Bennie Guerra was likely the most famous fifth-grader in Janesville sports history.
Who else made an issue of Sports Illustrated at that age?
On Page 92 in the “Faces In The Crowd” section of the July 28, 1985, issue, was this: Bennie Guerra, Janesville, Wis.—Bennie, 10, who will be a fifth-grader at Madison Elementary School, won the Northern Plains regional wrestling title for 9- and 10-year-olds in the 100-pound weight class. The win raised his freestyle career record to 121-4.
Guerra went on to win AAU/USA state titles from first grade on through eighth grade and was a four-time national youth champ.
He then was a standout in both football and wrestling at Parker High, earning seven letters.
On May 11, he will be part of the 2019 Janesville Sports Hall of Fame induction class, along with Patrick Campbell, John Furrer, Andy Meehan and Susan McKeown.
While he enjoyed playing football as much as wrestling, it was on the mat that Guerra collected the most recognition.
“He had a great background,” said Ron Cramer, Guerra’s wrestling coach at Parker High. “His dad wrestled; I remember the story was he wrestled Jim Plunkett.”
That was in California when Ben Sr. was in high school. Plunkett went on to play 16 seasons as a quarterback in the NFL, throwing 164 touchdown passes and leading the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins.
He took Bennie, then a third-grader, to Parker High wrestling practices—to participate, not just watch. The sight of a third-grader taking on the 98-pound high school wrestlers prompted an article in The Gazette in 1983.
Bennie also was influenced by his two older brothers, Mark and Ray Martinez. Ray was a 2010 Janesville Hall of Fame inductee and will be the guest speaker at this year’s induction ceremony.
When Bennie entered high school, his father was his main wrestling partner. No other Vikings wrestler could push him like his father.
“Bennie was like a cat at practice,” said classmate and teammate Dan Schultz. “We were like mice to him. He’d walk up behind guys and put his hand on their head and just play with them like a cat.”
That was not the case with his father.
“Bennie never took his dad down in practice,” Cramer said. “Ben (Sr.) can still take out almost everybody around right now.”
Bennie’s goal was to take his father down to the mat. It happened.
“I was a junior, because I remember that day,” Guerra said. “Growing up, I remember telling my mom (Edna), ‘Someday I’m going to take him down.’ All heavyweights, everybody gunned for him.
“Even some of the assistant coaches wanted to go after him, and they couldn’t do it.”
But then came Bennie’s moment.
“I did a leg sweep, and I took him down and landed on him,” Bennie said. “I had the biggest freaking smile. I remember turning and looking at Cramer, ‘I did it.’”
“I didn’t even want a ride home,” Bennie said. “I just wanted to walk home and enjoy the moment. I was so freaking happy. That was like beyond winning any tournament.”
Bennie was no slouch on the football field, either.
Schultz compared him to Boobie Miles, the do-everything player in the movie “Friday Night Lights.”
“I kicked, I punted, I played fullback nose guard, defensive tackle, middle linebacker,” Guerra said. “If I got a scouting report and the guy is 6-4, 280 pounds, I have no problem with that. I’ll just go right under him.”
He earned all-Big Eight honors at defensive tackle as a senior.
“He was the classic three-sport athlete,” said Joe Dye, who coached Guerra in football and in track. “One thing about Bennie, he always had fun. He always had great enthusiasm.”
That included skateboarding and snowboarding. Cramer remembers younger kids waiting for Guerra at the doors of the gymnasium with skateboards.
“I hung around with everybody,” Guerra said. “I wasn’t just ‘a jock’ only.”
And while he wasn’t a Tony Hawk on the boards, he was impressive.
“I was able to skate a ‘vert’ ramp, which is a professional ramp,” he said. “I couldn’t do major ‘airs,’ but you don’t see people 230 pounds doing that.”
His passion for boards did interfere with his wrestling at times. Guerra’s freshman season was limited to 20 matches after a snowboarding incident at the Janesville Country Club. The day before the prestigious Mid-States tournament, Guerra and friends were using a sand trap as a jump.
A recent snowfall sent Guerra into the jump faster than he anticipated and launched him five feet farther than he expected.
“I landed squarely on my knee,” Guerra said.
Afraid to tell anybody, especially his father, Bennie saw the knee swell up.
He hobbled into the Mid-States and wore a double knee pad, but he ultimately had to fess up to the coaches.
“That was a big tournament, and I was in the ninth grade and I was the No. 1-ranked wrestler,” he said.
Bennie always had the target on his back. A couple of upperclassmen quit after spending seasons preparing to wrestle heavyweight for Parker, only to see a freshman come in and deny them the chance.
“They could have gone anywhere else in the Big Eight Conference and wrestled varsity,” Bennie said.
The expectations placed on him did affect the happy-go-lucky Guerra. He admits the pressure got to him sometimes, especially early in his high school career when the vast majority of varsity wrestlers his age were in lower weight classes. Bennie was going up against young men.
“I was 14 years old and 195 pounds going up against 17-, 18-year-olds that were 275,” he said. “That got a lot of attention. How was this small guy going to compete? It was technique and experience.”
One of Guerra’s early losses came against Jason Maniecki, a Wisconsin Dells High athlete. Maniecki went on to play football at the University of Wisconsin and spent three seasons as a defensive lineman for Tampa Bay in the NFL before a back injury ended his career.
Maniecki was a man among boys in high school. He went 34-0 to win the Division 2 state title in 1991. One of those wins came against Guerra, then a 15-year-old sophomore.
“I was the only guy he didn’t pin,” Guerra said. “I did pick him up six feet off the ground and toss him on his back. When he landed, he shook his head like, ‘What the hell just happened?’”
When Guerra met some of Maniecki’s Badger teammates years later, they referred to him as “the guy that wrestled Maniecki from Parker.”
He was a three-time Big Eight Conference champ and won the Mid-States his junior and senior year.
Guerra was the first Parker High heavyweight to make it to the WIAA state tournament. Unfortunately, a back injury affected him his junior year when he finished second.
He also lost in the title match his senior year to a wrestler that transferred into the state from Utah, so Guerra was not familiar with him.
He finished with a 112-18 high school record with 65 pins. He went 70-6 his final two years, with two of those defeats coming on forfeits in the regional tournament his junior year due to the back injury.
Guerra went to UW-Whitewater, where he wanted to play football and wrestle, which was not met with approval from either coach.
During his freshman wrestling season, Guerra landed wrong on his ankle and tore ligaments, ending that season. It healed, but he re-injured the ankle during preseason football practice.
That ended his athletic career.
He has been in the telecommunications business for 21 years. He works for TDS in Middleton as a field service technician.
He spends his time with his family: wife, Desiree; 11-year-old son Brett; and 5-year-old daughter, Bailey.
Brett only has interest in wrestling with turnbuckles and ring ropes.
Brett is into karate, where he is a yellow belt.
Bailey just started with karate as well, but she has shown an interest in wrestling as well. Bennie has begun working with her, teaching the very basic moves that his father taught him here and there. Maybe one day down the road she might wrestle.
With the growth in girls wrestling, especially at the high school level, there might be another Guerra in the news in the future.
Maybe even another issue of Sports Illustrated.