Brett Benning knows a thing or two about obstacles, and not just those on the basketball court as he battles for a rebound, bodies up on defense or fights through a pick.
The Augustana senior, who has been part of an incredible era in Viking basketball, almost had the game taken away from him once. And he walked away from it another time.
After nearly losing his father in a serious car crash that he can't remember anything about, he surrendered a full-ride scholarship at NCAA Division II Evansville University.
“I've had a lot to overcome,” said Benning. “It puts perspective on a lot of things. A lot can happen in the blink of an eye, literally. Knowing that and how lucky I am to be here, I can enjoy it, not take anything for granted and live in the moment.”
That said, it makes his three seasons in the Viking blue and gold nothing short of remarkable. He has helped Augie stretch its CCIW regular-season title streak to a league-record five straight seasons. He has helped the Vikings reach at least the Elite Eight in his first two seasons, helping the program stretch its streak to four straight Elite 8 trips, including two Final Fours.
The 24-3 nationally third-ranked Vikings start their quest for another deep NCAA Division III tourney run this weekend at Carver Center when they host the first weekend of action, beginning with Friday's game against 17-11 Aurora University.
Benning has been a key cog in the Viking engine. While senior teammates Nolan Ebel and Chrishawn Orange may grab the headlines with their scintillating play, the Vikings rely on Benning to be the glue guy who does the gritty work that sets the table for the team's success. Benning, a second-team All-CCIW selection this season, averages 10.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. His 87.5 percent career free-throw shooting is second-best in school history.
In leading the Vikings to a fifth-straight regular-season league title, the 6-foot-6 forward shot 48.9-percent from the 3-point line.
“He'll block a shot or get a deflection or get a tip-in and obviously, everybody sees him knock down those big 3s,” said Augie coach Grey Giovanine. “He impacts a game in a lot of ways. … He is a unique player at this level because he is so versatile. At his size, to have the skill level that he has really separates him.”
Giovanine also appreciates and relates to Benning being a coach's son “who has a tremendous basketball IQ.”
The game has had a big impact on the 22-year-old who hopes to be a currency trader when he finishes his academic requirements in the fall.
During his freshman year at Dakota High School, Benning and his father, Brian, were in a serious car crash. A semi lost control and hit the car he and his dad were in head-on, leaving his dad with nearly every bone in his body broken, according to Brett. A passenger in the car his dad was driving, Benning had a couple of broken ribs and numerous bumps and bruises but to this day can't recall many of the details of the crash that happened on a snow-covered highway near his hometown of Davis, Ill.
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Brett still has a scar on the right side of his forehead that required the most attention to clean out and suture.
Rebounding from that, Benning had a terrific prep career and was tearing up the AAU circuit, which led to an early offer for a full-ride scholarship from Evansville, which he snapped up.
“I kind of got caught up in the hype,” said Benning of the attention he drew from colleges. “Each one was piling up your ego, and I got caught up in the hype of a full-ride scholarship and going to the bigger school and Division II and thinking that was a whole different level than Division III. … I found out that these guys here were just as good and it was just as tough to win games.”
Benning usually is at his best when the stakes are the highest and it is toughest to win games. He has seemingly stepped up his game, playing his best basketball in the team's biggest games, earning the nicknames “Mr. February” and “Mr. March.”
“He has shown over and over again the ability to perform in clutch situations,” said Giovanine. “He has been so good in so many key parts of tough games.”
Just the thought of tournament games brings a smile to Benning's face.
“I kind of feed off the pressure a little bit,” said Benning. “When the postseason comes around it's the excitement and really what's at stake — there's so much riding on each game — and it gets me so excited.”
Benning's past was full of twists and turns and ended up leading him to a fork in his career path. When he left Evansville, he wasn't sure he would ever play competitively again.
“I had stopped enjoyed playing basketball because of some of the people I was playing with,” said Benning. “Coming to Augie and being around a fresh set of guys, and I saw the camaraderie and how together everybody is from the coaching staff down to the players. It's just awesome here.”
While hoping for a big finish to his senior season, Benning knows that no matter how his eligibility ends, it will have been a successful athletic run in Rock Island.
And he's pretty glad that things worked out the way they did.
“I say now that one of my biggest regrets was not coming to Augustana right out of high school and didn't play my whole career here,” said Benning. “All these guys are so awesome and the community here is so great.”