By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
Brothers Alvin and David Benton often discuss their high school sports careers at Ashtabula High School when they get together.
Inevitably, comparisons of the Panther basketball teams they played on arise.
David, of course, was a key member of the great Bob Walters basketball teams of the late ’70s that also featured Tom Hill, Perry Stofan, Deora Marsh and Lou Murphy.
But Alvin claims that the Gene Gephart-coached squad he started on 10 years earlier — with himself, Bill Kaydo, Andrew Nappi, Phil Fain, Larry Albert and Bobby Allen — could have given David’s team a run for their money.
“I think it would be a close race between the team he played on and the team I played on,” Alvin said. “But they had quite a team.”
In football, however, Alvin Benton’s Ashtabula team would have a significant advantage. With him, Kaydo, Jerry Lyons, Nappi, Pete Sardella, Fain and Albert, the Panthers dominated other area teams.
“Probably our toughest competition in those years was Harbor High School,” Benton said. “Harbor had a decent program in those years. That was the rivalry every year. We didn’t always win, but I’d like to think we won the majority of the time.”
Benton, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Touchdown Hall of Fame on Monday at Mount Carmel Community Center, played right tackle at 6-foot-4 or 6-5, 215. Coached by area legend Tony Chiachierro, himself a hall of famer, the Panthers had a tough running offense.
“We played a rock ’em, sock ’em offense,” Benton said. “Nappi was the quarterback and Bill Kaydo and Jerry Lyons were the running backs. They had good size and speed. Bobby Allen was the wide receiver.”
Kaydo and Lyons ran behind a line that consisted of Benton at right tackle, Tom Coleman at right guard, Albert at center and Joe Pedro at left tackle.
“I’d like to think our line had something to do with (our success),” Benton said.
“Tony Chiachierro was an excellent coach, one of the winningest coaches in the area. In those years, he produced an unimaginable number of quality athletic guys who went all over to (colleges) on scholarships.”
Many of those Panthers went to Ohio University, a situation Benton describes as a “pipeline.”
“Wash Lyons, Jim Gillespie, Doug Seaton, Bill Kaydo, Mike Kaydo, Otis Sandidge, David Houston and myself all went there. Guys from Ashtabula went to other schools on scholarships, too, Kent State and others.”
In basketball, Ashtabula was also dominant in Benton’s years — 1965-68, advancing to the district championship game as juniors and winning the Northeastern Conference and a sectional title as seniors.
At about 6-5, Benton played center. Bill Kaydo was the leading scorer, with Nappi, Fain and Albert the other starters as Benton recalls. Gephart coached that team.
“I think that was probably a big part of our success, was our coaching,” Benton said. “We had some of the greats in our area.”
Like so many of his Panther teammates before and after him, Benton headed for Ohio University after graduation. Bobcats coach Bill Hess and Chiachierro had a good connection that benefited both of them.
By his junior year, Benton had grown to 245 pounds or so, light for an offensive lineman. He actually played tight end as a freshman and sophomore. Since freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity football, he wound up missing the Bobcats’ only bowl game in those years, the Tangerine Bowl in 1968, a 49-42 loss to Richmond.
He received some playing time as a sophomore, but didn’t start. Sandidge and Mike Kaydo were also at Ohio University at that time. When Kaydo graduated, Benton moved into his starting position at right tackle. Bill Kaydo was playing in the backfield for the Bobcats, too.
“Bill was an exceptional athlete,” Benton said. “He should be in the football and basketball halls of fame.”
For some reason even he can’t explain, the games Benton recalls from college were negative experiences.
“I remember playing Penn State our senior year,” he said. “Penn State had Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell and Jack Ham, five or six guys who went to the pros. They beat us really bad. You don’t forget that.
“The other negative thing I remember was in 1971. We were scheduled to play Marshall. The week before that game was the plane crash (when the entire Marshall football team died).”
Benton graduated with a degree in education he would never use. He was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the fourth round in 1972. The Dolphins’ talent can be judged by the fact that they went undefeated and won the Super Bowl in 1972, still the only team ever to accomplish that.
Benton was waived, then signed with the Dallas Cowboys in 1973. But he suffered a knee injury to the medial collateral ligament (MCL).
“I always said if I got a major injury, I was done,” Benton said.
He returned to Ashtabula and worked at the Union Dock. In 1978, he moved to Colorado and worked there for Consolidated Freightways as a supervisor in the dispatch department for more than 20 years.
By 2001, Benton’s parents were in bad health and he asked for a transfer to the company’s Columbus office. As it turned out, the company went bankrupt a year later.
“I was unemployed for about a year before getting a job with the Norfolk-Southern Railroad as an engineer,” he said.
The job has its pluses and minuses.
“The hours are strange,” Benton said. “You’re on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They call, you go. You can take time off, but it can be a real negative when you’re in a position to work and don’t take the work call. My first line of communication is my cell phone. One time, I didn’t have it turned on and missed a call. They didn’t like that. If you’re in line to work and miss it, all hell breaks loose.”
Benton engineers the Norfolk-Southern train from Conneaut to Buffalo. It’s a single-track train, going east to west and west to east, so it calls for coordination that can result in delays.
“The whole thing is constant contact with the dispatcher,” Benton said. “He lets you know if someone is way ahead of time and signals everyone. There are two or three sidings and they let you know what you’re going to do. They have to prepare for that, what trains are running and who gets priority. UPS shipments get really high priority. You might be sitting for a quite a while (waiting for trains with UPS shipments to clear).”
Benton, now 62, will probably work another year or two with Norfolk-Southern before retiring. His pension with Consolidated Freightways was discounted significantly when the business went bankrupt.
“I get 25 percent of what I should,” he said.
Benton is a widower. His wife, Lenice, died 20 years ago. His son, Max, 41, is head trainer for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“He’s a graduate of the University of Colorado,” Benton said of Max. “He grew up in Colorado. He has degrees in sports medicine and kinesiology.”
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.