Arizona football player Israel Benjamin's vision well beyond the field

Photo: Thomas Hawthorne, Arizona Republic

Arizona football player Israel Benjamin's vision well beyond the field

Football

Arizona football player Israel Benjamin's vision well beyond the field

Israel Benjamin’s day begins at 4:30 a.m.

He has a quick breakfast, before his dad Joshua takes him on a 50-minute drive from their Laveen home to Scottsdale Saguaro High School for a 6 o’clock football practice.

That is his first class, a physical education course that ends at 8. But the grind has only begun for Benjamin at a school that has won the past five Class 4A state championships in football.

His academic schedule is filled with honors courses:

– Trigonometry/pre-calculus

– World history

– Spanish 4

– Chemistry

– English

“Other than being a tremendously gifted football player, you’re not going to find a kid who is happier to be in school,” Athletic Director Kraig Leuschner says, as he escorts a reporter and videographer around campus to follow Benjamin for a day. “When he’s walking around on campus, he’s got a smile from ear to ear. He’s the kind of kid who wants to be a Valedictorian, who wants to have that opportunity to be at the top whatever percent.”

Benjamin, powerfully built at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, is the starting tailback for the Sabercats. He spent the first five games last year on the sideline after transferring from Phoenix Brophy Prep. With veterans in front of him, Benjamin was a sponge and a key scout-team contributor last year.

“It was amazing to see him not pouting,” Leuschner says. “He was sitting there going, ‘This is a great chance for me to see how things work around here.’

“There’s not a single teacher who doesn’t like having him in class, not just for his intelligence, but his charisma, that smile.”

Saguaro is a loaded football program with 19 players who possess football scholarship offers from Division I colleges. Benjamin, because he had no sophomore film, is waiting for his first.

A captain on the track team and a four-year starter in football at every level at Brophy, Josh is about to start his junior year at Harvard as a pure mathematics major.

He just spent the summer in Taiwan as part of a Harvard leadership conference, helping recruit the best Taiwanese students and giving them a chance to see what collegiate life is like at one of the more demanding academic schools in the U.S. He lectured on dynamics and mathematics. He also was awarded for his work on a project constructing the space of modular elliptic curves.

Josh and Israel plan on going into business together someday involving technology and international trade.

“That’s their legacy business,” Joshua, the father, says.

Every night, Israel sits in the same place Josh sat since his freshman year at Brophy — a corner spot at the dining-room table — doing his studies.

Israel is starting his junior year at Saguaro, where he has a cumulative 4.777 grade-point average.

“My kids aren’t geniuses,” Joshua says. “They put in time. But if they can get 100, they’re not going to settle for 99.”

AP World History

Monday, 9:45 a.m.

The bell rings.

Benjamin carries his gallon water jug with him to the front of Ashley Crose’s AP World history class that is divided into pods, with four students to a pod. Music plays before all of the students settle in.

“In the back of your internet notebook is going to be your grade sheets,” Crose announces. “Pull out your cell phones and check your grades.”

Today’s class centers on ancient civilization, looking at Egypt, the Indus River Valley and China. Crose gives an outlook on the week ahead, including learning and singing the Chinese dynasty songs.

In a Jeopardy-style pop quiz, Crose asks the students for two yes-or-no questions to find out what event in history it is. “A leader backed by God wanted to bring order to his kingdom,” he tells them. “He believed that innocent people and the weak needed some protection from the strong and wicked people. This act was a turning point to world history. … Two questions, one minute.”

Benjamin confers with other students at his pod.

“This is Mesopotamia,” someone says.

“How do we give protection?” Crose asks.

“Laws.”

Crose explains how Babylonian king Hammurabi set the first law codes based on class structure that included punishments.

A map is shown on the screen. Crose asks what the similarities are in each of the colored areas in ancient civilization.

“Water is the similarity,” Benjamin says.

“Yes, rivers run through each of them. Without water, there is no life.”

Benjamin is attentive and involved and quizzical, always questioning things.

“I like the group learning,” he later says. “I like how we’re challenged. We’re challenged in groups. We’re able to look at things and analyze them together and come up with different conclusions.”

