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From South Greenwood to Dartmouth
To become a standout, Clearwater High student stood alone
It’s 5 a.m. in South Greenwood, and Bennie Niles IV is alone. The house is dark and still. Outside, the neighborhood sleeps. Bennie swings his feet onto the carpet. He has work to do. Bennie is 18. He’s spent much of his life in this bedroom. His parents, both 43, would not let their firstborn run outside with the neighborhood boys. They kept him here, on his own.
They expected greatness. Bennie’s father was an all-state linebacker who nearly broke Dunedin High’s tackle record. His mother, Tandala, was resolute and studious, earning straight A’s at Florida A&M. When Bennie was in second grade, Tandala bought him a Power Ranger action figure, but he was so excited he didn’t say thank you. His dad took it back, as a lesson in manners.
Bennie was an only child until he was 7. In his room his young mind wandered. He made his own puzzles and coloring sheets and math problems. He sketched Jesus and Michael Jordan.
Through the walls he could hear the thumping of a basketball. At Ponce de Leon Elementary, the boys laughed over games of tag and manhunt. They joked that he was locked inside. He pleaded with his parents to go play. They told him the work would be worth it.
In time he would learn there were rewards for this kind of devotion. For a time, though, he was angry. He felt punished and pressured and tired. After an embarrassing loss at a flag football game in the fourth grade, he got home and snapped, yelling that he didn’t want to do it anymore.
“I felt like everyone wanted me to be perfect,” he said. “I’m not perfect. I’m not perfect at all.”
• • •
The first bell rings at Clearwater High. Tandala drove Bennie to school. He said he doesn’t want a car and would rather walk. “I don’t want to feel like I’m a burden.”
Bennie sits in the front, wearing glasses. His classes are some of the school’s toughest: calculus, physics, chemistry, advanced English, advanced Spanish, microeconomics and world history. He has a 4.52 GPA. In middle school, when he got a B, his parents stuck his report card to the refrigerator. Out of 401 students, he is ranked 29th.
He transferred as a sophomore from Dunedin High. Students there called him a traitor. He is one of the few black students in his classes. Neighborhood boys called him white. He never bonded with a clique. He is well liked but shy and has a hard time opening up. Classmates say Bennie looks mean when he walks the halls. He responds that he’s lost in thought.
The boys of South Greenwood lived in poor households with single moms. On the street they grew closer, became friends and gang brothers. Some robbed and sold drugs to survive.
On the street there were no early wakeups. No report cards stuck to the refrigerator. No expectations. On a recent night Bennie stood in his driveway. Three boys in black tank tops hung out on a nearby corner. A Crown Victoria rolled past, bass thumping.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in this,” he said. “It’s so easy to go astray.”
As he rose through the grades, Bennie became the neighborhood’s target. Boys asked if he thought he was better than them. His parents told him they were jealous, but it didn’t make him feel any better. Who would be jealous of all this work?
Bennie didn’t show he was hurting. He waited until he was alone. In his room he slammed the door and punched pillows. He screamed at the walls.
He is president of the senior class. He is parliamentarian of the National Honor Society. He is prom king. But in South Greenwood, he is still the boy in his room.
• • •
Bennie was the Tornadoes’ team captain last season, a star cornerback with more than 600 rushing yards, close to 200 receiving yards and about 20 tackles. A 100-meter track sprinter, he was one of the fastest on the team.
In the offseason he lifts weights and runs speed hurdles with a trainer three times a week. The one-on-one drills, in the torrid afternoon sun, can be grueling. Bennie is told to push a Ford Expedition 30 yards. His trainer sits inside, listening to the radio and slapping the door.
During games Bennie works the edges of the field. He sprints and backpedals and explodes, covering a receiver man to man. A misstep can mean the difference between a win and defeat. “It’s just you,” he said. “It’s all about pride. You have to take it personal.”
Bennie gives himself little room for failure. After a bad day at a football showcase in Orlando, he scribbled his stats on a note card and taped it on the wall above his barbells. Twenty-two 155-pound bench presses when he wanted 25. An 8-foot broad jump when he wanted 9. A 4.8-second 40-meter dash when he wanted 4.4. The card has been there for two years.
One afternoon after school, Bennie cried. He worried about his parents and his grandfather, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in January. He said he needed so badly for their sacrifices to matter. He said he wanted to make them proud.
“They look at me as hope. They look at me as the person who can change everyone’s lives, forever,” Bennie said. “I can’t let them down.”
• • •
For months Bennie spent late nights huddled over dense scholarship applications. He wrote long personal essays, compiled game tapes and asked for recommendations. He dreamed about what college would be like and what he wanted to be. In his room, by himself, he worried about the cost.
In October he visited Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in Hanover, N.H. He watched the homecoming game against Harvard. The energy was like nothing he had felt before, frenetic and powerful. Everything felt right. He applied.
His father, a landscaper, suffered a ministroke the day after Thanksgiving. He called home from the hospital, speaking gibberish. Doctors said it could have killed him. Bennie decided he wanted to become a cardiologist.
He read up on renowned black surgeons Ben Carson and Vivien Thomas. He donned scrubs to shadow an open-heart surgery. At home he kept talking about how cool it was. His brothers, Tony, 11, and Jordan, 9, said they wanted to be doctors, too.
In December he received his acceptance letter to Dartmouth. He stared at it in shock, unable to move. Soon after he learned he had won the school’s need-based financial aid and a Gates Millennium scholarship.
He called his mom at work, and she launched into full alert, asking whether he was safe. He told her the scholarships would pay for everything, including the $56,000 yearly tuition, through graduation.
“Don’t tell me that,” she said. “I’m going to start crying.”
He told his teachers, but was reluctant to tell his peers. He didn’t want them to think he was bragging.
He will share a dorm room, study medicine and play cornerback. Coach Buddy Teevens told him his brain will help him fit in with teammates, who are known to walk off the field talking about engineering projects. “We have a team full of guys like you,” Teevens said.
It will be Bennie’s first time away from home. He knows it won’t be easy, but he’s excited to be on his own. He thinks back on his trip to the Dartmouth campus, and the feeling that the other students understood.
“Most of the kids there have been doing the same thing I’m doing,” Bennie said. “I knew that I wasn’t alone.”
By Drew Harwell, St. Petersburg Times