Dan Armstrong has had the privilege of coaching a handful of storied running backs move through the Blackhawk program since it began in 1995. In fact, football fans around the valley came to expect it. A year without a stud capable of rushing for 2,000 yards or more is a down year around the La Quinta program. For most, it’s only a dream.
But as Armstrong leans back in his desk chair, reminiscing on his last season as head coach and the player that dominated both sides of the ball so thoroughly, he can’t help but grin. For Benji Cordova, words like “unique”, “powerful” and “hard-working” simply don’t do him justice.
“He can run inside or outside. He’s got tremendous vision. He normally does one move and starts moving north and south,” Armstrong said. “He breaks a lot of tackles, has extremely quick feet, it just amazes me.”
Doing all of that and so much more while carrying the ball, Cordova rushed for 1,878 yards and 29 touchdowns on 221 carries. Often times, he didn’t even play the fourth quarter, like a dominant win over Cathedral City where he’d already collected 366 yards in three quarters. Think of what kind of damage he could have done if Armstrong hadn’t been so polite.
READ MORE: Meet the 2016 All-Desert Sun football team
Still, Cordova has few recruiters breaking down his door to offer him a scholarship. Why? Because of a distance he covered 22,536 times this season on the football field: three inches. To most, his 5-foot-9 frame isn’t big enough, doesn’t look right, won’t hold up in the college game.
“If he was six feet tall, everyone in the world would be lined up for him,” Armstrong said.
You know what’s also three inches wide? The human heart, and with it, Cordova not only makes up for whatever he lacks. With it, he sets himself apart.
It’s what forced Armstrong to chide the senior this offseason when he heard Cordova was in the weight room twice-a-day, fearing his star back was overtraining. It’s what propelled Cordova to steamroll Desert Valley League front sevens with ease and consistency while nursing tiny injuries that never seem to go away. It’s what sends him flying with reckless abandon into oncoming wide receivers and running backs while playing safety.
And that was more than enough to earn him not only the distinction as the best player on both sides of the football this year in the DVL, but The Desert Sun’s player of the year award as well.
“There was no arguing when we went to the all-league meeting,” Armstrong said. “It was just…yeah, it was obvious.”
READ MORE: Cordova named DVL MVP
For Armstrong, Cordova’s performance this year confirmed what he could only dream about three years ago when he remembers watching a “little guy” in a freshman team game.
“I remember thinking ‘ He’s going to be pretty special’,” Armstrong said. “Sure enough, he started as a sophomore, and he looked more or less then like a team leader. Even then, he didn’t care about getting in seniors’ faces.”
As a junior, Cordova battled injuries even he couldn’t physically play through. A dislocated elbow will do that to you, but it doesn’t mean he didn’t still think about it. In the final six games, though, at nearly full health, he rushed for 1,190 yards and 11 touchdowns – including three playoff contests.
Coming into this year, Armstrong knew exactly what he could be getting with Cordova, who didn’t fail to impress. Against a semifinals-caliber Roosevelt team, Cordova ran for 237 yards in a game the Blackhawks gave away for a loss. A week later, the senior was the only reason La Quinta did win.
“Against Palm Springs, we had to put Justin (Anderson) at quarterback because Andrew (Garcia) was struggling … but we hadn’t gotten Justin as much practice as we would have liked, and we were down 10 in the second half,” Armstrong said. “I told our coaches ‘Let’s just give it to him (Cordova) 50 times.”
On 33 rushes, Cordova picked up 225 yards and the two touchdowns La Quinta needed to win – the final on a fourth down play he called for himself.
“If we needed three, he got three. If we needed 10, he got 10,” Armstrong said. “He broke the last one for a touchdown on fourth and one. I looked at him and asked him what play he wanted to run, and he said ‘sweep’, so we did, and he cut it back and scored.”
READ MORE: La Quinta senior No. 1 in the Elite 11
“Benji pushed us through to winning that game,” Anderson remembers. “It was crazy. I went up to him after the game and told him I loved him, ‘cause that would have been a tough game if we couldn’t run the ball.”
The following week against Xavier Prep, the Blackhawks again found themselves in a tight contest of a different variety. Xavier Prep quarterback Michael Johnson and his crew of receivers poked deep holes into the La Quinta secondary, putting up 42 points, the most by any Blackhawks opponent this season. Cordova’s teammates needed all of his 237 rushing yards that led to his seven rushing scores to stay on top.
On defense, though, Cordova simply couldn’t be as influential. At his linebacker position, teams have gradually learned to run the ball away from him or pass over the top of him to avoid his bone-crunching hits.
After the game, while walking off the field talking to his assistants, Armstrong had an idea for an experiment – one Cordova had been pleading for for some time.
“I said ‘You know what? If we had 11 Benjis … you could put them at nose guard or safety and they could be the best on the field’,” Armstrong said. “Then we looked at each other and said ‘Why don’t we do that?’
“At linebacker, you’re not able to see a lot of things. At safety, you can freelance a little bit more when you’re back there. We would tell him what he was ideally supposed to do on plays, but then told him to do what comes natural.”
In both situations, Armstrong trusted Cordova to be essentially a coach on the field. In a day and age when many high school kids can’t be trusted to do their homework, Cordova is a special breed.
The next three games, La Quinta’s defense shut out opposing offenses for 12 quarters, and Armstrong believes making Cordova part of the secondary played a major role in that success.
As Armstrong thinks back on his years of coaching, he can think of several players who simply didn’t reach their full potential because they let injuries get in the way. When others chose to let injuries cripple them, Cordova merely gritted his teeth even harder.
“He realizes his playing career is limited and every game you miss is a game you’re not going to get back,” Armstrong said. “He loves football so much that he doesn’t even want to let a practice go by.”
For now, Cordova’s football future – if one exists at all – rests in the hands of college recruiters around the country. Size may keep Cordova out of many programs that could need him, Armstrong said, even though his star has proven on game tape that he’s more than meets the eye.
Height may not be coachable, but neither is heart.
“No doubt in my mind, there will be 250 kids worse than Benji getting scholarships, but they look the part,” Armstrong said. “He doesn’t really have a weakness in his game other than his size.”
More than likely, one coach will finally take a chance on the undersized running back who hits with the brute force of a linebacker, has the speed of a safety and the mind of a coach.
When one does, Cordova will be happy, but not satisfied. A new home means new coaches to impress, new teammates to lead, new records to shatter and new doubters to prove wrong.
“I just want a scholarship,” he said. “Whatever school wants me to play and at whatever position, I’ll do it. And all the schools that turn me down, I look forward to getting to play them.”
All about Benji Cordova
A look at the statistics and honors for La Quinta senior running back and safety Benji Cordova:
2015 stats: 169 rushes…1,373 rushing yards…12 rushing touchdowns
2016 stats: 221 rushes…1,878 yards…29 rushing touchdowns
2016 Desert Valley League Offensive and Defensive MVP
2015 and 2016 All-DVL first team
2015 and 2016 All-Desert Sun first team