By TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
BEREA, Ohio (AP) - As sweat beads streaked his cheeks, defensive end Marcus Benard looked out at the green practice fields behind the Browns' training facility.
For a time, he didn't know if he'd see them again.
He made it back.
Seven months ago, an instant of recklessness on a motorcycle nearly took Benard's life. At 26, a highly paid professional athlete just tapping into his potential, Benard, who had beaten the odds and made an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent, almost threw everything away and left three young sons without their father.
Benard was lucky. He lived and learned.
"I appreciate life," he said. "And I appreciate the sport that I'm playing and my responsibilities to it. It's a blessing and I feel like it's a plan.
"I'm very happy to be here."
Benard spoke to reporters Wednesday for the first time since his harrowing experience. Before answering questions, he smiled and shook hands with several media members, another step in his recovery completed.
On Oct. 10, Benard had just left practice when he crashed his three-wheel Can-Am Spyder into a guardrail on Interstate 71. Brooklyn Police estimated that the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Benard, who led the Browns in sacks the previous season, was thrown an estimated 80 yards before coming to a stop.
He broke his right hand and sustained other unspecified injuries that required a three-day hospital stay at The Cleveland Clinic. Benard declined to discuss any specifics about his horrific accident or other injuries. The only visible reminder of his traumatic ordeal is a long, thick scar tracing from the middle of his right hand past his wrist.
Benard was asked if the wreck had changed him.
He paused, perhaps searching for the proper words.
"It did," he said. "But you live and you learn from everything. You walk up stairs and you stub your toe and you say I'm going to pick my feet up this time. So I learned a valuable lesson, just the appreciation of life. I feel like it was a blessing and you learn your lessons.
"You learn more about life. You learn more about yourself. Sitting out and going through what I went through _ rehab and everything _ you always sit back and evaluate yourself and evaluate your position in life."
When he was finally cleared to return, Benard remembers his mind filling with many thoughts as he ran back onto the field with his teammates.
"I was just excited just to be back with the team and to be back on grass," he said. "Life's chaotic, but the football field is where we're comfortable, where I'm comfortable and it was just a joy to be able to have that chance again and to be able to be on the team."
Benard expressed his gratitude to the Browns, whom he said were there "from Day One." The team could have released him following the accident because it was a nonfootball-related injury, but the Browns chose to pay him the final 12 game checks on his $525,000 salary.
"Words can't even describe how wonderful they've been to me," he said. "I will forever appreciate the Browns for what they did for me."
Benard said he no longer rides a motorcycle. The one he was on when he wrecked last October, one day after the Browns completed their bye week, had its front wheels torn off by the impact. Following the crash, Benard said his first thoughts were about his three boys, Domanic, Marcus Jr., and Ashai.
"That's my heart and I don't ever want to disappoint them," he said. "I want to be there for them."
Browns coach Pat Shurmur has noticed a physical change in Benard, who bulked up last year when the team switched from a 3-4 to 4-3 defensive front. Benard says he now weighs 260 pounds.
"He's much leaner," Shurmur said. "He looks much more fit and he's flashed a little bit. He looks like he's putting himself in position to have a good camp."
Shurmur also believes Benard has matured following last year's life-altering event.
"I'm glad he's here and I think we all go through things in life that refocus us on doing things the right way and allowing us to be able to continue things that are important to us. He's done that."
Not that he did before, but Benard now knows not to take anything for granted.
The crash has made him more aware, more thankful.