By Mike Mooneyham

Aug. 7, 2005

Third in a series

Shelton Benjamin is one of the most respected performers in today’s sports entertainment field. He gained that respect by having an unyielding work ethic, paying his dues and taking advantage of opportunities when they arose.

They are all qualities he learned from a man he calls his coach, his best friend and his role model.

Ron Donlick, a high school wrestling coach from Mount Pleasant, saw something in Benjamin that others had failed to see. He showed the youngster a better way, and helped him escape an environment of crime and poverty in Orangeburg.

“He’s my best friend and mentor. He was everything rolled into one,” says Benjamin. “In a town where other coaches had very different coaching methods, some which I couldn’t relate to and I couldn’t respond to, he brought out the best in me.”

Benjamin carried a gun to school as early as the eighth grade. While he says he wasn’t in a gang, he ran with a crew that included drug and gun dealers. He was born into a lifestyle and was a product of his environment. Somehow, someway, says Benjamin, he knew he was destined for something better.

Then he met Donlick. The coach encouraged him, told him there was a better life ahead, but getting there would take hard work and dedication. It was a life philosophy that Benjamin could aspire to. “Once I seriously dedicated myself to sports, the other nonsense just sort of faded away,” he says.

Shelton Benjamin

Shelton Benjamin

Glenn Easterby of James Island, who was the district head official in the Lowcountry while Benjamin was earning All-American honors at Orangeburg-Wilkinson, says Benjamin’s uncanny athletic skills left a lasting impression on him.

“I only knew him on the mat. I had the privilege of officiating him several times while he was at O-W, and there are two things that I remember most about Shelton. He was a mild-mannered kid that never said a word to anyone on the mat, and he was by far the best athlete I ever had the opportunity to officiate.

“His physical ability was phenomenal. The only other wrestler I ever knew that was in his class as an athlete was Roland Cromwell, better known as ‘Goat,’ who was my teammate at Fort Johnson High in the mid-1970s. Despite his intimidating physical appearance, Shelton always made our job easy as officials. He came on the mat, stayed calm, won the match, shook hands and left. Not a word. No showboating. Nothing fancy. Just plain, old-fashioned, hard wrestling. I am sure he learned that from coach Donlick.”

“I always felt that I would be very good at something – better than the means around me,” says Benjamin. “I remember hearing on TV about how hard it was to get a scholarship to school. Even when I was in high school and not doing that well in grades, I knew I was going to go to college on a scholarship. I knew it. Once I realized people were paying attention to me and taking an interest in me, I wanted to be a good example despite what I might have been involved in at the time. I didn’t want people to think of me as a hoodlum or a troublemaker who was going nowhere.”

Not everyone, though, was encouraging and had Benjamin’s best interest at heart.

“There were those people who thought that way. But I did what was necessary to change people’s perceptions of me. It’s like the self-fulfilling prophecy. People think something of you, and if they say it enough to you, you’re going to believe it yourself. When it was said to me, I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to believe it, and I was going to change this and show them what I was really about. A lot of kids, especially in Orangeburg, don’t get that. No one can tell you what you can and can’t do. They can make a prediction, but it’s you who decides your own fate.”

Fortunately for Benjamin, he took Donlick’s wisdom and ran with it. Benjamin first realized just how dedicated his coach was when he discovered that Donlick lived in Mount Pleasant and drove all the way to Orangeburg each day for his job.

“I still think that’s crazy, because he’s been doing that forever. To have done that for so many years is real dedication. He stayed at O-W a few years longer just because he didn’t want to leave certain pupils. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

Easterby also heaped praise on the longtime coach.

“I went to nearly every invitational tournament as well as region, lower state and state championships over a 15-year period. I never appeared at a tournament where I did not see Ron Donlick. Ron was always there looking out for his kids. I knew he traveled great distances to do what he loved, to coach, especially when he was at O-W. Oftentimes we would be returning to the Charleston area late at night (or early in the morning) from a tournament in Columbia or up at Furman, and we would stop at the same rest areas along I-26. Both of us usually were exhausted from two days of coaching and officiating, but we could never let the chance go by to talk about our love for the sport or what great athletes and performance we had just witnessed. I respect coach Donlick for what he has done for the sport of wrestling and for the student-athletes in South Carolina.”

NEXT WEEK: Final part of series looks at impact Shelton Benjamin has had on the world of professional wrestling.

NEWS AND NOTES: Dusty Rhodes met with Stephanie McMahon concerning a spot on the creative team Thursday at WWE headquarters … Bret Hart also met with WWE officials regarding a DVD project and his possible induction into the WWE Hall of Fame next year … WWE announced that Brock Lesnar has decided to withdraw from any involvement with the company … Hulk Hogan’s new reality series, “Hogan Knows Best,” will return to VH1’s lineup for a second season … Triple H and Ric Flair are scheduled to return to WWE television Oct. 3 when Raw makes its USA network debut.