CRYSTAL LAKE – Mason Erickson is 8 years old. He's in third grade at Martin Elementary School in Huntley. His older sister's name is Maddie.
On Tuesday night, Erickson made a new friend. His name is Martellus Bennett, and he plays tight end for the Bears.
"He's a little bit crazy," Erickson said with a giggle.
Yes, he is.
A lot bit crazy, to be exact.
During his day off from practice, Bennett spent two hours signing autographs at the Sage YMCA as part of an event to benefit Toys for Tots and Cans for Christmas. In between clutching Sharpie markers to design hundreds of smiley-face signatures, he told jokes, drew pictures, freestyle rapped and dispensed wisdom to his youngest fans.
It went something like this.
• Mason, the happy 8-year-old from Huntley, earned an extra autograph from Bennett on one condition. He agreed to read at least one book a month.
"ONE BOOK A MONTH," Bennett wrote beneath his signature on Erickson's jacket.
• Darius Lee, a 9-year-old from Cary, wore a smile as big as a football field as Bennett conducted a cheer on his behalf.
"Everybody tell Darius, 'Merry Christmas!' " Bennett shouted to a crowded gymnasium.
"MERRY CHRISTMAS!" screamed a room full of strangers.
"It's awesome," Darius said. "He's really fun, and he's exciting to meet."
• Alexandra Adrowski, an 8-year-old from Crystal Lake, grinned as Bennett greeted her.
"You're pretty," Bennett said. "I'm pretty, too, so I know pretty people when I see them."
Before long, the NFL veteran was quizzing his young friend for book recommendations. She suggested "Miss Daisy Is Crazy." He scribbled down the title so he wouldn't forget.
"He's funny," Alexandra said as she left the gym with her older brother, Chris.
• Speaking of books, 10-year-old Ashlee Palmquist of Cary brought one of hers for Bennett to sign. It was titled "The Pet War," a story about dogs versus cats.
Ashlee has cats, but she likes dogs, too.
"DOGS RULE," Bennett inscribed before signing his name. "KEEP READING."
"He's really fun," Ashlee said.
• Elizabeth Fischer, an 11-year-old from Lake in the Hills, had a special request.
Could Bennett sign her hat with his nickname, "Black Unicorn"?
"For you, I can," Bennett said.
Elizabeth held the hat tight as she left with her family.
• Conor Naughton, a 5-year-old from Crystal Lake, plopped his right arm on the table in front of Bennett.
"Are you sure?" Bennett asked.
Conor nodded yes.
So Bennett selected a blue Sharpie and signed his name across the kindergartener's forearm. That won't be coming out for a while.
"I think I'm fine with it," his mom, Roxana Naughton, said with a laugh.
* Noah Melick, a 14-year-old from Algonquin, showed up in his basketball warm-ups for the Westfield Wolves.
"Can you dunk?" Bennett asked.
Noah, who stands 5-foot-10, shook his head no.
"You should be dunking soon," Bennett said. "In eighth grade, I was doing 360s."
Noah thinks he'll be able to dunk, eventually. He also thinks Bennett is cool.
"I thought he was going to be shy," Noah said.
Bennett is anything but shy.
"I believe in the creativity in kids," Bennett said. "So I just like to mess with them and play with them as much as possible to encourage them to be creative."
"As we grow up, we start losing our imagination, which is a sad thing. Because we all need our imagination to solve problems."
Bennett has problems just like the rest of us.
His ribs hurt and might be fractured. His back was sore from sitting for so long. His rain-soaked ride to McHenry County was long, and his football team is struggling.
But Bennett is smiling.
Kids have a way of making him do that. Soon, he and his wife will have one of their own – a girl, due in March.
"Through interaction and conversation with people, it makes me feel a lot better," Bennett said. "Especially with the kids. The kids are always happy.
"I believe that kids see everything with one emotion. So either they're happy or they're sad. But as we grow up and we get older, we start seeing things in contradictions. So we can love someone and hate them at the same time.
"But kids aren't like that. They're so happy to see you."
For Bennett, the feeling is mutual.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.