Football / Sports

Panthers' Bene Benwikere has friend who died in police shooting on his mind

Carolina Panthers rookie cornerback Bene Benwikere will remember how kind Ezell Ford was to him.

When Benwikere speaks of Ford, a 25-year-old, unarmed black man who was shot and killed by Los Angeles Police on Monday, he sometimes still uses present tense to describe his slain childhood friend.

"He took the time to kind of keep guys away from me," Benwikere, 22, said Friday after practice. "When I'm walking and somebody wants to talk to me or say something and he knows it's not really a good fit, he says, 'No, don't deal with them,' or tells them to leave me alone. He was always like a big brother."

Benwikere heard the news on Twitter earlier this week, and he has remembered his old friend this week as the shooting death of another unarmed black teenager -- Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. -- has captured national attention for protests and excessive police force used.

Ford was killed near his home on South Broadway and West 65th Street. Benwikere grew up five blocks south and one block east of there, at South Main and West 70th Street.

Benwikere and Ford met in sixth grade, when they would bus together to Marcus Garvey Middle School, about 3 miles away. Benwikere was closer to Ford's younger brother, Lavell, with whom he played Pop Warner football.

"He was always around," Benwikere said of Ford. "We didn't play video games in the house or anything, but we were always around each other in terms of transit or practices. He loved his little brother so he was always there at the games and supporting us."

Ford reportedly suffered from mental illness. According to the Los Angeles Times, Ford was diagnosed with depression when he was 18, and later diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, all of which made him less social over time.

According to the Times, Ford had convictions for marijuana possession and possession of a loaded firearm. He was also arrested in January for trespassing in Long Beach.

Benwikere said the two were "pretty close" until Benwikere's sophomore or junior year of high school but grew apart after that. He'd still see Ford walking the neighborhood and would often stop to talk with him.

"Around me, Ezell, he's always been one way toward me. He's always been nice, a fun-loving guy," Benwikere said. "Sometimes he can get a temper, but he was a fun-loving guy when he was younger. As he got older, I'm not sure how all that started to play out. Maybe he could have had issues and fighting people, I don't know. But I know with me and his brothers, they were always kind to me and looking after me and taking care of me."

There are differing accounts of the events surrounding Ford's death. Police say Ford ignored police and made suspicious movements when they attempted to make an investigative stop, then struggled with police and eventually reached for an officer's gun before he was shot by two officers.

In an interview with TV station KTLA, Ford's mother Tritoba said her son was on the ground and complying with demands when he was shot three times. Multiple reports from Los Angeles have quoted alleged witnesses as saying Ford was compliant with officers before being shot. An LAPD investigation is ongoing.

"My brother was a good guy, all he wanted to do was walk up the street and smoke cigarettes," Lavell Ford, the victim's brother and Benwikere's friend, told a Los Angeles NBC station. "He was in his own world. He had special needs, and he didn't deserve this."

From 3,000 miles away, Benwikere is keeping an eye on the story via Twitter and family members. He said Ford is in his heart this weekend. Benwikere plays his second NFL exhibition, against the Kansas City Chiefs, on Sunday night.

"From what's being said, he was cooperating and (I'm) not sure what triggered the officer to shoot. I'm in the blind, too," Benwikere said.

"I know I have to focus on football, but I did pay my respects, and it is a tough loss."

(c)2014 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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