Persistence, Dedication, Support and Drive Pays Long-Term Dividends for Steinert Senior
By Rich Fisher
Under normal circumstances, an area football player going to Division III North Carolina Wesleyan usually isn’t a big deal. It’s a nice story, though it doesn’t rock the publicity meter.
But Anthony “T-Bird” Bencivengo’s circumstances were anything but normal, and the fact the Steinert High senior will be playing college football anywhere – or even going to college — is a very big deal.
This is a guy who went from loving life through ninth grade, to sinking into his own personal hell for two years. Some teens never come out of such horrors and have tragic endings. But through a strong support system and an even stronger will, Bencivengo has emerged as a model student-athlete his senior year with an academic and athletic career at NC Wesleyan on the horizon.
“I still can’t believe it; it’s like a dream come true,” Bencivengo said. “All I did was what my father told me — keep trying your best and keep pushing forward; whatever happens is going to happen. I’m on cloud nine still, and cannot believe that I pulled myself out of some very bad, hard times to such a positive future.”
“He made a choice to turn his life around and he did it in a matter of months,” Steinert football coach Dan Caruso said. “The fact is, at one point in his high school career there was a question if he would even graduate. Now he is going to college and playing football there.”
It really is the classic after-school TV special with a happy ending.
Bencivengo’s life was all fun growing up. He began playing Hamilton PAL football at age 5, with his dad, Ralph, as his coach. He also starred for Sunnybrae Little League as a power hitter.
In ninth grade, he was the starting fullback and linebacker for Steinert’s freshman football team under coaches Doug “Cooperazi” Cooper and Joe Panfili. He excelled in the classroom as an A & B student.
Suddenly, through no fault of his own, Anthony’s life was shattered. Ralph, who was the subject of some highly publicized legal issues, and his wife divorced. Suddenly, touchdowns and quarterback sacks didn’t matter anymore.
“It seemed like the bottom dropped out when that happened,” Bencivengo said. “I was caring less and less about what was important to me — my entire life, football and school. I just kept sinking further and further into some kind of depression where I wanted nothing to do with sports, which I played my entire life.
“Basically, I was home for two years playing video games and watching TV.”
Caruso was somewhat startled when T-Bird was a no-show in 10th grade.
“Anthony was a real good player as a freshman,” the coach said. “He came to us as a quarterback but switched to play some fullback. I was a bit surprised he did not come back his sophomore year.”
For two years, Ralph suffered right along with his son, whose grade-point averaged hovered at 2.0 None of that mattered to Anthony. All he cared about was going to bed and then somehow dragging himself out of bed the next day to go to school, before he could retreat into his room, all alone, with a computer joy stick or TV remote. What he thought was his safe haven, was becoming his prison. If something didn’t happen soon, he’d be serving a life sentence.
“For two years my father tried to get me involved in anything other than staying at the house,” Bencivengo said. “I wanted no parts of it.”
The summer after 11th grade, Ralph gave it one more shot. He urged his son to try and end his senior year in high school on a strong note, both academically and athletically.
“Finally, something clicked in my mind and I started training for football the summer prior to my senior year,” Bencivengo said.
He picked one heck of a way to return. Anthony enrolled in a football camp at Kean University, which consisted of seven days of three-hour full-contact sessions in mid-July’s 100-degree temperatures. Rather than melt Anthony’s spirit, the heat melded him into a football player once more.
“That camp jump-started me to the point that all I wanted to do was succeed in football my senior year at Steinert,” Bencivengo said.
Not surprisingly, Caruso needed some convincing.
“Once he did not come back I thought there was no way he would come back out,” the veteran coach said. “To be honest, when I heard he was planning on coming back out I said ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ I was not counting on him at all but it became evident early in camp that he meant business.
“I was a bit hesitant and questioned his dedication to start. I informed him that I was glad he came back out but he had to start from the bottom and work his way up. Most guys will not take on that challenge their senior year. Most guys would find an excuse or complain they weren’t getting a fair shake. Anthony worked hard and waited until his number was called.”
