SAN ANTONIO - When Birmingham (Mich.) Brother Rice safety Shamari Benton (6-0, 183) received his invitation to the Army National Junior Combine earlier this fall he could hardly contain his excitement. Benton, however, was soon faced with the stark reality that his family would not be able to afford the trip to San Antonio. What he did next is one of the greatest stories of the U.S. Army Bowl Week.
"When I first got invited I was really excited to come down here, but when I told my mom she said it's going to be hard with Christmas coming," said Benton. "We went to church and prayed about it and came up with the idea to talk to my pastor. He said they would try to help as much as they can."
Benton's church came through for the young man by finding him a job to help earn the money and offered donations to defray the costs. Still, Benton was going to be short of the funds needed to afford the price of travel, accommodations, food and other expenses the trip would incur. The next step he took poignantly conveys Benton's desire to compete in this year's combine.
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"I told my mom and I told my grandparents that I didn't want to get gifts this Christmas, I wanted to go down to Texas," said Benton. "I didn't really get anything for Christmas, but I got to come down here with a little spending money and show what I've got."
After pushing so hard to secure the funds necessary to make the trip possible, Benton was not about to waste the opportunity he now had. His mother along with members of their church sent him off with a reminder to keep focused on the task at hand.
"They told me to come out here and stay focused, don't come down here and forget what you did to make it here," Benton said. "Staying up late at night playing video games is not what I came down here to do. I came down here to stay focused and make the money and time worth it.
"I couldn't sleep the night before I left here. On the way down I was looking around the plane and everyone was drowsy, but I was ready."
Although his sacrifice conveys a willingness to do whatever it takes to make it to the next level, Benton is not hurting for college attention. He has been receiving regular recruiting contact from the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Stanford, Michigan State, Iowa, Notre Dame, Purdue and Duke since the end of his football season.
What motivated Benton to get to San Antonio was a sense that God has a future in football destined for him and he needs to do everything he can to make that a reality. That higher calling was conveyed to him through a particular event that nearly ended his football career, if not his life.
"Before football season, I got in a big car accident and totaled my car," Benton said. "My car hit seven trees and flipped twice, but I had no injuries other than a black eye. The police called it a miracle. Since then I felt it was right for me to do this and nothing could stop me.
"My whole life I have been through a lot, but I have prevailed through it. I feel that this is basically my destiny."
Destiny has given Benton the desire, but he is also part of a strong football community that has helped mold him into a Division I caliber player. Brother Rice is one of the most historical football programs in the state of Michigan and is led by the one of the state's legendary coaches, Al Fracassa. Coach Fracassa has put dozens of players into college programs and had several go on to the NFL.
Benton saw what it took to become a heavily recruited football prospect in each of his past two seasons playing alongside current collegiate players Darris Sawtelle (Tennessee), Chris Colasanti (Penn State) and Mike Cappetto (Duke) as well as class of 2008 Michigan State commitment Caulton Ray at Brother Rice.
Competing with those players has convinced Benton he has the tools to become a Division I player and his feelings are backed up by his 85 tackles in eight games as a junior. This week he plans to show everyone what he already knows in his own heart.
"I know there are a lot of big names here right now and if I can show I can compete with the best, that will show the coaches right there," Benton remarked. "We're all here because we're all good, but I want to be the best by the end of the night."
It is hard not to feel that Benton has already risen among his peers simply because of the path he took to San Antonio.
It is doubtful Benton feels the same and tonight is bound to be another sleepless night for a young man with weighted expectations on his shoulders.