Coach and Me is a series of stories during the 2021-22 school year that reflect on the relationships between coaches and their children. It will also be a reflection of memories for Tony Chapman and his dad, who passed away July 6, 2021.
PHOTO ABOVE: Damon and Caleb Benning before Westside’s semifinal win over Bellevue West. (photo credit / Matt Foster, KETV Omaha)
CHAMPIONSHIP WEEK — In the cold of mid-November, coach always tried to see if he could find a state football championship game close enough that he could take his oldest son.
Ansley, 1985. Brainard, 1989. And when I went off to college, I called him. “Want to go to Overton on Friday night, dad?” It was the fall of 1994.
And, so we’d go. Stand around the field with 2,000 friends or so and watch the small town heroes do their thing.
When they moved these big games to Memorial Stadium we didn’t go after that. Pop would always opt for the television — read warmer — version of the state finals. It was fine with me too if I am being honest.
Almost always there was a phone call after every game on Nebraska Public Television. What I saw. What he saw. As time moved on in recent years, he especially loved how Damon Benning would analyze a game.
“Keeps it simple,” he’d say. “Does a really good job.” The ultimate compliment for a man of few words.
When Damon wasn’t calling these games, he was coaching in them, as a member of Omaha North’s championship staff in 2013, 2014 and 2017. They made the finals five times in a six year stretch.
Now Benning coaches at Omaha Westside and, when he returns to Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, he’ll bring his son Caleb, starting safety for the Warriors. It’s now seven finals in the last decade for Coach Benning.
Yeah, Damon Benning has lived a life that has been made better by football. All-state in high school, Nebraska national champion, Orange Bowl MVP. Analyzes it’s now on the radio in Omaha and for Big Ten Network.
Most importantly, he passes those lessons on.
“I think the biggest thing he teaches me is you should always work hard to be the best you can be,” Caleb tells me after practice on Thursday night. “Not just in sports, but in life.”
But to know Damon’s story, you should meet his coach, too. His father — Omaha difference maker — Dr. Donald Benning.
You’d do well to learn more about Don Benning and the best way to do it is with Dirk Chatelain’s stirring tribute from the summer of 2017. Don Benning — if we could all be so lucky — changed thousands of lives and passed away that summer. He was 80.
He was the first African-American to do many things in Omaha and Nebraska: faculty member and coach at Omaha University; win a wrestling national championship; then, later, a doctorate in education from Nebraska; first athletic director in the Omaha Public School system.
He is a member of the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame. His legacy on Nebraska high school sports is probably under-documented.
Like many who coach and teach, even though he’s not here anymore, many still feel Don Benning’s presence — his gifts.
Ask his youngest son.
“He is the reason I am still involved in and love high school sports,” Damon tells me. “I love the smell of popcorn and a hot dog. Those memories of being with my dad are everything. Football on a Friday or all day at the Civic Auditorium for basketball, that’s what I loved growing up.
“He was my best friend. He was very level headed, very measured. He never really talked about the things he went through, I learned them as we talked about them when I was older. I grew to admire him for that.”
Ask Westside superintendent Mike Lucas, who earned his doctorate at the University of Nebraska under Dr. Benning’s watchful eye. He loves to tell the story of meeting a fellow “football guy.”
Lucas’ program with other fellow educators was an all day Saturday affair and most would go to lunch together, but one day Lucas wanted to see what Dr. Benning was doing.
“I find him in a room in the student union with a bag of peanuts watching football on ESPN2,” Lucas jokes 20 years later. “Toledo and Bowling Green or something like that. A horrible game.
“Do you know someone playing,’ Lucas asked. “No. I just love football.”
I just love football, that was Don Benning. It is his son and his grandson, too.
Football — and sport — was a way for Don Benning to leave a lasting impact on those around him.
“He was teaching us to be better superintendents or better principals,” Lucas said, “but he also wanted us to be better leaders for our families. To have an attention to detail and a competitive spirit.
“He was a legend.”
Chatelain recognized this, too. From his tribute:
Thumbtacked to the bulletin board in his office, Don Benning kept this poem, which defined his groundbreaking wrestling program and his life:
If you think you are beaten, you are;
If you think you dare not, you don’t.
If you’d like to win, but think you can’t,
It’s almost a cinch you won’t…
Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man;
But sooner or later the man who wins
Is the one who thinks he can.
The lessons were plenty this football season and though the season will end over the next five days in both Kearney and Lincoln, the lessons we learned will last us forever.
Caleb Benning knows. He knows this 2021 season has been a blessing.
“I think this season has maybe been better than most of us expected,” he said. “I guess we knew we had a chance but we didn’t know if we were ready.”
His dad knows too, through the lessons he’s learned from his many coaches. From being on staff and coaching so many kids through the years that this season — all of them to be fair — is about way more than football.
“Everything we do athletically, I try to relate to life,” he says, but you know who’s talking, who he learned this from. “Competition. Being the best version of yourself. How to handle pressure. We coach very little football.
“Westside’s program is that way. They make it easy to be others centered.”
Yeah, we all learned something this season. Whether the people we loved are here to see it or not.
That a fighting spirit can take you some place. That having an entire community support you can be the ultimate lesson in togetherness. That thinking about more than yourself can take you somewhere you may not have gone otherwise.
We’ll see it all in the next five days. Dads and their sons; some of them together on the sideline. Moms cheering on their boys. In a game that will mean so much now, but even more later. When the lessons have sunk in and the color of the medal they wore after the game doesn’t matter at all.
What do you remember about your grandpa, I asked Caleb.
“Hard work is the biggest thing,” he says. “And, I know what he went through, the legacy he left. That’s important to me.”
I learned today that the poem Don Benning loved so much was the same one at the front of dad’s playbook all those years. It was on his card at the funeral. In lieu of space I am sure, Dirk Chatelain left out the middle.
For out in the world we find
Success begins with a fellow’s will;
It’s all in the state of mind.
If you think you’re outclassed, you are.
You’ve got to think high to rise.
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.
You’ll see all those lessons in the state football finals. The lessons that Don Benning taught, that his son still passes on and his grandson tries to soak in. Lessons that we know can be taught in Omaha or in an 8-man town and bring us all together to learn about life.
What would Don have thought about Tuesday (about all these finals, really), I ask the coach. A sort of parting gift of wisdom.
“He’d have told me not to cry, I know that,” there is a firm resolution in Damon’s voice. “Crying is what happens when you can’t do any more is what he always told us.
“And, he’d be there early, before the gates would open. He’d want everyone to soak it all in. He was never late for anything.”
With a certain sense of pride in his voice, Damon Benning puts a smile on my face and I think about dad. Don Benning had -ism’s just like Coach Chapman. Best to leave on a good note, I think. Dad would have wanted it that way and so would Dr. Donald Benning.
“If you find yourself getting comfortable you better move. The only thing that grows under still feet is dead grass.”
Those are the lessons of football and leadership and teamwork. Of raising young men between white lines. The lessons I learned and Damon learned. The lessons Caleb still hears. The many lessons of Coach and Me.
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