Carolina WR Kelvin Benjamin dedicates season to his mom

FILE - This Aug. 31, 2017 file photo shows Carolina Panthers' Kelvin Benjamin warming up before an NFL preseason football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Charlotte, N.C.  Benjamin said he is dedicating the season to his mother Christine, who passed away in July. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) If Kelvin Benjamin had a bad game, he always knew where to turn.

If the media got on him about dropped passes, or people on social media were bullying him for being overweight and out of shape, he knew talking to his mother Christine would make him feel just a little better.

”She was my everything, man,” Benjamin said Tuesday.

The 26-year-old Benjamin is still processing his mother’s death, which came unexpectedly one week before the start of training camp in mid-July.

Benjamin, who already had plenty of motivation this season – including playing for a new contract – now has something that he said will drive him even more to succeed. He’s dedicated this season to his mom, who raised him and three other siblings on her own in Belle Glade, Florida.

Now, whenever he steps on the field Benjamin said he’s thinking about her ”pretty much all of the time,” and eager to make her proud.

”That’s why I’m going hard – I’m playing for her,” Benjamin said. ”Knowing she won’t be to the games. I mean, all I got is football.”

Benjamin and Carolina open the season at San Francisco on Sunday.

Teammates noticed Benjamin’s newly honed focus during the preseason, where he caught two touchdown passes including an impressive leaping grab in the end zone.

”He’s playing with a chip on his shoulder,” said quarterback Cam Newton, one of Benjamin’s best friends on the team. ”He’s playing with a purpose and that’s all you can ask. … I think we are going to get the best Benji. I feel like this is going to be his best year.”

Benjamin set Carolina franchise rookie records in 2014 with 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns, but tore his ACL the following summer in training camp. He was slow to return in 2016, but improved as the season progressed and finished with a solid 63 receptions for 941 yards and seven touchdowns.

”Last year was a struggle coming back and I think a lot of people don’t understand ACLs and that those type of major surgeries are not 12 months,” coach Ron Rivera said. ”There are very few guys who are like Adrian Peterson, who can come back as quickly as he did. Kelvin is one of those guys who took a little longer.”

Benjamin reported to OTAs this past spring overweight, but has worked himself back into shape. He made weight at check in at training camp while dealing with his mother’s death. He said he was grateful that he had the help of teammates at the intimate surroundings of Wofford College to take his mind off things.

”It was good because I didn’t really have time to grieve,” Benjamin said. ”I had to get right back into football so I think it kept me focused and kept me grinding.”

Benjamin said he leaned heavily on Newton and former Panthers quarterback Joe Webb to get through the rough days.

”My hat goes off to him,” Newton said. ”He’s keeping it all in a row. I know there are somedays it gets to him, and I try to give him as much space as possible.”

Benjamin helped his mother retire after signing his rookie contract in Carolina in 2014. He’d send her on vacations and bring her to Charlotte to watch Panthers games, too.

He was planning to buy her a new house – something he had always wanted to do – when he signed his next contract.

It was something she deserved, he said.

”I was the baby, so most of the kids were out of the house,” Benjamin said. ”I was still kind of hard on her because I was big and I did my own things. But I listened to her, man. She raised me right.”

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