At 14, Cedric Benson was rather thin and still bony. Sharp elbows, sharp knees. But even then, coaches in Midland knew this kid was going to be a star.
“When he put the pads on,” his freshman coach once said, “we could tell he was something special.”
By the time Benson was ready to leave town, everyone agreed. Four games into his sophomore season, he’d cracked Midland Lee’s starting lineup. That was his launch pad. Newspaper articles covered the refrigerator in his West Texas home. Trophies were neatly lined up all over the living room.
“I don’t think pressure bothers him,” Midland Lee coach John Parchman told the American-Statesman in 2001. “I think he might thrive on it.”
Benson signed with Texas in 2001 after scoring 127 touchdowns in his high school career, a total that ranked third in the nation. He would become the Longhorns’ second-best running back, statistically speaking, with 5,540 career yards — more than 1977 Heisman winner Earl Campbell’s 4,443 but not enough to pass 1998 Heisman winner Ricky Williams’ 6,279.
Benson may not have won the Heisman, but he was named the Doak Walker Award winner in 2004 as the nation’s best running back.
At Midland Lee, Benson always kneeled after every score. Why? “Respect. For the game. For the referees. For the fans. For the teams. Respect for myself. For God,” Benson said.
Thank you for the memories, Cedric. A true Longhorn Legend. pic.twitter.com/9gtoqo7ohi
— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) August 18, 2019
Texas coach Mack Brown knew fans were anxious to see Benson in burnt orange. He was, too. Brown had every intention of getting Benson into the 2001 season opener against New Mexico State. That year, the Longhorns had Victor Ike, Ivan Williams and Bret Robin at running back. None were what you’d consider feature backs.
“Sure, we’d like to see him play some, but you have to see how he handles pressure,” Brown said at the time. “In pregame you see how his eyes look or if he’s throwing up on the sidelines.”
The headline in the next dy’s American-Statesman after that 41-7 victory read, “Benson offers glimpse of what’s to come.” Hard-charging gains of 4, 8, 7, 1, 16 and 7 yards, on and on it went. A 17-yard catch out of the backfield and finally a 3-yard touchdown run. He had 15 carries for 64 yards overall in his UT debut. It came on the same field where he’d won state titles at Lee.
“Having been here for two state championships, I felt like I was at home,” Benson said afterward. “And I am at home.”
Brown was roasted by the media for not playing Benson in the 2001 Texas-OU game. He thought the freshman wasn’t truly ready to handle the Cotton Bowl pressure. Texas lost, 14-3. The next week against Oklahoma State, Benson had 131 yards. Then 100 yards against Colorado, 157 against Missouri, 108 against Baylor and 213 against Kansas.
Benson finished with 1,053 yards his freshman season as Texas reached the Big 12 championship game but lost to Colorado. At that time, Benson was just the third freshman since 1968 to rush for 1,000 yards. It was also a new school record, breaking Williams’ freshman mark of 990 yards set in 1995.
Benson’s sophomore season was curtailed by injuries, and he was never 100 percent. There was a turf toe injury, a shoulder problem and cracked ribs along the way. He still finished with 1,293 yards. Brown also rotated him with the smooth Selvin Young, a decision that Benson would lash out about before the 2003 season started.
For a somewhat soft-spoken kid who had only known football success and stardom, it was simply one frustrating issue after another.
“I’m ready to blow people up,” Benson told reporters in August 2003. “I’d ready to move north and south. No negatives. I’m better in every aspect. Bigger, stronger, faster. My vision’s even better.”
Benson got off to a slow start as a junior but did have 130 yards against Rice. He scored an early touchdown against Oklahoma, but the Sooners ran wild in a 65-13 blowout. That came during a stretch when Texas lost five straight in the Red River rivalry.
That game also happened days after Benson foolishly kicked in a South Austin apartment door and tried to retrieve a plasma TV that he had reported stolen. He was ordered to pay $1,500 in fines and restitution and even said later, “Yeah, it was stupid.”
Brown’s teams always had an ability to pick up the pieces after losing to OU. Benson led the way with five straight 100-yard games, the most coming with 283 yards and four touchdowns against Texas A&M on Nov. 28, 2003. Fans with sharp memories will recall UT’s second offensive play. Vince Young faked a handoff to Benson and threw a 60-yard touchdown strike to David Thomas. From there, Benson just started pounding away.
“I sensed they were wore out after the first couple of carries in the first quarter,” Benson said. “They didn’t seem like the same A&M team.”
Said Brown: “When you can run the ball like that, you’re not going to lose many games.”
As a junior, Benson finished with 1,360 yards, and for the first time in his UT career, he averaged more than 100 yards per game.
Benson was still rather shy and guarded as a 21-year-old senior in 2004. Texas fans didn’t fully embrace him like they had Williams, even though both players had the same dreadlocks hairstyle and hard-charging ways. Part of the problem was the team itself. Texas couldn’t get past OU and couldn’t win a Big 12 title.
Asked why he seemed aloof at times, Benson said, “I guess I was made this way. I guess I’ve had so many strangers coming up to me, and I don’t know what they want or what they’re after.”
Benson blew the doors off his senior year. He opened with four straight 100-yard games, a streak snapped by getting just 92 yards against OU. The Sooners won 12-0 as a hot-shot freshman named Adrian Peterson stole the show.
But Benson kept rolling, finishing the regular season with six straight 100-yard games and surpassing Campbell for third on UT’s all-time list. He suffered a knee injury early in the Rose Bowl against Michigan and had just 70 yards. But he was all smiles after the thrilling 38-37 win.
“This was a great season,” Benson said afterward. “We were just out there trying to have fun.”
Benson would become the fourth overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft, taken after Utah quarterback Alex Smith, Auburn running back Cadillac Brown and Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards. The Chicago Bears, a team that ranked 25th in the league in rushing, grabbed the Midland Lee and Texas star. He would play eight years in the NFL with Chicago, Cincinnati and Green Bay, amassing 6,017 yards and 32 touchdowns.
“Truly, a back has only so many carries,” Benson said on draft night before turning prophetic. “How long will I be in Chicago? Who knows. But I know I at least have eight more years of carrying the rock.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.