One year ago, with the high school football season set to kick off, Keeanu Benton’s brain was focused mainly on one goal.
Then a junior at Janesville Craig High School, Benton wasn’t exactly thinking about the fall sports season in front of him. He wanted to win a state wrestling championship.
Seven months later, Benton nearly accomplished the feat. He finished as the Division 1 state runner-up at 285 pounds at the WIAA state tournament in Madison.
But by then, it was football that was weighing on his mind.
In less than a year, Benton went from seemingly being a standout college wrestling recruit to being pulled out of his classes at Craig to meet with Division I football coaches.
This past summer, he landed a scholarship offer he could barely have dreamed of at this time last year. And he wasted little time verbally committing to head coach Paul Chryst and the Wisconsin Badgers.
When the Cougars kick off their season Friday night at Beloit Memorial, they’ll do so with Benton—the city’s first player heading to UW on scholarship in about four decades—lining up on both sides of the ball.
An emerging talent
Benton had reason to believe in his wrestling skills.
As a sophomore, he qualified for his first trip to the Kohl Center for the state tournament, and he finished his season with a 37-4 overall record.
“Last year, my goal was just to be a state champ in wrestling,” Benton said. “Football was something I loved, but I really just wanted to get a state title.
“Then the scholarships started coming around in football, and I started loving football more and more. Last year, I thought I’d just be second team (all-Big Eight Conference) again, maybe try to get first team. Now I’m kind of exceeding what I thought I’d be.”
It’s not the first time Benton has found success in one sport but then shifted to another. He grew up playing for a prestigious Little League program in Chicago before moving to Janesville in sixth grade. He played baseball through his freshman year before deciding to focus on wrestling and football, though he has played club lacrosse for Janesville’s high school co-op team the past two spring seasons.
Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 285 pounds, Benton combines his stature with exceptional footwork to dominate on the wrestling mats.
Benton didn’t pick up football until eighth grade, but it didn’t take long for his athletic skills to translate to the field.
“I can transfer wrestling over to football, but not really football to wrestling,” Benton said. “It’s almost like wrestling on the line (of scrimmage).”
Benton was the fourth-leading tackler last season, with 52, for a Craig team that finished 4-6 and made a playoff appearance. He led the team with six tackles for loss, including two sacks, and recovered two fumbles to earn second-team all-conference recognition.
Offers rolled in
Craig coach Adam Bunderson said the scholarship offers didn’t necessarily come early to Benton, but they came in a flurry once they started rolling in.
“I really had no idea what to expect, so in December or January I pulled him in and asked him if he wanted me to start reaching out to college coaches,” Bunderson said. “Once I did, it was kind of an avalanche. Some of the smaller area schools came around first, and it just built up.”
Benton was excited when Illinois State checked in, because that’s where his sister, Tiveona Gresham, attended school, he said.
“I was thinking them or maybe Northern Illinois would be the best offers I’d get,” Benton said.
Then Iowa joined the fray, and Benton took a visit to the Hawkeyes program. He also had offers from Syracuse, Minnesota and Wyoming.
“Me and my friend, Besnik (Mecollari), were talking about three days before I got the offer, and he goes, ‘What if Wisconsin offers you?’” Benton said. “I said, ‘Oh, then I’m taking that right away.’ And then I realized I really had to start thinking about what I want to do in college, and not just football.”
Benton had discussions with his mother, La’Tasha, and stepfather, Troy Rodriguez, and they all seemed to be on the same page.
He verbally committed to the Badgers in May.
“I was going to go to college anyway, but I was going to have to pay for it, which my sister is going through now,” Benton said. “Now I get free college and get to play the sport I love.”
A rare achievement
Benton is believed to be the first Janesville player to go to Wisconsin and play on a full-ride football scholarship since Mike Herrington. Herrington logged four interceptions while playing for the Badgers from 1979 until 1982.
John Westphal, a Craig grad, lettered for the Badgers at linebacker in 1980 and 1981.
Chris Holznecht, a 2001 Craig graduate, was a walk-on for the Badgers.
On the radar
An athlete of Benton’s stature rarely goes unnoticed in public in general, but he said he’s getting more recognition now than ever.
Benton said during a trip to the Rock County 4-H Fair last month, a Sun Prairie player stopped and called out to him.
“He said, ‘Aren’t you that kid from Craig?’” Benton said. “I said yeah, and he said, ‘I’ll see you on Sept. 7.’ He knew the date.”
Craig senior quarterback Ben Coulter, one of Benton’s close friends, said he expects Benton to have a target on his back thanks to the commitment to the Badgers.
But Coulter also said Benton’s attitude and personality have not wavered with the new attention.
“Ever since I met him, he’s been the same kid,” Coulter said. “He’s hard-working, funny and will do anything for you if he cares about you. It’s very nice to have him on your side.”
“His demeanor definitely hasn’t changed,” Bunderson added. “So if he’s feeling pressure, it doesn’t show. He’s still just all smiles, always having a good time.”
Benton admits that there are times when he’s maybe too nice, and he might try to be a little meaner on the field this fall.
Other than that, he also said he picked up a few new tricks to use against opposing offensive lineman and also as an offensive lineman, himself, as he prepares to play both ways for the Cougars.
“I went to a camp there (in Madison) … that was open to anyone, and we got to work with the coaches,” Benton said. “I learned some legit stuff … Like different reactions, different sets and how you can read them when they turn their hips a certain way.
“Now I just need to remember it and use it.”