Claggett remembers Benedetto: 'He was magic'

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Thu. April 25, 2013 | Joey Knight | Email

Claggett remembers Benedetto: 'He was magic'

His 68-year-old eyes gleam as the memory bubbles to the surface. His smile widens as it crashes upward, dripping with joy and irreverence after decades of submergence.

Al Claggett can just see his best friend, John Benedetto, spinning a throng of second-graders on one of those manual merry-go-rounds — the kind long since banished by a lawsuit-happy world — on the Sanders Elementary playground.

He can even hear the kids' helium-voiced exhortations: Go, Coach, go!!!

"They loved him," Claggett says. "He was magic."

The memories and tears have arrived in torrents the last few days, since Benedetto, Land O'Lakes High's iconic former football coach, died in his sleep in Sunday's wee hours at age 66.

Claggett, the closest thing to a brother Benedetto had, was at Benedetto's Carrollwood Village home even before the medical examiner departed Monday morning.

Stands to reason. For nearly a half-century, since the two University of Tampa football alumni began residing under the same Davis Islands roof in 1969, Claggett and Benedetto had virtually been at each other's side.

They arrived at Sanders Elementary together in 1971, gravitated to Land O'Lakes High together in '75, and exited together in 2009, when the school district wouldn't extend their teaching contracts in the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program for a 38th and final year.

"I'm not sure if friends is a strong enough word," Claggett said.

On Monday, they and college buddies Pete Kuharchek and Richie Fuddy were set for their semi-weekly round of golf. Instead, Claggett found himself presiding over a plate of pancakes at a Land O'Lakes breakfast place Thursday, trying to find catharsis in memories.

And oh, the gems he excavated.

He can still see Benedetto, in the throes of bachelorhood, whizzing around north Tampa in the blue Karmann Ghia convertible purchased from extra money made substitute teaching. He can still taste the collards that flourished in Benedetto's resplendent backyard garden.

And he can still see the face of little Ricky Brayton, appointed by his Sanders Elementary classmates to peer out the window and identify the substitute teacher who would be overseeing their class. This was the era when teachers and students went to school for 45 days, then took 15 off.

Benedetto still substituted during the 15 off. Couldn't stay away.

"Ricky saw it was Coach Benedetto, and he goes into the classroom and he yells, 'It's Benedetto!!!'" Claggett recalled. "And they all went, 'Yeahhhhh!!!'"

The kids loved John," added Claggett, Benedetto's defensive coordinator all those years. "You know what, John respected the kids. And he always understood that if he treated them the way he wanted to be treated, they were going to give it back to him."

In a sense, maybe Claggett and Benedetto got out in the nick of time. While innovative strategically until the end, Benedetto's philosophy seemed to be running counter to the prevailing currents of prep football.

Seven-on-seven? Benedetto would have no part of it, Claggett said. Year-round program? Only in the sense that Benedetto kept the weight room doors open for whomever wanted to enter. His mantra worked for 32 autumns and 196 wins: Keep it fun, and remember, it's high school.

Deal sternly with the big infractions, but don't harp on the foibles. Occasionally, it made peers bristle. But the kids? Well, just see how many flock to his funeral, Claggett said.

"The thing that made John so successful, I really believe this, is he never sweated the small stuff," Claggett said.

"Kids would get in a little trouble, they'd skip a class, leave for lunch, and people would go to him like, 'What's the matter, he's your football player.' And he'd go, 'Well, he's your English student.'"

These are the recollections guiding Claggett through the tough stretches. On Thursday afternoon, he had to go shopping for dress slacks for a funeral. Later, he was planning to transplant a small magnolia tree to his front yard. John's tree.

Normalcy will return only in increments. Oh sure, he and Kuharchek and Fuddy will continue their regular rounds of golf, and the ROMEO club (Retired Old Men Eating Out) still will convene at a Tampa brunchery the second Tuesday of each month.

But the slices off the teebox will be fewer. So too, will the laughs. For a time, the somberness may be as thick as the syrup. Time is needed for adjustment.

After all, the carousel came to a screech, too sudden for everyone.

"It won't be the same," Claggett said.
 

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