. In Super Bowl XLI, Jones rushed for 112 yards on 15 carries; Benson lost one yard on two carries.

After the Bears traded Jones to the Jets to move Benson into the featured-back role in 2007, fate eventually took over. Just when it appeared Benson was getting into a groove — gaining 136 yards on 19 carries in back-to-back games against the Packers and Broncos — he suffered a broken ankle, ending his season.

Benson complicated matters in the offseason when he was charged with boating while intoxicated in Texas in May 2008. A month later he was charged with a DUI, and Angelo had seen enough. He released Benson on June 9.

But that would not be the end of Benson’s NFL career. The Bengals successfully treated Benson for Celiac disease, an intestinal disorder that might have caused the lethargy and other issues that turned people off to him here. As healthy as ever, Benson had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and 20 touchdowns with the Bengals in 2009-11. He rushed for 169 yards and a touchdown in a playoff loss to the Jets in 2010.

Not coincidentally, his best game came against the Bears, a career-high 189 yards and a touchdown in a 45-10 victory at Paul Brown Stadium on Oct. 25, 2009. Benson was as happy as he had ever been in the NFL

“What a wonderful day and a wonderful thing,” he said, “to go out there and strut your stuff.”

And despite all the bad times, the bad decisions, the tough luck and self-inflicted wounds, those who knew Cedric Benson best — including many former teammates — were happy for him.

May he rest in peace.