Benyo retires after 31 years coaching cross country at Jim Thorpe
Drew Benyo was recently honored after announcing that he will be stepping down from his position as Jim Thorpe cross country coach after 31 years. DESHA UTSICK/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
He has coached long distance runners for over three decades, and now it’s his time to cross the finish line.
Drew Benyo has announced his retirement as the coach of the Jim Thorpe boys and girls cross country program. He was recently honored by the Jim Thorpe Cross Country Alumni Association following the Jim Thorpe Birthday Torch Run, and was presented a “Coach of the Century” plague.
“We started in 1988 with just 13 runners,” said the 71-year-old former teacher at Lehigh County Vocational School. “Now it’s come time for me to see the fall foliage from somewhere other than the Jim Thorpe High School parking lot.”
Benyo estimates he’s coached nearly 500 runners through the years. His 2013 and 2014 teams were undefeated and Schuylkill League champions. When asked if he would call these teams his best ever, Benyo quoted former Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno, by saying,“ask me in 10 years.”
For this former captain of the Olympian football team, first Jim Thorpe district qualifying wrestler, and Air Force veteran, responsibility makes all the difference in how his runners decide to live their lives after high school. He coaches life skills with his training strategies.
“I always preached to my runners to be responsible to me, to their families, to their schools, to their communities and to themselves. When I hear they’re doing well in their lives, then I can call them the best athletes I ever coached.”
He is most proud of the fact that he has coached who he calls “the very best of the best” that have become engineers, school teachers, researchers, world travelers, and defenders of our country.
Benyo has demanded as much from himself as he has from his runners through the years. In 1991, he trained for a year-and-a-half for the Death Valley, California Challenge. He ran up Mount Whitney, the highest point in the United States and then down to Badwater Basin, the lowest point. His run, with short periods of sleep between, lasted four days.
“At the top of the mountain it was 34 degrees, and down in Badwater it was 126 degrees,” he said. “I was 42 years old at the time, and it was quite a task, but I did it.”
In 2013, he was one of 25 cross country and track coaches in the United States nominated for the Brooks Inspiring Coach Award. As a finalist, Jim Thorpe High School received a large sum of money to purchase running gear and for team travel expenses.
The husband of Darlene and father of Tim and Dranae, he has coached 11 state qualifiers and 14 Schuylkill League championship teams. Two of his runners — Chelsea Mullens and Erin Kennedy — have been elected to the Jim Thorpe Area Sports Hall of Fame.
Through the years, Benyo has encountered some strange occurrences with a few of his runners.
“One time, a runner veered off the course and got lost,” he said. “I had to go out and look for her, and it took me two hours to find her. She was way off the course near Glen Onoko Falls.
“Another time, one runner came to the finish line and told me he was so thirsty he stopped his run and took a drink of water, from what he must have thought was a pond, but he asked me why there was foam on the surface. He didn’t know that he drank from a sewage treatment plant in Nesquehoning.”
Cross country runners race through wooded areas for miles at a time and are often not seen by their coaches until they finish their races. Benyo always asked his runners if they ran with their absolute best efforts.
“I tell them to go home and look in the mirror, “ he said, “and if they can look themselves in the eyes without blinking, then they know they didn’t lie about giving their best effort.
“I tell them to never cheat themselves when they run, and to take that same attitude with them through the rest of their lives.”
Benyo intends to continue keeping time for Jim Thorpe races, but the heralded cross country coach also plans to, well, travel across the country.
“There are so many great places in America that I haven’t seen. Now that I will have the time, I’ll travel and finish a few wood working projects I have at home.”
“I was told that the alumni want to have a bench made with my name on it. I said you can put the year 1988 on it when I started but leave off the year I retired because then it looks like the bench is a memorial, he said with a laugh. “I still have plenty of life in me.”
Benyo will be remembered by his runners for having sent them into the world after graduation with “plenty of life” to live as responsible and successful members of their respective communities.