By Mike Mooneyham
July 24, 2005
First of three parts
Every youngster needs someone to look up to. Someone who guides them through difficult times, someone who teaches them right from wrong, someone who cares enough to make a difference in their lives.
Ron Donlick, new head wrestling coach at Berkeley High School, was just that person for Shelton Benjamin.
Today Benjamin is a world-class athlete – an All-American in high school and college who parlayed his natural athletic skills into becoming one of the top stars in professional wrestling.
It wasn’t that long ago, however, that he was at the crossroads where a world of crime, guns and drugs never seemed too far away.
Donlick was the man who showed him a better way.
A Mount Pleasant resident since 1987, Donlick was the head wrestling coach at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School when he took Benjamin under his wing. Donlick had coached at a number of area schools before accepting the O-W position in 1992.
“I kept thinking I would find some reason not to take this job,” Donlick told himself as he made the 70-mile drive to Orangeburg. “But everyone was so nice out there that I never really did.”
Donlick accepted the wrestling position as well as a teaching job and an assistant’s spot on the football team. It was at the school where he ran into a physically impressive youngster he remembered from a state tournament match the previous year while Donlick was coaching at Wando High.In that contest, Donlick recalls, Benjamin completely overpowered an opponent who outweighed him by nearly 100 pounds. Donlick thought at the time that the teen-ager could be fantastic if he only had the opportunity to coach him for a few years.
FROM GHETTO TO GRAPPLING
There were a number of obstacles to overcome. Before wrestling practice even started, Donlick had to talk Benjamin’s mother out of signing him up for the Jobs Corps. Stern but fair, she argued that her son was always getting into fights, and this just might be what he needed to straighten up.
Benjamin lived in a two-bedroom apartment with his mother and three siblings in a rough part of town, and many of his acquaintances hung out in gangs. Guns were easy to find, and Benjamin even carried one to school for a while, more for protection than anything else.
Donlick knew the strapping youngster had amazing raw talent, but he also knew he had to help convince Benjamin – and his mom – that hard work would ultimately pay off and lead him out of an environment where poverty and desperation was the order of the day.
Donlick made the youngster’s mom two promises – that her son would be a state champion and, more importantly, the coach would get him into a college and that he would succeed.
That Donlick was devoted enough to make a daily 140-mile trek in order to instill values in his team set a course for Benjamin that he would never stray far from.
Under Donlick’s close tutelage, Benjamin reached near-legendary status as an athlete at O-W. He lost only one wrestling match his junior and senior seasons, was a two-time state champion and an All-American in two different ratings groups.
Donlick’s involvement didn’t stop at the high school level. Holding true to his promise, he guided Benjamin all the way through college, which included a short stint at N.C. State where he went initially to play football, followed by tenures at Lassen Junior College in California (where he won the junior college wrestling nationals in the heavyweight division his sophomore year after winning the national championship in track his freshman year) and the University of Minnesota, where he was a top Big 10 wrestler and later an assistant coach at the school.
Benjamin was one of the few, says Donlick, who had the support and encouragement of his friends and family in his quest for a better life.
“That was part of Shelton’s support system from the superintendent right on down,” says Donlick. “He just got tremendous support. Not everyone was on the same page. There were detractors and people who were ready to write him off. But there were enough key people in the right places that we were able to do what we did. For that I’m grateful.”
NEXT SUNDAY: Shelton Benjamin describes how Ron Donlick helped change his life.
NEWS AND NOTES: Two notable figures in the wrestling profession died over the past week. Miguel Perez, best known for his tag team with Antonino “Argentina” Rocca during the late ’50s and early ’60s, died of a heart attack last weekend in Puerto Rico at the age of 68. Lord Alfred Hayes, a highly regarded wrestler during the ’60s and ’70s before becoming a beloved WWE announcer during the ’80s, passed away Tuesday in Dallas at the age of 77. Hayes had been wheelchair-bound and in ill health the past several years …. Longtime WWE senior official Earl Hebner and brother Dave Hebner, a veteran WWE road agent, were both fired last week due to alleged improprieties regarding official WWE merchandise sales … UPN has asked WWE to remove Muhammad Hassan from Smackdown as a result of a segment simulating terrorist activity that aired the same night as the deadly London subway attacks … WWE released three-time women’s champ Ivory last week …George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the Great American Bash pay-per-view tonight at 8 p.m. Cover charge is $7.