BEREA, Ohio (AP) - As the heavy smoke wafted above the burning sugar cane fields, Browns punt returner Travis Benjamin waited in the sticky Florida marsh for the pursuit to begin.
As rabbits fled from the smoldering stalks, Benjamin chased the small critters, doing his best to mimic their every right and left turn until he got his hands on one. He once hauled in 20 in a single day.
``It's nothing to it once you know the tendencies of what a rabbit's going to do and when he'll come out,'' Benjamin said. ``It's just going out there and having fun.''
Rabbits aren't easy to nab. Neither is Benjamin.
Tagged with the nickname ``Rabbit'' the moment his Cleveland teammates learned of his exploits as a kid rounding up furry animals in Belle Glade, Fla., Benjamin has become one of the NFL's top returners. Last week, he ran back a punt 79 yards for a touchdown and racked up 179 yards returning in a 37-24 win over Buffalo.
On his second-quarter TD, he caught the ball near his 20 and sprinted across the field, easily eluding a few tacklers as he picked some blocks. Once he turned the corner and headed up the sideline, Benjamin busted through a half-hearted tackle by punter Shawn Powell, spun out of another would-be tackle and raced into the end zone.
The electrifying score sent a shockwave through FirstEnergy Stadium, giving the Browns a 17-10 lead. Earlier, he returned a punt 57 yards but was bumped out of bounds by Powell, a stop that caused Benjamin's teammates to give him major grief.
``Yeah, all of them came up to me,'' said Benjamin, drafted in the fourth round last season from Miami. ``We know that's one thing that cannot happen - letting the punter tackle you. Just like being a linebacker and letting a quarterback shake you. It's kind of a rule we've got: `Don't let that guy do that to you.'''
Benjamin has been doing plenty to annoy coverage units all season.
In fact, following his performance against Buffalo, the Bills released Powell.
Benjamin enters Sunday's game against Detroit ranked second in the league with an average of 15.1 yards per return. He's helped the Browns flip the field with three returns of over 30 yards. And although he's had a limited role on offense, he's made the most of his opportunities with five catches for 105 yards.
But it's when Benjamin is deep to return a punt that his speed puts the opposition on edge.
``It's amazing,'' Browns wide receiver Davone Bess said. ``It's part of the game plan. If our defense can make a stop, we know we have someone back there who can make a play at any given moment.''
There's fast, and then there's Benjamin fast.
Not even Joe Haden, one of Cleveland's quickest players, can run with ``Rabbit.''
``Nah,'' Haden said. ``He's got special speed. I think his legs are 75 percent of his body.''
He's listed at 175 pounds, but that might be helped by Benjamin's dreadlocks. The Browns won't use him to return kicks, mostly because they're afraid he'll get broken in two.
But Benjamin is too valuable returning punts, and the spot-spoken 23-year-old said there are few things more thrilling than taking one all the way back.
``You can feel your heart pumping,'' he said. ``Everything kind of moves in slow motion to me because I can see the end zone. The closer I am to the end zone the greater chance I have of getting there.''
Benjamin's been on the run for years.
At a young age, he realized his God-given speed could take him places. Growing up in area known as The Glades, where poverty rises alongside the sugar cane, football has been a way out for many. It's a chance to make more of their lives.
And for many boys in Belle Glade, it starts with chasing rabbits.
``It's very important,'' Benjamin said. ``We've got Santonio Holmes, Fred Taylor. It's a great tradition when you grow up and see those guys doing it and they make it to the NFL, you kind of follow on their line and try to do the same thing they have done. Playing ball is a high priority for us, knowing we can play ball and get into a school and to the NFL. It's a great pleasure doing that.''
Benjamin enjoyed explaining the art of the chase to reporters. It's a source of pride, a nod to his past and maybe the reason he's so elusive to tacklers.
The rabbits honed his running skills, and many paid for it.
``You can catch `em and sell `em or catch `em and eat `em,'' he said. ``They kind of taste like pork chops to me. So it's a great meal.''
NOTES: Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner explained that QB Brandon Weeden's first two passes last week against Buffalo - incompletions that drew boos from Cleveland fans - were the correct throws. ``One was a screen and he had to throw the ball away,'' Turner said. ``The other one was completely covered and there really wasn't much he could have done. He really made good decisions on both of those plays.''
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