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There are times in a game when Austin Benckendorf stops and looks down at his left cleat.

It's the cleat of his twin brother Zac, a reminder of how lucky he is to be on the field.

"It's nice to have something there, if I'm having a bad play, I can look down and say 'Zac's not even on the field right now,'" Austin said. "You forget about it during the game, you forget about everything that's going wrong in your life because you're hitting dudes. It's good to look down and see his cleat sitting right there. It makes you play harder."

Austin is an offensive lineman for the St. Ambrose football team, and at the beginning of the year it was expected he and Zac would be anchors up front for the Fighting Bees.

That all changed in the first game of the season against Dakota State. Zac was rolled up on during a running play in the third quarter, breaking both his tibia and fibula.

"Obviously I felt the break, I know it's gone, and I'm just wondering if there's any chance of me getting back at the season," Zac said.

There wasn't any chance. He had surgery that night, his season and playing career over.

"You just almost feel nothing because you know you put all that work in and it's just gone that quick," he said. "It's rough being a part of this program ... having a pretty successful junior season and wanting to come off and maybe get a chance of getting all-American, ending it with a first-game injury. It's really rough."

For their entire lives, the Benckendorfs have been a package deal. They're identical twins, Zac born a minute before Austin.

They grew up playing football together at Streator High School in Streator, Illinois, and both knew they wanted to play together in college.

They're both industrial engineering majors, both intern at John Deere and both plan to stay in the Quad-City area after graduation.

"I struggle to tell them apart," head coach Mike Magistrelli said. "They're both grinders; they're workers; they don't say a whole lot, whether it's practice, the weight room, the classroom, they just go about their business. ... It's really unusual to see one without the other, and now you see that every day."

This season was supposed to be a special one after Austin spent last year watching from the sidelines, playing sparingly with ankle injuries throughout the year. Zac, meanwhile, was named second team all-conference after a strong season at left tackle.

The situation is now reversed, but that experience last year has helped both get through the unexpected adversity.

"He'll watch film with me, tell me I screwed up, and I like that because now he can focus on my plays," Austin said. "I'll come off the field at our home games and he'll be like, 'Austin, you have to do this, this guy is going here, you've got to go there,' so it's nice having him there. It's the same for the whole O-line. He'll get on everyone; it doesn't matter who he's talking to."

Zac's recovery has been pretty remarkable. Just six weeks after the injury, he's already out of a cast and walking, with only the aid of a crutch if he's going long distances. The football team has been a big part of that. They gave him a signed ball the week after the injury. He hasn't been to most practices or away games, but he has been on the sidelines for the home games, remaining positive throughout.

"It's a family. I don't think people realize how much it is unless you're a part of it, but it's just your family, especially your O-line group," Zac said. "Those are your brothers. I have a brother on there, but I don't think of them any different than my brother."

The Fighting Bees as a team are going through plenty of adversity this year. After a 2-0 start, they've now lost four straight and travel to play No. 10 Saint Xavier this weekend.

It's not anything the team thought it would be experiencing, but the cleat on Austin's left foot serves as a reminder to keep everything in perspective.

"Just like that, everything you've worked for all these years is just gone in one play," Austin said. "It could happen to me next play so you've got to play every play like it's your last. I know everyone says that, but that really puts it into perspective because he was up one play and down the next and out for the whole season."

The Benckendorf legacy also might not end this season. The twins' younger brother, John Benckendorf, is in his senior year as a quarterback at Streator, and Zac said he is considering going to St. Ambrose.

"It's big for me," Zac said. "Knowing now I'm going to be in this area I'd love to be able to go and watch him play and watch him succeed somewhere I know he'd have a lot of success."


Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times