- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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An hour after the Senior Bowl ended, Ladd-Peebles Field was empty, save for a smattering of people braving the cold, rainy Mobile, Ala., night.
One of the few signs that a football game had been played recently was the sight of Heath Benedict, the lone NCAA Division II player featured in the January game that kicks off the offseason NFL draft scouting frenzy.
Benedict simply wouldn't leave the field. The Newberry (S.C.) College star was having too much fun. About 45 of Benedict's family and friends from throughout the country had converged on the Gulf Coast to celebrate a new beginning for the 6-foot-6, 335-pound Benedict. As soon as the game ended, many players and coaches headed to a ceremony at the other end of the field to hear the announcement of the postgame awards. Not Benedict. He headed to the stands. After he coaxed a security guard to let his posse join him, an hour-long love fest ensued. Pictures, hugs, autographs, reunions.
"Heath didn't care what was going on at the other end of the field," his father, Ed Benedict, recalled recently. "He was all about his friends and his family. There was no one else left in that stadium but us after a while. Heath was soaking it all in."
After what would be his final football game, Heath Benedict didn't want to leave the field. No one wanted it to end.
There was so much life running through Benedict, and it was supposed to be just the first quarter. There was supposed to be so much time left on the clock. His Senior Bowl performance was followed by an equally impressive NFL combine showing. In March, pro scouts swarmed the Newberry College campus to see Benedict, who was widely considered to be one of the top sleeper picks for this past weekend's NFL draft.
"It was all going so great," Ed Benedict said in his first interview since his son died suddenly in March. "We were all looking forward to this future that will now never happen."
On Wednesday, March 26, Ed knew something was amiss. His son, who never did anything quietly, was missing. Nobody could find Heath, and there were a lot of folks wondering where he was.
"I'm not kidding -- you can check my cell phone records -- I talked to Heath about 20 times a day," his agent, C.J. LaBoy, said. "And then I couldn't get a hold of him. You just know something was wrong as the days went by."
Ed, his wife, Holly, and their 16-year-old son, Brent (already considered a top college prospect at 6-5, 280), were spending their spring break in their former home of Greenville, S.C. Heath was planning to leave the family's new home in Jacksonville, Fla., and meet his family early in the week for a few days of skeet shooting. When Heath didn't show up on Sunday or Monday, his family thought he was being a typical 24-year-old. He was taking one week to relax after his pro day before resuming his draft preparations.
But Wednesday, the waiting got to be too long. Ed called a neighbor, who gave him the frightening news that his truck -- the rig Heath was supposed to drive to South Carolina -- had been sitting in the driveway all week. Sensing the worst, Ed ordered the neighbor to break into his home. He stayed on the phone while the neighbor got into the house.
It didn't take the neighbor long to find Heath -- he was lying under a blanket on the couch in the living room. He was wearing gym shorts and no shirt. He wasn't breathing. Medical examiners determined he had died early on Easter Sunday. No one had heard from Heath -- his mother joked he had 3,000 numbers in his cell phone -- after he had dinner Saturday night with the family of a young woman he had been dating for about a month.
"Her parents told me they never enjoyed a night out as much as they did with Heath that night," Ed said. "They laughed all night."
There was plenty to laugh about for Heath Benedict, who LaBoy said "was the picture of health." Benedict never had any serious health issues and took care of himself. It was only after his death that Amy Riser, the wife of Newberry's athletic trainer, Jim Riser, and the mother of two small children who had developed a connection to Benedict, learned that he gave away the brownies and cookies she baked for him during the season. He ate only the muffins and fruit bars she made.
Ed Benedict and LaBoy said the medical examiner's office in Jacksonville told them that Heath Benedict died of an enlarged heart, a condition that never had been detected. Because of Benedict's size and athleticism, and the fact that he had emerged as a possible third- or fourth-round pick, there were whispers and jokes that Benedict must have been using performance-enhancing drugs. Ed Benedict never believed the talk but said it was important that the steroids tests done after his son's death came back negative.
The Benedict family now has been trying for more than a month to figure out how this happened. There are no answers.
"We're relying on our faith," Heath's mother, Holly Benedict, said. "What's keeping me going is I know how much Heath lived in those 24 years. He lived more than I have in nearly 52 years."
What's keeping me going is I know how much Heath lived in those 24 years. He lived more than I have in nearly 52 years.
--Holly Benedict on her son Heath
Holly Benedict said her eldest son could have fun with the best of them. And that was one of the reasons Heath Benedict was taking the long, dusty road to the NFL from Newberry. To help concentrate on football, Benedict had gone to boarding school at the prestigious Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J. He received 23 scholarship offers and was considered the premier recruit out of the Garden Sate. He decided to go to Tennessee.
But as Benedict explained to several NFL teams, he partied his way out of Knoxville. He ended up at Newberry, and his mother said it was the best move for him in every way. He flourished on the football field and became an honor-roll student.
Benedict, LaBoy said, was preparing for NFL visits to Philadelphia and Jacksonville at the time of his death. Green Bay, Dallas, St. Louis and Pittsburgh also were interested, LaBoy said. Benedict stood out at the Senior Bowl for more than just being from Newberry, a 920-student school located about 40 miles northwest of Columbia, S.C., and far off most NFL scouts' radars.
"I remember him as a good competitor who moved better than I anticipated," Jaguars assistant head coach Mike Tice said of Benedict. "He had excellent toughness."
Those close to Benedict stress that he was much more than a name in a scout's notebook. He always was looking to talk to somebody and was a joker -- last summer at a family reunion, he spent 10 minutes luring an adult cousin to step in a pile of dog waste. When his family was gathering photos of him for his memorial services, they noticed that in every photo of him, he had his hulking arm hanging over someone's shoulder.
"He was always the best player on the field, but he never flaunted it," said Benedict's high school coach, Frank deLaurentis, who also lost his eldest son, Joe, at 19 to a previously undetected heart problem.
"I remember one game -- Heath was just dominating this poor kid. At the end of the game, the kid was reduced to tears. After the game, Heath was consoling him."
Heath Benedict was a nurturer. His final project was Jacob Riser, the 11-year-old son of his athletic trainer. The Risers had recently moved to the area, and Jacob came to town a bit of a loner. He was not applying himself in school. Jacob and 10-year-old sister, Rachel, would hang around their dad's work.
"Heath just sensed that Jacob was shy and a bit withdrawn," Amy Riser said. "There was this instant connection."
Benedict reinforced to Jacob the importance of education and often visited him at school. Keeping true to a promise, after Jacob made the impressive leap to the honor roll, Benedict bought the boy more than $600 in video games shortly before Christmas. He also promised to bring Jacob out to his new NFL city once he got settled. As for Rachel, Benedict informed her that he had to meet all future boyfriends. After a Newberry game last fall, at which Rachel was accompanied by a fellow fourth-grader by the name of Tyler, Benedict went over to their seats and shook the young man's hand.
On the 700-mile drive home to South Carolina from Benedict's burial in Youngsville, Pa., Jacob piped up to his mother, interrupting the sullen ride.
"All of a sudden, Jacob starting talking," Amy Riser said. "He said, when he gets married and has kids, he is going to drive his family to Heath's grave site so they know what kind of person Heath was."
No doubt, Benedict would want them to never leave.
Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
1dEric D. Williams