A Man for All Seasons: A.J. Bennett turned a devastating football injury into a chance to shine on stage

This story is from the Spring 2017 issue of the Celtic Newsletter. CLICK HERE to preview the magazine.

A.J. Bennett was having the game of his life.

It was Oct. 3, 2016, just six weeks into his first year at Roanoke Catholic School, and the junior had already scooped up a fumble and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown to put the Celtics up 20-0 at Craig County.

Now lined up at fullback, he was handed the ball on “43-belly,” hit the hole off right guard, he remembers, “and it was green grass all the way.”

He rumbled down the field, spied a defender and gave him the stiff arm.

But he never saw the second guy, who grabbed A.J. by the neck of his shoulder pads in a “horse collar” tackle. Like an accordion, he crumpled to the ground with both tacklers coming down on the back of his right ankle.

Bones broke, ligaments tore, his foot so dislocated his toes pointed behind him.

Immediately, Roanoke Catholic coaches Bob Price, Joe Sweeney and athletic trainer Jordan Alouf were at his side. Teammates came up to offer support but had to turn away at the gruesome sight.

“You’ll be all right, son,” assured Coach Price.

An ambulance arrived, medics gave him two doses of morphine that had no effect, and they rushed him to the hospital 45 minutes away. Coaches Price and Sweeney sat vigil with parents Doug and Christy Bennett.

“I held it together until my mom walked in,” A.J. recalls. “And then I started bawling.”

Nurses cut off his uniform. But the kid nicknamed “Clark Kent” wouldn’t let them cut his beloved Superman T-shirt, which he insisted on taking off himself.

When they then began resetting his foot, he screamed in pain and passed out.

*  * *

Born in Tallahasee, Fla., Alexander James “A.J.” Bennett moved with his family to Roanoke when he was in second grade. His younger brother suffered from a chronic illness that required a cooler climate and closer proximity to the Ohio children’s hospital that treated him.

Growing up, A.J. fell in love with lacrosse and football, but at Cave Spring High School struggled for playing time and coaches’ respect. A chance to improve his academics and a better athletic environment inspired his parents to look at Roanoke Catholic.

“We wanted A.J. to have an athletic and academic experience that would be a positive lifetime memory,” says Doug Bennett. “We wanted him to be coached by men who valued skill, effort and character and who encouraged multiple sport athletes. We heard that the RCS coaches were not only good, but also good men, the kind of men that would mentor and impact a young man’s life.”

But now with an injury that left some wondering if he’d ever run again, A.J.’s dream of playing college athletics was likely broken.

A.J. spent about three weeks in a cast and heavily medicated on opioids while waiting for the swelling to subside enough for surgery. Eventually, doctors were able to insert an 8-inch plate and several screws to reattach his ankle.

Weeks more followed with A.J. in another cast, bedridden much of the time, his right leg atrophying to the size of his wrist. He still managed to travel with the team in November to Quantico to cheer on the Celtics to its Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division III state championship.

In December when he finally shed his cast, his priorities were physical therapy and catching up on his academics.

And something else.

“I didn’t complain,” he says. “You can ask my parents. I never complained. God has a purpose and plan for me and I had to walk the walk. I was going to make the best of it, prepare myself for life. I was going to try to get outside of my safe space … of just being a jock.”

In February, he encountered RCS marketing director and choir director Michael Hemphill who, ironically, was waiting in the hallway to encourage three other boys to join the mostly female Celtic Singers.

“Don’t you direct the choir here?” A.J. asked. “I’d like to join.”

A few weeks later he saw a notice about auditions for a Roanoke Catholic production of The Sound of Music.

“I was blown away by his natural talent and ability for singing and acting,” says theater director April Corbett, who promptly tapped him for the lead as Captain Von Trapp.

Says his father: “Both are new experiences for him and things that he would not have tried had it not been for his tragic injury. It is a great message of hope and unseen opportunity being just beyond what we can visualize.”

So the guy who had spent most of his life reading the X’s and O’s of offenses and defenses now found himself learning the language of notes on a page and directions on stage. He devoted himself to the work while catching up academically on all the weeks of school he missed, and rehabilitating his leg so that, by the final week of lacrosse season, he was strong enough to play on the field.

So what’s in store for A.J. his senior year at Roanoke Catholic? Academically? Athletically? Artistically? Tough to say.

But now his parents will have an extra $500 to help pay for it.

At Honors Day on June 8, he was awarded the Zach Bowyer Scholarship that recognizes “academic achievement, love of the performing arts, humility, love of God and fellow man, and a striving for high ideals with good spirit and optimism.”

Another touchdown for A.J. Bennett.