LUTZ — His Carrollwood Village backyard was a resplendent testament to his botanical side. John Benedetto, son of a Long Island gardener, cultivated roses and run-block schemes in equal profusion.
“He could take an old swingset and turn it into a botanical miracle,” Al Claggett, who met Benedetto at the University of Tampa in 1966 and coached alongside him more than three decades, eulogized Saturday.
It’s what inspired Claggett to transplant a 10-inch magnolia tree from his backyard to the front earlier this week, shortly after Benedetto — Land O’Lakes High’s football coach for 32 seasons — died peacefully in his sleep in Monday’s wee hours.
How long the tree lasts, who can tell. Claggett and countless others, after all, have been reminded of life’s fragility lately.
“But I know this: I will promise you I’m going to nurture that little tree just like Coach Benedetto nurtured so many of you and so many of your former peers,” Claggett told a throng of mourners, many of them ex-Gators, that shoehorned into Grace Family Church.
“He loved you guys, and you loved him back.”
The hearty, rich layers of Benedetto’s 66-year-old life were celebrated Saturday with a photo collage, video, and tributes from Gators peers and players. Benedetto’s son, Gio, spoke. So did the church’s pastor, Dean Wild, one of three siblings to play for Benedetto.
Several current and former Pasco County football coaches attended, as did Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, one of six Weatherford brothers to play for Benedetto. UT and Land O’Lakes letter jackets flanked the casket.
At various points, the eulogists remembered a coach whose schemes could be as simple as his musical tastes were sprawling. Veteran LOL basketball coach Dave Puhalski said Benedetto’s iPod contained 6,000 titles featuring everything from the Stones to Matchbox Twenty.
He loved karaoke and slot machines as much as he detested tardiness. A pre-dawn riser, he never lost sleep over everyday foibles.
Practically each of the 1,000 or so kids who played for him were given a nickname.
“He was a man who knew how to take serious the things in life that were serious, and let the other things roll off his back” said Brian Singleton, a Gators teammate with Gio Benedetto.
Despite the periodic exhortations of some of his offensive stars, his system never grew too complex. The result was 196 career wins, 13 district titles and playoff berths in each of his final 12 seasons.
His trademarks: a towel hanging over his shoulder and a veteran staff at his hip. Claggett and Bill Gebauer served as defensive assistants all 32 years. Others, such as Rock Ridgeway and Tom Carter, spent the better part of two decades at his side.
“His life kind of reminded me of a Seinfeld episode,” said former Gators quarterback Drew Weatherford, who graduated in 2004 as Pasco County’s all-time passing leader and led FSU to an ACC title in 2005.
“The more you watched it, the more you loved it, and the more attractive each of those characters became. …His life was a lot different than Seinfeld; it was not a show about nothing. He impacted so many people and was meaningful in all of our lives.”
Benedetto’s most beloved castmate, for 31 years, was wife Vanie, who gave him a son and two stepchildren, and doted with him over five grandkids. “He managed his entire rose garden just to give flowers to my mother,” Gio said.
Saturday, she stood at the front of the church, embracing one mourner after another.
From the top of the open casket behind her, a yellow and blue towel hung prominently.
Joey Knight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JoeyHomeTeam.