'Just like them': How the Benton family has honored their late son during Edgewood's playoffs run
Joseph "Frank" Benton navigated the halls of Edgewood Academy in search of the main office. It was Nov. 5, and the senior lineman was there to grab a memory of his late brother, Jacob.
Frank and teammates pulled down the frame holding Jacob Benton's No. 69, white jersey and loaded it into Frank's car. Jacob played for Edgewood from 2007-2009 before he died in a car accident in March of his senior year.
Frank was 6 years old when it happened. The program retired Jacob's number a few months later. Now a senior, Frank intended to play his last home game wearing his older brother's jersey instead of his customary No. 54.
The Nov. 6 game marked the third time a Benton wore No. 69 for the Wildcats. The entire Benton clan – a military family of six boys reared by Jamie and Roger Benton, mom and dad – is rooted in the history of Edgewood. Now with Frank, the youngest, Edgewood has a chance to recreate a familiar sight: a successful Wildcat playoff team with a Benton at the heart of it.
"It's nice for us to be part (of the team)," Jamie said. "It was a part of (Jacob)."
In the Wildcats' first-round game against Patrician, wearing his brother's jersey, Frank registered a game-saving tackle near the goal line. Along with a strong passing game, Frank is leading Edgewood into its Alabama Independent School Association semifinal game against Chambers (LaFayette) Academy on Friday.
Jacob's jersey snuggly fit around Frank's 6-foot-2, 250-pound frame, when he finally removed it from its case in front of his parents. Frank weighs about 10 pounds more than Jacob did, Roger said. But other than that, the brothers shared a few quirks.
Both had quiet personalities that turned boisterous when the brothers were together. Frank would often attend Jacob's games wearing his own miniature jersey and pads as a child.
"I wanted to be just like them," Frank said through watery eyes. "... (They) were always mentors to me."
Multiple Benton brothers were also integral parts of accomplished Edgewood teams. Jacob helped the Wildcats win a Class AA title in 2008 and a Region 1 title in his final season. Jessie, second-youngest, donned his brother's uniform during the program's historic 71-game winning streak.
Carrying on the legacy
Frank is a stalwart of Edgewood's offensive and defensive lines in 2020. It's his fifth year on the varsity team, and he's seen the team's win totals progressively increase (zero in 2016, one in 2017, eight in 2018, nine last year). Michael has preached a hard-nosed approach in his first season as coach. Multiple players said no one embodies that more than Frank.
In the team's season opener against Southern Academy, a rain delay sent Edgewood into the locker room with six minutes left in the first half, down 11. Michael didn't know who would counsel the team. Frank did. And after the hour-and-a-half break, Frank guided the team to a halftime lead and eventual win.
He often lines up at nose guard defensively, spearheading a defense predicated on stopping the run. Frank carries bruises on both arms like talismans. While the offense is charged by senior playmaker Mitchell Boyd, Frank anchors the center or the line. Edgewood has lost in the semifinals each of the last two seasons. The program looks to reach the next step.
Frank was originally scheduled to wear Jacob's old home jersey for Edgewood's last home game of the season, but Hurricane Zeta altered plans. Roger met with Michael and Jay Adams, the school's headmaster. Frank pushed to wear the white, road jersey for the entire game.
To Jamie, Frank being the last in program history to wear No. 69 was another "God nod," a coincidence or sign the family says is proof of Jacob watching over them. A few occurred during the Patrician game. Before departing home, Jamie checked the temperature for the contest: 69 degrees. She and Roger then drove the team's equipment across Route 69 to Butler, Alabama.
She snapped a picture of a road sign and texted it to Frank. The message only reminded him of his night's goal to make Jacob proud. He made the most of the opportunity late in the game. While Edgewood led by one, Frank clogged the A-gap to the left of the center and stopped a two-point conversion.
In the midst of the postgame celebration, a teammate nudged Frank and asked him if he knew the final score of the game: 35-34, Edgewood; 69 total points.
"I really felt like he was looking down on us," Frank said.
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