There's a joke around Martellus Bennett's house: To his wife and daughter, the New England Patriots tight end is  the most creative man in the NFL. It's a joke because, well, there's not much competition.

Before Bennett entered the league in 2008, a very creative professional football player was one who owned a vanity record label, or helped design a streetwear line, or wrote a memoir-- or had someone write it for him. Over the course of eight seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Chicago Bears and now the Pats,  Bennett has continued to raise the bar: he produced an animated film, a gallery show, a T-shirt line and a rap album. While his teammates were spending their offseasons on the golf course or the beach, he was launching a creative agency, pitching television networks and giving a TED talk. This weekend, in time for Father's Day, he will add to that body of work with his first children's book and mobile app.

"I've always been interested in creating things for kids," he tells Inc. "I feel like kids don't dream big enough. With art being taken out of school, it's important to know you can create as well. Where I come from [Bennett grew up in Taylor, Texas, and played football and basketball at Texas A&M] "you feel like you need to be able to dribble a ball or catch a ball to get out of the situation. Kids want to rap, but they never think about writing a film score."

Bennett himself has felt the pressure to focus on ball-catching instead of dreaming. Simply surviving in the NFL demands most players' full time and energy, never mind anything that might be construed as a distraction. As a rookie, the 6-ft. 6-in. 275 lb. Bennett caught some flak for spending his free time putting on art shows, doodling in his journal and performing in an alternative hop hop group called the Moonshine Kids. "Everyone tried to change me, make me into something I'm not," he says. Fortunately, "the longer I've been in the league, the more people accept me for who I am."

It helps that he's been able to prove his side projects aren't a drag on his football performance. In fact, he says, the more he's been able to find fulfillment in art, the better he has played. "When I did my first animated feature, I went to the Pro Bowl," he notes. "I believe happiness breeds success and not the other way around."

While other athletes enjoy the cachet that comes from "designing" a sneaker or making a cameo on a song, few of them dedicate any real time to it. "They hold up other people's products. I want to make the product," he says. That means spending his own money to do it, which, in turn, means being involved in every aspect of the business, down to negotiating the price of the paper on Hey AJ, It's Saturday. (The book, the first in a planned series, stars a character based on Bennett's daughter, Jett.)

"I want to know where every single dollar is going," he says. "The thing about creativity is there are so many things you want to do, but this shit costs money. Learning how to compromise, finding how to creatively get what you want within the budget -- I think that's been the biggest thing."

Of course, the goal is for Bennett's projects to stop costing money at some point and start making money. "Who's not interested in making money?" he says. "I want to be like the Nike or Apple of children's books."  

Published on: Jun 17, 2016