In the fall of 1949, Bill Benner was a sophomore at Woodruff High School in Peoria.
At the time, Benner was known more for running the streets of Peoria than any scholastic endeavors. But then, he met legendary track and cross country coach Roy Gummerson, and his life changed forever.
Gummerson took Benner from the streets and introduced him into not only a high school hobby, but a way of life that has spanned throughout seven decades in education and athletics, including two stints at Peotone High School.
For the many contributions Benner has made during that time, he has earned the title of The Daily Journal 2017 Sports Citizen of the Year.
"My mom died when I was 3, and my dad wasn't very into fatherhood, so I was running the streets quite a bit," Benner, now 83, said. "He (Gummerson) got me off the streets and got my 17 detentions I had taken away, and I fell in love with (cross country) and my coach."
By the time Benner graduated from Woodruff, he was a three-sport star. He earned a scholarship at Illinois State University, where he ran track and cross country and also wrestled. His picture as a captain of the 1955 cross country team sits in the school's Hall of Fame.
After graduating college in 1956, and spending four years at a small school in Champaign County, Benner first arrived at Peotone in 1960. He coached track and cross country during that time and also coached junior high basketball for one season, a season that saw his team finish second in the state tournament.
Benner left Peotone in 1963, and spent 50 years at various teaching, coaching and administrative roles in Joliet. Then, in 2016, when his granddaughter, Teddi Steeves, was a junior at Peotone, Benner returned to the high school to coach track and cross country.
"I'm fortunate to still be able to do this and that they even wanted me," Benner said. "It's been a great way to live life."
A triumphant return
Since Benner's return, the Blue Devils have had multiple state qualifiers in track. In 2016, the cross country team won the Interstate Eight Conference championship. It was the first cross country conference championship at Peotone since it won the Kankakee Valley Conference in 1953 — Benner's last year in his first stint.
"When you put your focus on teaching kids the right way to do things and put the energy into building relationships, you see those results later on down the line," Peotone Athletic Director Jordan Hopman said. "And the thing with Bill is, he knows how to build those relationships."
Benner said the main reason for his return to the school was to coach Teddi and her sister, Mia, who is a sophomore and also participates in track and cross country. They both were on the 3,200 meter relay team that won sectionals and advanced to the IHSA state finals last season, while Teddi holds the school 800 meter record and advanced to the state finals in as a junior in 2016.
Teddi and Mia said they both have had their strong relationships only strengthened by having Benner around as a coach. And while the competitive lessons they have learned from him are obvious, it's the other things they have learned from their grandfather that stick out.
"The most important lesson I have learned from him is that we were put on this Earth to help others," Teddi said. "Also, to make my bed every morning."
"He always pushes us to give everything 110 percent, whether it be in schoolwork or athletics," Mia said. "Looking back, I know I will remember the challenges I have faced as a runner and how my grandpa helped me overcome those challenges."
Benner's grandchildren are far from the only people who have learned from him. Ken Klipp, longtime track and cross country coach at Bishop McNamara Catholic High School, was a runner at Manteno High School when he first met Benner.
As the decades have passed, Klipp picked up on what made Benner such a great coach. Klipp has become a local coaching legend in his own right, and the two have remained dear friends to this day.
"As a young coach, I thought I knew everything, but I actually didn't know anything," Klipp said. "How do you deal with kids, parents, the press, other coaches and the competition?
"There is a collective of people and coaches that you want to emulate, and for me, that started with people like Bill. He checks every box — he's passionate, knowledgeable and knows how to treat kids."
Hopman has the unique position of being the boss of a man who is more than twice his age. He said that there was an initial feeling-out process when Hopman became the athletic director last year.
But the two quickly learned that their ideals and beliefs as educators and coaches were nearly identical. Now, Hopman looks at Benner as the ideal coach for any sport.
"Not only does Bill have a tremendous relationship with students and student-athletes, but he has a tremendous relationship with other coaches in the building," Hopman said. "For me, the simple fact of knowing who he is as a person and a coach and what he brings to the table has impacted me to know what I want out of a coach."
Generosity met with modesty
Perhaps, the most impressive quality Benner possesses is his generosity. He donates his coaching stipend back to the programs he coaches. Throughout the past two years, that has allowed the school to build up an inventory of shoes, new equipment and other items essential to the sport.
"We have a lot of coaches who (give back to the school), but Bill has that ability since he is retired to go that extra mile," Hopman said. "The steps we have taken in our cross country and track programs is because of his selflessness."
Benner said his desire to give back goes back to Gummerson's impact on his life. He said he always tries to find the kid who comes from nothing and give that student the opportunity to be successful and be a part of the school.
"That's one of the reasons I don't want money for coaching because it enables me to do things like that," Benner said. "I don't like to brag about it, it's just something I do."
Aside from a life filled with educating and coaching, Benner also is a highly respected wrestling official. He officiated IHSA wrestling for 42 years, including nine state finals, and is a member of the Illinois Wrestling Officials and Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
And one of Benner's favorite memories in sports came from a night he was officiating a meet at Thornridge High School.
"Some girl said to me, 'that was a bad call you just made,'" Benner said. "And I said, 'if you think that was bad, you should have seen me last Tuesday when I stunk up the place.' Everyone laughed and every time I went back to Thornridge, they loved me."
Inspired by a younger generation
Through his time working in education and athletics, countless people such as his granddaughters, Klipp and Hopman have had life-altering interactions with Benner. But Benner has learned lessons from them as well and as he ages, the impressions that students and educators have made on him have him excited for the future.
"There are a lot of good people in the world, and I'm lucky to be exposed to them and (Hopman) is a good example of that," Benner said. "I'm so happy to find so many quality kids today."
The belief in the youth that Benner has seems to have come full circle to back when Gummerson plucked him off the streets as a youngster.
"It's inspiring to see how much quality these young people have," Benner said. "It makes me feel really good."