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March 11, 2011Samuel Benjamin had never played quarterback in his life, yet there he was, thrown into the fire, just his third game on varsity. The Mount St. Joseph junior was a receiver by trade and a corner by craft, but coach Blake Henry wanted to try something a little different in this game.
The Gaels were playing a rugged, hard-hitting Fort Hill squad, and Henry figured the best way to mitigate their strength advantage would be with a heavy does of speed. So the coach took Benjamin, his best all-around athlete, and stuck him behind center.
"I was ready for it," said the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Benjamin. "That was a championship team and I really wanted to prove myself. I wanted the moment."
The young Gael didn't exactly light up the night like Peyton Manning, but Benjamin ran the Wildcat to perfection, dodging left and right, sprinting inside and outside, moving deftly between the white lines. He rushed for almost 100 yards and set up both Mount St. Joe's scores in a 14-10 upset in Cumberland.
"He single-handedly led them down field and won that game for them," said Fort Hill safety Garrett Clay. "When we were watching film, he was the guy we keyed on. He was just a great athlete. You couldn't take your eyes off him or he'd beat you."
Clay shouldn't feel too bad -- Fort Hill was hardly the only victim Benjamin claimed last season. Despite playing in a brand-new spread offense with a glut of underclassmen, Benjamin gained over 1,000 all-purpose yards and scored four touchdowns. He led the Gaels to four victories and earned Private School All-State honors.
"He's a smooth, athletic, coordinated player," Henry said. "He has the burst to accelerate past most defenders, and he's definitely a step-and-a-half faster then anyone else we had. And pound-for-pound, he's the strongest kid on our team."
And to think, he was just a first-year varsity player.
Normally athletes with Benjamin's talent find themselves on varsity as freshmen, sophomores at the latest. But Benjamin developed at a slightly slower pace, even though he'd been playing football since the sixth grade.
During his middle school years he learned by watching his two older brothers, one of whom went on to play at Morgan State. Benjamin eventually joined with the local youth-league team, the Randallstown Panthers, where he started at receiver and cornerback. But he was all flash and little substance. His skills were good enough to dominate Pop Warner competition, but his speed, strength and size were subpar for a high school player.
When Benjamin entered St. Joe's and tried out for the team, he was cut from the jayvee. It was a humbling experience, to say the least.
"I sort of took Sam under my wing and I told him he really needed to elevate his game - he needed to get bigger, faster and stronger," said St. Joe's safety Devonte Jones, who graduates this spring. "I said, 'If you want scouts to look at you, if you want to make an impact, this is what you got to get done.' To his credit, he went out and did his thing. I was proud of him."
Heeding Jones' advice, Benjamin began training hard that offseason. He completely revamped his body, bulking up to over 170 pounds, lowering his 40-yard dash time to under 4.7 seconds and developing a stronger core.
By the time summer tryouts rolled around, Benjamin was ready. He didn't make the varsity thanks to the upperclassmen ahead of him, but he earned a starting spot on junior varsity and racked up over 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
"I thought I was talented enough to play varsity that year, but I had to pay my dues," Benjamin said. "It paid off this year."
Count Henry among those impressed. The first-year St. Joe's coach was an assistant at Loyola in 2009 before taking over in the winter of Benjamin's junior year. He watched the youngster hit the weight room everyday, take the lead in drills and work his rear off in practice. Henry had no idea the kid had never played a varsity snap.
"I only knew he didn't play [varsity] because I asked him about it later," Henry said. "But there was no doubt - he was a starter from Day One in August for [the varsity]."
It took Benjamin exactly one week to bust out. Against Edmondson, a strong public-school squad, Benjamin unleashed his full arsenal on one season-defining play.
Early in the game, Mount St. Joe's had the ball around their own 35-yard line. Benjamin lined up in the slot, ready to run an out-route, while teammate Angelo DeShields - a primetime receiver in his own right -- stood next to him, set to run a quick hitch.
After the snap, however, Benjamin and DeShields mixed up their patterns, throwing off the timing. Quarterback Craig Constabile still fired a bullet in the general direction of DeShields, but he wasn't in position to make a play. But Benjamin inexplicably was.
Sensing disaster, Benjamin re-adjusted his route mid-stride, leaped backwards, reached behind his back and snared the wayward pass. That was impressive enough, but he wasn't finished. Benjamin proceeded to out-maneuver an Edmondson corner, turn on the jets and motor 65 yards for a touchdown.
"He made it look effortless," Henry said.
"He makes other guys say, 'I wish I could make plays like that,'" Jones echoed. "He learned what it takes to be a playmaker. He's going to be a star."
Before Benjamin reaches stardom, he could use another offseason spent honing his game. He has the rippling muscles and bulk of an emerging college player, but he still needs to build his strength, lower his 40 time (he's currently in the 4.5 range) and improve his mechanics, especially on defense. Benjamin concentrated so much on being a complete receiver last year he let his cornerback skills lapse.
"I told him he has to be a dynamic player on both sides of the ball if he wants to open some eyes," Jones said. "But I can tell Sam is right on point. He's growing up right in front of my eyes."
Benjamin's also growing into a leadership role. He prides himself on being first in the weight room, first in drills and the first to answer a coach's question. When a younger teammates start to lapse, Benjamin is in his ear right away.
"We want him to become a leader and set the example every day," Henry said. "He's been great so far this offseason."
But where exactly will it lead? What does the future have in store for Sam Benjamin?
Henry, who played Division-I college football, believes his young star has the tools to take his game to the next level. But now the question is, Will he capitalize on those tools?
"I want it so bad," Benjamin said. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get to the top. No one has my heart."