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April 25, 2012

Game changer

Steven Bench was sitting at home one evening in January when his cell phone started ringing. The caller ID simply read "PA, USA."

"You have got to be kidding me," he said to himself.

Having spent all of his 17 years living in southeastern Georgia, Bench wasn't accustomed to receiving phone calls from Pennsylvania. But on this particular night, the 6-foot-2, 206-pound quarterback from Bainbridge had an idea who was calling.

"I answered it, and it was Coach Hixon from Penn State," Bench said, referring to the Nittany Lions' new assistant head coach, Stan Hixon. "He asked me if I was interested in coming up for a visit."

Days prior to Hixon's call, the quarterbacks coach at Cairo High had told Bench he had a connection with Bill O'Brien. If Bench wanted, his highlight film could be on the new Penn State head coach's desk the very next day.

O'Brien must have liked what he saw. When Hixon called, Bench took him up on his offer and made an official visit to University Park the following weekend. And, in the middle of the visit, Bench was officially offered a scholarship to Penn State. Three days later, he committed.

But it wasn't the easiest decision for the Southern signal caller. Bench had given a verbal commitment to Rice before Christmas. He was one of the best quarterback prospects ever to commit to the Owls, and they had already begun "putting the future of the program kind of on me," he said.

"People think, 'Oh, it's Penn State. It shouldn't be that hard of a decision between Penn State and Rice,'" he said. "But I have to live there for the next four years, and it's my future. A lot more goes into it than just football."

But in the end - whether it was Penn State's academic reputation, the 108,000-seat stadium, or the campus that reminded them of places closer to home, like Florida State and Georgia - he and his parents decided Penn State was the right fit.

The allure of playing major-college football also played a role in his decision. Raised in the heart of SEC country, Bench garnered interest from Alabama, Mississippi State and Georgia, but his only offers from Football Bowl Subdivision schools were the ones from Rice and Penn State.

"[Coaches] would always tell me that if they didn't get their No. 1, then I was their guy," Bench said. "But they always ended up getting their No. 1."

The recruiting process became increasingly frustrating, and even more bothersome than the neglect he received from major FBS schools was their rationale for overlooking him. The problem was that during his first three seasons, Bench played in a veer option offense at Bainbridge High in which he rarely passed. Sometimes, he said, the team "would go through an entire practice and not throw the ball."

As a result, he became a hard-nosed and deceptively speedy runner, but colleges wanted someone who could throw the ball, too.

So during the summer before his senior season, Bench's father accepted an assistant coaching position at Cairo, a perennial powerhouse in southern Georgia. Bench followed.

By season's end, he had thrown for 20 touchdowns, amassed more than 2,000 yards through the air and on the ground and helped lead the Syrupmakers to the Georgia Class AAA semifinals.

"The kid came over, and within one month he knew everything we were doing," said Cairo head coach Tom Fallaw, speaking in the same Southern drawl as Bench. "He is a student of the game. He has good leadership skills, and I think he is trying to get ready to come up there and play."



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