The library

11:30 a.m.

Benjamin gets a break before his next class to conduct an interview. He talks about how much he loves world history, how he’s able to handle the workload of being an honors student.

Last year, as a sophomore, he took AP U.S. history. Usually, he says, that is taken after AP World. “I just want to make sure I get my school right,” he says.

Israel and Josh are two of four children in the family. They have a younger brother and sister who are in grade school. Their mom, Lena, is a school teacher at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School, an academically demanding grade school.

Their dad, a former New York Golden Gloves champions, directs the Gene Lewis Boxing Club in Mesa that helps steer kids into positive directions. At least once a week, after school, Israel goes to the Mesa club, where he helps tutor youths with their classwork.

Benjamin carries his iPad with him everywhere, going through schedules, daily budgets, activities, always taking notes with it.

“Anything I want to write down, I don’t have to look for paper,” he says. “I have it on that iPad. I can refer to that any time.”

He makes sure he also includes watching football film, getting ready for the next opponent and studying what he needs  to do to get better.

“We’ll have a lift after school, and then I’ll go home, eat, do my homework and watch film,” Israel says.

The locker room

10:45 a.m.

Coach Jason Mohns talks about how Benjamin impacts the program from not only an academic standpoint but from his attitude. He brought energy and a good attitude last year when he was on the scout team. At the same time, Mohns got a glimpse of what was to come this year on Friday nights.

“He really pushes himself,” Mohns says. “That’s the attitude he takes in life. He’s going to test himself to the best of his abilities. He’s the kind of kid who wants to go to an Ivy League school or a high academic school like Stanford. He’s going to check all of the boxes on that.”

Mohns has had players awarded as scholar-athletes before. One of them was two-time All-Arizona offensive lineman Corey Stephens, who is now at Arizona State.

The football ability is there, according to Mohns.

“I think that without a doubt Israel is a Power 5-caliber running back,” Mohns says. “He’s got a great build. He’s muscular. He’s compact. He catches the ball extremely well out of the backfield. He’s got open-field juice. He can run away from people. He’s a complete back. He’s physical. He’s smart. That high IQ translates to the football field. He picks up our playbook really well. He makes adjustments on the fly.

“Coaches are going to be drooling, especially the academic schools. They’re going to be all over him, because he’s going to have a great junior year. When they take one look at his transcript, they’re going to know he’s the real deal.”

AP English

1:45 p.m.

Patrick Bass, a nattily clad English teacher, has Israel in his last class of the day. It is AP English. The students are having a chance to redesign a project. They’re being put in committees.

“Israel has a strong voice in this,” Bass says.

Bass, in his first year as a full-time teacher at Saguaro, met Benjamin for the first time  last school year, when he subbed a class in which Benjamin was taking.

“I automatically detected a warm spirit,” Bass says. “As a sub, it’s easy to feel like you’re in a tornado with the hustle and bustle of school all around you. He makes you feel settled in and rooted, so that was nice.”

In the classroom, Benjamin is practical, sound, “willing to bring us back home,” Bass says.

“He is slow to make a decision,” he says. “I don’t say that negatively. He wants all the facts, before he goes to work. It’s pretty incredible for his age.”

Benjamin stands out on campus as an athletic presence.

But all students, not just jocks, gravitate to him.

“He is a student first, and he shows up dedicated to his work,” Bass says. “He never backs away from the tasks he’s given.”

Loyal, passionate, intelligent, driven.

They’re all words his teachers and coaches use to describe him.

“Israel is a human lover,” Bass says. “I’ve not seen this kid encounter any kind of social space that he backs away from or seems uncomfortable in. He’s a loving, loving human being.”

Where will Benjamin be in 10 years?

He envisions himself being an NFL general manager.

“It will be fun to see how he moves forward in life, because the kid is light-years beyond where many kids his age are,” Bass says. “I hope he comes back and speaks to my classroom some day and shares his wisdom.

“He’s going to have a big impact on the world.”

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Arizona football player Israel Benjamin's vision well beyond the field
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