CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—It’s a school day in Wrightsville Beach, but Ron Benson is in his 1949 red Oldsmobile headed to the inlet on the north end. There’s a surfboard stretched horizontally out of his back windows, and the glassy morning waters are calling his name.
Nothing else is on his mind.
Sure, he may be worried about making it back to New Hanover High School in time for football practice or if the nor’easter approaching will knock him off his board a few times. But, the 17-year-old behind the wheel certainly isn’t worried about soccer tactics or math instruction.
Boy, how things change.
After spending six years in the U.S. Army Special Forces, including one in Vietnam, Ron returned to North Carolina in 1969 to finish his college degree at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Ron was once a highly acclaimed athlete in high school, playing three sports and receiving an offer to play college baseball that he turned down on account of money. So in one of his first days in Chapel Hill when a friend asked him to play a game called soccer, he jumped at the opportunity.
Although he had only played soccer once before, on a dog day in Vietnam, he was an instant success, scoring a pair goals.
“(My friend) told me to get up front, and he would knock me the ball,” Ron said. “ I figured there’s not much to this game—simple enough.”
Ron fell in love with the game instantly.
He worked with Rainbow Soccer founders Kip Ward and now UNC women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance to start soccer camps for North Carolina children and coaches.
But that wasn’t enough. Ron began to teach math and science at Chapel Hill’s junior high school and brought soccer with him. He created the first soccer team at the school and immediately contacted other junior high schools around the state to schedule matches.
This was his first of 42 years as a soccer coach in the Chapel Hill school system. And after starting up soccer at the junior high school Benson moved to Chapel Hill High School in 1980.
After six years as an assistant, Ron took over the head coaching job for both men’s and women’s soccer in 1986 and held the job for the next 28 years.
But it wouldn’t be until the final year of his head-coaching career, in 2014, after his final game, that Ron held the elusive state title.
After getting behind early, Chapel Hill High School rallied and beat Weddington 2-1, but even then Ron refused to take the credit he truly deserved.
“I was just really happy for the program,” Ron said. “Not for me. I was just lucky to get plugged in at the right time.”
Jason Curtis was an assistant coach under the tutelage of Benson on the 2014 women’s soccer team.
Curtis said nobody was happier about winning a state title than the players. They were doing it for coach Benson.
“Every time the girls were interviewed by newspapers they would say, ‘We’re doing this for Benson,’” Curtis said. “For us to win that game, it was pretty neat. Words really can’t describe it.”
Benson’s brother, Terry Benson, said it was a day he would never forget.
“I had my whole family there,” Terry said. “It was the perfect ending to the perfect career.”
But a state championship, the formation of successful recreation soccer league and almost 700 wins doesn’t come close to telling the full tale of Ron Benson’s life.
‘That kind of underdog’
The thing Ron won’t tell you is the impact he has had on everyone he’s met along the way.
Terry said Ron had always been an underdog, from his humble beginnings to his 5-feet-7-inch frame.
“We came out of public housing,” Terry said. “We grew up at Dry Pond, and if you told someone you were a Dry Ponder it would bring fear to them.”
Ron Benson didn’t need much, though. His grit, his passion and his attitude carried him a long way.
“People didn’t think he would amount to anything,” Terry said. “He’s always been that kind of underdog.”
Ron Benson was more than just a brother to Terry—he was a father figure from an early age.
“I didn’t have a father,” Terry said. “So he played that role. Since I was 5 years old.”
After a year at UNC-Wilmington, he turned to the U.S Army Special Forces, a program that continues to impact him.
“It was a big part of my life,” Ron said. “I was only (in Vietnam) for one year, but the whole Special Forces was big for me.”
Ron jumped straight from a helicopter into the classroom, where he taught for an incredible 42 years,touching thousands of students along the way .
“He really gets the most out of kids,” Curtis said. “He tells them ‘You can do it, because I can do it,’ and they really believe him.”
Terry echoed the sentiment that there’s something inherent in Ron’s lifestyle that is centered on serving others.
“He’s always wanted to be a mentor to young people and those he is working with,” Terry said. “He’s excelled in life and especially at mentoring, which is what we’ve been put here to do.”
Now, after retiring from the teaching and the coaching, the 74-year-old still finds a way to help.
It’s in his blood.
He refills the potholes in the gravel road in his community and picks up any tree limbs that litter yards. Ron said he tells everyone in his community that he will give them one hour of his labor a week. He particularly enjoys visiting his neighbors.
“I truly believe that he just wants to make things better,” Curtis said. “It may sound hokey, but he wants to nurture the good he sees in people and bring that out in them.”
Ron still goes to all of the Chapel Hill High School soccer games. He keeps the scorebook from the bench, but disappears as soon as the game is over. He doesn’t want any attention.
“I usually call him on my way home,” Curtis said. “He always has a good perspective on things.”
All of those accolades, all of those good deeds, Ron would never tell you.
In 2010 when Ron had an itch to go to the beach one day, so he packed his trunks and board and headed out. He was carving a wave when he saw a woman and her child going under. Ron’s days as a Wrightsville Beach lifeguard served him well. He dipped down into the water and brought the two safely onto his board.
Just two days later he saved two teenagers stuck in a rip current.
But he won’t tell you these things.
Ron said it’s very simple why he doesn’t brag and show off: that’s not the way he was taught.
“When I was a kid, if you scored a touchdown you didn’t celebrate,” Ron said. “You were always modest about what you did.”
‘A hero to many’
When you walk into Ron’s home you won’t find any trophies in his living room for his 695 high school soccer wins. You won’t find any plaques hanging in his den for his hall of fame career. You won’t find any certificates for the lives he’s touched.
All of these things can be found in several boxes crammed up in his attic, where no visitor could find them.
But you will find Ron Benson.
A man who loves above all else and is as humble as they come. A man who gives his time to the community. A man who served his country in Vietnam. A man who helped kick-start soccer in North Carolina. A man who is admired by everyone he’s ever met. A man who is a hero to many.