MIAMI -- When Cornelius Bennett led a Bible study group during his 35-day stay in a New York jail last spring for sexual misconduct, he was merely going through the motions. He hadn't hit bottom yet.
His transformation actually occurred several weeks after his release, while trying to repair a broken marriage and rebuild his reputation with coaches and teammates.
"We were playing Detroit in the preseason," said the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker, who will play in his fifth Super Bowl Sunday. "I was sitting in the (hotel) room. ... We had been gambling on the plane, playing blackjack, and I had won about $3,000. When we got to the hotel, I won a couple more thousand dollars.
"I remember, we were sitting there playing cards, and .. I stopped the game because something just clicked, `Man, it's time to go to chapel.'
"I mean, this is the way the Lord is. When he wants you, he's going to get you. So I stopped the game -- I'm winning, I'm on a hot streak -- and I go to chapel. The chaplain there asked me to pray a prayer with him to receive Christ, and I did. And my life has been changed since then."
By all accounts, Bennett, 33, has been a different person this season. He attended the Falcons' twice-weekly Bible study, for players on Tuesdays and couples on Thursdays, and he has quit drinking and carousing.
Five pounds lighter at 6-2, 237, and in better physical condition than he's been in years, Bennett followed a very good 1997 season with an outstanding effort in 1998. The former Alabama All-American, who played nine years in Buffalo and was 0-4 in the Super Bowl, led the Falcons in tackles with 120, breaking Jessie Tuggle's nine-year hold on the title, and he played stellar pass defense.
Moreover, he has been a positive locker-room influence.
"I think it got his attention," coach Dan Reeves said of Bennett's jail term. "I think he understood that life is very short, and you're judged very much by the mistakes you make. He was given another chance, and he doesn't want to make any more mistakes."
Skeptics have pointed out that Bennett has plenty of motivation for claiming he has found religion. For one, there was his marriage to his second wife, Kimberly, which was severely damaged, and for another, there was his status with the Falcons.
A few weeks after Bennett's sentencing, the Falcons drafted Georgia Tech linebacker Keith Brooking with the 12th overall pick. Because of Bennett's sullied reputation and the fact he had a salary-cap figure of $3.45 million for 1998, there was speculation his job was in jeopardy.
About his marriage, which has produced a child, Bennett said, "I know if I didn't have Christ I wouldn't have a family right now." About his status with the Falcons -- with whom he signed a four-year, $13.6 million contract in 1996 -- Bennett says that once he was given a second chance, he never doubted his ability.
"The pressure wasn't on me; the pressure was on whoever was trying to take my job," he said sternly. "It ain't no easy job to take. If I'm 40 years old, it's still not going to be no easy job to take. If you line up against me, I'm going to tear your (rear) up. Excuse my language."
Bennett still won't talk about the details of his wrongdoing, but this much is public record: He pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct and served 36 days of a 60-day sentence at the Erie County (N.Y.) Correctional Facility.
According to court testimony, Bennett returned to Buffalo in May 1997 to attend a roast of retired Bills quarterback Jim Kelly. At that time, Bennett encouraged a woman whom he had known for years. They went to his hotel room at the Hyatt Regency, where the victim sustained various injuries.
In addition to his jail sentence, Bennett paid a fine of $1,000 and an additional $617.26 toward the victim's hospital bill. He also was required to perform 100 hours of community service and undergo anger-management and substance-abuse counseling.
Bennett doesn't claim to be perfect now, but he does assert that he has rebuilt his life. He certainly says the right things.
To wit: He says that at previous Super Bowls, playing the game was never the first thing on his mind, and, now, it's the only thing.
"I'm no longer concerned with where we're going to go as far as the parties are concerned," Bennett said. "It's not like it used to be, where I'd be saying, `Man, I shouldn't have drank that last one last night because I'm about to die today.'
"All those things I've heard from coaches and the things I've said to young kids like, `Man, you've got to totally devote yourself' .. I'm able to do that now."
Tony Fabrizio is based in Atlanta and can be reached at email@example.com