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Ryan (Benjamin) an inspiration

By JOHN COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


Ryan Pickett is a nice story. Zephyrhills kid makes good, shocks everyone but himself and gets taken in the first round of the NFL draft.

A very nice story with a smiling giant who by all accounts is a sweet fella. But this story isn't the one county coaches will want to use to motivate their players, because Pickett is a freak of nature, a once in a lifetime 300-pounder who can run and dominate.

Not to take anything away from Pickett's work habits, but based on God-given talent alone, who can relate to that?

But coaches don't have to look far for the right story, one that should strike a chord with any kid who has been told he's too small, too slow or just not good enough to play football. Meet Pasco County's other Ryan.

Ryan Benjamin, for today, is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.

This is the story you tell your kids.

Yesterday, he was a long-snapper for the University of South Florida. Yesteryear, he was wrapping up a solid but unspectacular career at River Ridge.

He played a little receiver as a Royal Knight, but caught just one pass his junior year, albeit a 40-yard touchdown against Hudson.

He played a little defensive end, earning all-North Suncoast honors in 1995.

He wasn't really recruited, unless you count a few small schools you probably haven't heard of and a few Ivy League schools more impressed with his brains than his brawn.

He was really just a good guy, a good football player, and while a coach's delight, he was a fan's mystery.

"Ryan was a good, solid player," former River Ridge coach Scott Schmitz said. "At that time, he was 6-2 and maybe 230 and he was an aggressive kid, but there's a lot of kids out there that are 6-2, 230."

He decided to go to a school, USF, that at the time had never even played a football game. A year later, one might remember, the Bulls staff hungered after Zephyrhills' Ryan, too, but they were offering to pay his way and promising a bright future.

Ryan Benjamin ... well, he walked on.

"He felt he could play at that level," Schmitz said. "There's no doubt Ryan could have gone to a smaller school and made an impact earlier, but Ryan always has been a kid that loved challenges. He just felt he could play at that level. I really respect that."

He worked hard, relentlessly, on getting bigger and stronger. He was redshirted, and there were no games to be played, and he worked harder, and every so often would wonder: What am I doing here?

One day, prior to his first season of play, USF coach Jim Leavitt gave him the answer when he desperately issued a plea for a long-snapper. Benjamin wanted to play. Real bad. He had wanted to be a defensive end, maybe a tackle or maybe even catch a few passes at tight end. But Benjamin was a smart kid not blinded by stardom.

He volunteered for the most obscure and selfless position on the team. "I was going to go to any lengths; I didn't care what I had to do," Benjamin said. "I was going to get on the field."

This is the story you tell your kids.

Ryan Benjamin went on to start every game at USF in four seasons. You never noticed him, because he was just that good.

"No one notices you until you snap the ball over the kicker's head," he said.

Bulls punter Tony Umholtz was a pro prospect. So when scouts came to town to watch him kick, he took Benjamin with him. The punter needed his snapper.

Pro scouts liked the way Umholtz kicked, but a funny thing happened on his way to pro football -- unknowingly he took Benjamin with him.

Scouts noticed Umholtz's booming leg. But how about that snap -- clean, spiraling, on the money.

"Some of the (scouts) started telling me to keep this up," Benjamin said.

"I was shocked, big time. I just had to step back for a minute and readjust my thinking. Then I started thinking, "You know what? Maybe..."'

Benjamin kept snapping, and as more scouts came to games, this time to check out Martin Gramatica's little brother Bill, they kept noticing the long-snapper.

Each snap was a step, each step was toward the NFL.

Zephyrhills' Ryan knew he would be picked; the other Ryan prayed.

Sunday night after the draft concluded, Benjamin didn't get one call, he got two: New England wanted him and so did the Bucs.

He accepted the Bucs' offer that night.

Ryan Benjamin won't make, like Zephyrhills' Ryan, millions of dollars with the chance to shine on television every Sunday. He will make a good living and get to play the game of his dreams, provided he survives this weekend's minicamp and the preseason tests to come.

Want to bet against him?

"I always preach to our kids good things happen to people who work," Schmitz said.

"Did I know that Ryan was going sign a contract? No. But I knew because of his work ethic, something good was going to come out of Ryan going to USF. I knew something good would happen to him. To me, he is an example, a great example, of that philosophy."

This is the story you tell your kids.

This is the story Keith Newton tells his Buccaneers when they start dragging.

This is the story Wayne Parzik tells his kids when they complain about not getting the ball enough.

This is the story Terry Voyles tells his kids when they turn their noses at walking on somewhere and putting in the sweat and blood.

This is the story Mike DeGennaro -- who coached Benjamin -- tells his lineman when they can't seem to push that sled another inch.

This is the story John Benedetto preaches to the hundreds of 6-2, 230-pounders that go through his door every decade.

This is the story John Castelamare shares with a player doing some soul searching.

This is the story Tom Fisher tells his kids when they realize they can't be his Ryan.

This is the story Ricky Thomas tells to the incredible athlete who drowns his talent to death in a pool of ego.

This is Ryan Benjamin's story.

It's a good one.

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