CERRO GORDO — The summer work was grueling, and only partly unexpected.
Cerro Gordo-Bement junior tight end and linebacker JD Benson started doing landscape work for NEAT Landscapes out of Decatur. His boss? Cerro Gordo football coach Nick Walker.
Of course the two talked football as frequently as possible and when that conversation ended, they talked more football. Benson figures to be a big factor for the Broncos this season as they search for back-to-back playoff berths, and the two couldn't help but to go on and on about the sport for which they share a mutual passion. Benson estimated the two talk more about football at work than they do about the actual job in front of them. His jobs vary each day, from mowing lawns to building walls.
As recently as two years ago the two could have been on opposite sides of the earth and that would have been too close. Headed into Benson's junior season, both admit they didn't see eye to eye, and can appreciate the path they've taken to a strong relationship between coach and one of the leaders on the team.
“Something clicked in him and he’s one of those kids you look forward to being around," Walker said. "I don’t know if he’ll ever get tired of me talking about football with him, but he’ll have to deal with it."
Benson was lightly used as a freshman and had a bigger role as a sophomore last season, but more than anything he had to mature. The change was noticeable last season, and Benson went from someone "who it would be nice to get back," Walker said, to someone "who we need to have back."
“Freshman year, I slacked off and I wasn’t really about it," Benson said. "Sophomore year, something new started in and I like it."
He matured, learning to trust both the coaching staff and the older players who helped guide the Broncos to their first playoff appearance since 2015. Players Brady Greenwood, Jacob Hayes and Seth O'Neill set the standard that Benson has tried to model his game after. But he also had to come to grips with his own mental maturation.
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“I didn’t see eye to eye with any of the coaches because I was very stubborn and it was my way or the highway," Benson said. "I had to admit to myself that I can be wrong and they’re mostly right. If I could do that, it was all good."
Walker saw a change in Benson last season and the result is a completely different version of the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder. In fact, Benson and the coaches are able to look back at his freshman year personality and turn it into a catchphrase.
"Don't be freshman Benson" is uttered around the football team.
Benson is dedicated in the weight room now, and this summer doing landscaping certainly helped his strength. If a teammate has a problem, Benson is an open door for them to come to. He even joked that assistant coach David Elder told him that he liked him last week.
Quite the change.
“I worked for Coach Walker and he pretty much showed me what it takes and how to be a good role model for my teammates," Benson said. "I just had to tell myself I was going to be better. At the end of the day, I make myself better every day."
Benson is quick-witted, as described by Walker, and describes himself as sarcastic. Every once in awhile, around a few of the coaches, he'll drop his trademark, "Don't be freshman Benson." A few push-ups may follow, but he's still toyed with the idea of getting a t-shirt made with that saying plastered across the front.
But, mostly, Benson has his eyes set on football, the playoffs, and making a splash after being eliminated in the first round last season.
“I’d like to be a leader and I’d like to do all the right things for the team and help us have a winning season," Benson said.
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25