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Jackson: Benedetto sculpted legacy of passion

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Published:   |   Updated: April 24, 2013 at 09:31 AM

LAND O' LAKES Nobody would have guessed, when they finally got around to naming the Land O' Lakes High football stadium for John Benedetto last October, just how ripe the moment had become.

In truth, the ceremony, equally stirring and overdue, merely codified what was long popularly acknowledged. From the light towers to the stands to, especially, the very last blade of elegantly groomed grass, The Swamp — the stadium's enduring nickname — was the house Benedetto built. It bore his name long before the Pasco County School Board made it official with a vote.

After that, it felt good and proper to button up the coach's legacy with one more Friday night under the lights: the band playing, the helmets gleaming, the crowd on its feet. What it didn't feel was urgent. And yet, urgent is just how it turned out to be.

Death sneaked up on John Benedetto sometime before dawn Monday, claiming him in his sleep. That sounds about right. Awake, Benedetto couldn't have been taken. Awake, the coach would have had a game plan.

The man was passion personified. “You want a word to describe him?” says Steve Slowey, partner in a handful of Beef O'Brady's restaurants and a longtime LOLHS athletics benefactor. “I've got a word. Intense. The man was intense.”

Just Friday, when he greeted his 66th birthday, he was within a soggy bath towel of his playing weight at the University of Tampa where, as a scampering receiver of uncommon quickness, he became known as “The Rabbit.”

According to friends and former players who'd seen him recently, Benedetto, only his hair looking older — he'd become The Silver Rabbit — wouldn't have looked out of place running the skinny post in pads and cleats.

His legacy includes a Pasco-record 196 career victories, hundreds of players gone on to college careers, and at least one — receiver Logan Payne — who stayed long enough in the National Football League (five years) to earn a pension.

Moreover, with a dozen straight years in the playoffs, Benedetto seemed, at a plucky 62, to be hitting his stride when it ended suddenly and sourly in March 2009. After 32 seasons and a good September shy of 200 career wins, the Pasco school district denied his application to extend by one year his stay in DROP, the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program for public employees.

“He took it personally,” says Mike Connors, the Land O' Lakes car-seller-turned-restaurateur and longtime booster club activist.

As well he might.

Benedetto was Land O' Lakes' Bear Bryant, the towering inimitable establishing figure, and the way he saw it, the district dismissed him as if he were just some placeholder, some Mike Dubose nobody as likely to get the program in trouble as lose to Zephyrhills.

He'd stayed away after that, feeling shunned when, probably, he shouldn't have, and the stadium rededication helped patched the bonds, nudging back the curtains to shed fresh light on old stories.

Kenny Blankenship, future teacher and school employees union leader, was a “scrawny” 11-year-old when Benedetto showed up at Sanders Elementary School, beginning a relationship that would extend through Blankenship's graduation from Land O' Lakes High.

Benedetto did all the things you'd expect from a coach, and at least one you wouldn't. “Every now and then he'd stop at my bus stop and he'd say, 'Get in, Blankenship!' And he'd drive me to school. It showed me that he cared. To stop and pick up a teenager on the side of the road, he liked spending time with us, getting to know us, developing that relationship.”

For Susan Wilson Burkholder, a pioneer in girls' softball now settled in Elkton, Md., Benedetto is the coach who valued athleticism in young women before Title IX's permanency made it fashionable. On the day in gym class Burkholder's demand to join the fellows on the baseball diamond finally was rewarded, Benedetto made a rare appearance at the plate.

Stashed in right field, for this one at-bat, Burkholder slid over to center. “I'm going to catch this ball,” she writes in an email. “The ball was pitched, Coach B launched it.… I followed the ball all the way into my glove! The guys were speechless: That girl can catch.

“Sometimes I think he purposely hit it to me.” Add this, then: John Benedetto, eraser of stereotypes. “At least I like to remember it that way. He hit that baseball to me!”

Did we mention Benedetto loved his field? “He used to talk to the grass,” says Matt Connors, Mike's son and a Gators defensive back in the middle 1990s.

When the booster club staged its first Swamp Fest, then on the high school campus, the members worried over leaving so much as a tire mark. After all, they well remembered the football season Wednesday night years before when the sprinklers popped on just as the marching Gators began to practice their halftime routine.

The control box was, naturally, in Benedetto's locked office.

And then there was that team of destiny, the 2002 one headlined by Payne and Drew Weatherford, the one that stormed unbeaten through the regular season. Lampooning a district official who wondered whether schools couldn't do better than getting free trainers from local clinics, Mike Connors began paying Benedetto $1 each Friday for the privilege of announcing the games.

“It was this big ceremony,” Connors says. “I'd come down with a dollar, and Coach would tuck it in his left sock.” Which, after the game, he'd hand back. “Six games in, we're unbeaten and John says, 'You're giving me the same dollar each game, right?' Because you don't mess with a winning streak.”

Connors said it was, of course. Of course it was. When the season ended, Connors paid him the dollar one last time, now with each game's scores written along the border.

Benedetto had it framed, Connors heard, and it was hanging on his office wall at home Sunday night when he went to bed.


tjackson@tampatrib.com

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