TAMPA — Like most people, Dror Vaknin, the University of Tampa's head coach for cross country and track and field, receives dozens of text messages and e-mails on a typical day. They blur together.
Last month, he got a handwritten note in the mail.
"It was the nicest card I've ever had a kid write,'' Vaknin said. "It was thanking me for the work through the years. It was so heartfelt, so heartwarming and so sincere.
"This is the age of instant information. We all know that. Do most people even write handwritten notes anymore? It meant a lot to me and it's pretty much typical of the person who sent it.''
The person was Lars Benner, UT's cross country and track standout, who was recently named the Sunshine State Conference Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
"I can't say this enough — Lars is a rarity,'' Vaknin said. "I can't sell that fact enough.''
No need for selling.
The accomplishments of Benner, a Newsome High School graduate, are enough to win over anyone.
Benner, who majored in biochemistry, had a 4.0 grade-point average at UT.
"Getting all A's was important to me because I set a level of excellence for myself, then I sought to achieve it,'' said Benner, 22. "I take it very seriously and work hard. The byproduct is expanding myself and learning. I love to learn.''
Benner, who was haunted by injuries at UT, had a sterling senior season as a runner. He set a school record in the 1,500 meter run, barely missing a shot to qualify for nationals. In cross country, he ran the 8,000 meters at the SSC Championships in 25 minutes, 48.25 seconds, an improvement of more than a minute from his time at the pre-conference meet on the same course at Melbourne.
At Newsome, Benner turned in notable performances, placing seventh in the state meet's mile run as a junior and third in the state meet's 3,200-meter run as a senior.
While selecting a college, Benner wanted a school strong in the sciences and one that also featured a competitive running program.
He didn't have to look far.
"The fact that I picked a school in Tampa, very close to my home, was independent of my decision,'' Benner said. "It was a non-factor. UT was just the best fit and it turned out beautifully for me.''
That sentiment was shared by Vaknin.
"You want to be surrounded by people like Lars,'' Vaknin said. "When you get somebody like that, it's like getting a gem. Just a joy to coach.
"The thing that sets him apart was his ability to relate to anyone. While he was very talented athletically and extremely accomplished academically, he got along with everyone. He was unassuming and nothing ever got to him. He was a role model for everyone. He was very deserving of this award.''
It was only the second time for a UT athlete to capture the award since it was founded in 1995-96 (men's soccer player Henrik Nebrelius won for 1997-98).
The SSC solicits votes from the league's athletic directors, senior women administrators, athletic communications directors and faculty athletic representatives.
The SSC's stated criteria include scholarly excellence, athletic performance and school/community involvement.
Benner served as a volunteer for Meals on Wheels. He tutored math and donated his time as a basketball instructor and camp counselor. He also was a mentor for abused and abandoned children.
"I honestly had no idea about the award, but after looking at some of the names of previous winners, it was such an honor to see my name there, too,'' Benner said.
"I definitely take a lot of pride in being well rounded, doing the best I can in school and sports. I know that playing sports is fun and I have a blast doing it. But I also know what I'm going to do for the rest of life will be predicated on my academic career. Being noticed for my hard work in academics and athletics means a lot because I take a lot of pride in both of them.''
Benner has begun a two-year program at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md., where he is conducting genetic research. After that, he will attend graduate school or a similar pursuit.
Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]