Raised by his mother in a working-class home in post-war Germany, Benjamin Pennington grew up playing soccer on the streets of Offenbach.
“It was the sport I grew up playing and the sport I loved,” he said.
It was that pull back to those childhood memories that created his destiny and his legacy. While he will retire from the Bettendorf Middle School classroom this month, the Bettendorf soccer coach also celebrates his 36th year at the helm of one of the top programs in the state. But if his path had continued to veer another way, it might never have been.
“I was adopted and my mother raised me in Germany,” Pennington said. “My mother was 13 when World War II ended and she would tell me about when the wall went up between East and West Germany and how they would stop people from visiting East Germany. We moved here when I was in third grade, to North Liberty (Iowa) and it was a little bit of a culture shock in a lot of ways. There weren’t as many foreigners here then, especially not in a smaller town in the Midwest. It was very different for me. I had grown up playing soccer, but there really wasn’t much in the way of soccer here at the time. So I played other sports, football, and I ran track and cross country.”
Pennington ended up becoming a lauded runner, building up awards and stamina running for his junior high and high school track teams.
But the call of soccer was too strong.
“At one point, I was on a bus back from a cross country meet and we were going through Iowa City and went by the student union, and on the field down there they were playing soccer,” Pennington said. “I asked them to stop the bus, and I jumped out of the bus and went down and played with them, and that was it.”
Pennington joined the Hawkeye Soccer Club and began playing in Iowa City in the late '70s. Although he hadn’t played soccer in years, he picked it back up relatively quickly.
“It was because of all the running I’d done in cross country and track,” he said. “My endurance was very high. So while my skill level wasn’t quite where it would be, I was able to work very hard and play very hard because of my endurance, and eventually, through hard work, I was able to get my skill level up again.”
That lesson of hard work determining success would become a recurring theme in his life, and in his coaching.
“I’ve always told them that if you work hard, good things will happen,” he said. “I still try to bring that across to my players.”
He came to Bettendorf in the late '70s following his time in Iowa City, and in 1979 formed the Bettendorf Soccer Club.
“At the time it was almost all foreigners on the team, recent immigrants to this country, because soccer hadn’t become as popular yet,” he said. “It was really a lot of fun. It was fun getting to know kids from all over the world.”
He also began coaching track, which got him on the path to coaching soccer.
“I liked coaching very much, and I liked coaching the kids who came in last in races just as much as the kids who won — it was all about attitude and hard work.”
Success has followed Pennington over three decades, and with it a rich legacy of Bettendorf soccer.
“Bettendorf has been very good to me, I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of this program,” he said. “I am very appreciative of that.”
As for how much longer Pennington intends to follow this path, he’s uncertain, but he continues to enjoy it.
“I’m lucky to be doing something I’ve loved since I was a child,” he said. “I’m lucky to be able to share that with other young people and help them become their best.”