As he entered camp, Bencivengo had the usual concerns. He was confident in his knowledge of the game and felt he had gotten into pretty decent shape over the summer. The biggest fear was whether he could gain a starting berth after being away for so long. Realizing he had to work 10 times harder than any other player in camp, that’s what he did.
“The first few days of practice were a little awkward because I was not training with the team for the past two years so I felt that I had to prove myself all over again,” he said. “I had some excess weight; I went into camp at 265 and I was a little concerned that I would not be able to keep up with the lighter guys on the team. But I was fully confident once we put the pads on that I was going to be in football condition, especially after just completing seven days at the football camp.”
Bencivengo really started to feel like he was back once full pads and contact started. It was always his favorite part of camp, as he loved to hit and be hit.
His biggest issue was not having a position to call home. The coaches started him on the offensive and defensive lines, but when a need arose for a fullback in the I formation package, Bencivengo volunteered. He promised Caruso that he could block anyone in front of him and felt very comfortable running the ball. After several days he won the job, and also played tight end and defensive line on occasion.
“He is a very aggressive young man so he turned some heads at the beginning of camp,” Caruso said. “He volunteered to do anything and everything. And he really opened eyes in the last week of camp.”
Those eyes opened wider in Steinert’s opening-night win over Northern Burlington, when Anthony’s first appearance was in a goal-line situation and he blew up a linebacker on a touchdown run.
“He also did more things the next few weeks that turned a lot of heads with great blocking against Lawrence and a nice kick return against Pemberton,” Caruso said. “He also carried the ball a bit against Allentown and had a few catches against Nottingham. I really wish we had him all four years. No doubt in my mind he would have been an all division or conference player if he played all four years.”
Bencivengo had come too far to wonder “what-if?” Since emerging from the abyss, he went full bore back into athletics as he also wrestled and is playing lacrosse this spring. His re-birth extended to the classroom, where he is averaging a 3.25 GPA while taking all college prep classes. He also went to Sylvan Learning Academy to perform better on his SATs, which resulted in a 960 last December.
It was not just a matter of high school football anymore. Less than one year after his life of seclusion, Bencivengo was convinced he could play in college while also major in business. Advisor Kevin Simme led the family on their search and provided a list of 10 schools that would fit T-Bird’s needs.
Anthony applied to all 10 and was accepted by four. NC Wesleyan also offered the chance to play football, so it became a no-brainer.
“(Assistant) coach Craig Smith is my recruiting coach and he liked my film and brought me on as a fullback,” Bencivengo said. “They have three fullbacks and are looking for a fourth. They are also going to try me out as a linebacker. I’m down to 200 pounds and the coach wants me to come in at 215 to 220.
“Team 85 Football Academy is working with me for the next three months to build muscle, speed and weight. On August 8th I start football camp. I’m going to miss Hamilton Township dearly but I am going to enjoy being down south for four years.”
In looking back on his journey, Bencivengo gives Ralph a lot of credit for not giving up on him.
“My father told me a thousand times ‘Anthony you need to move forward with your life and put the past behind you and do the best that you can do in your sports and in school, that is the only way that you are going to get into college and do what you’ve always dreamed of — playing college football,’” Bencivengo said. “My father used to tell me that it’s never too late to continue what you love to do, you just have to put your mind to it and you have to train hard to be successful.”
He also credited guidance counselors Kathleen Innocenzi and Joe Smith for sticking with him, along with vice-principal Dr. Lauren Dunaway.
“They helped me so much in my hard times and always gave me the support and the confidence in myself,” Bencivengo said. “They never gave up on me in my hard times at Steinert.”
More importantly, Bencivengo now knows he should never give on himself.
“ I’ve learned that if you have some setbacks in your life or hit some rough times; that if you put your mind and soul to it there’s nothing that you cannot accomplish,” he said. “I feel so fortunate that I am one of the lucky ones that is getting a second chance at the sport that I love, along with a great education. I have so much confidence in myself now, that I know I am going to succeed moving forward in the next chapter of my life.”
Considering where he has come from, Anthony’s rejuvenated outlook on life – no disrespect to playing college football – is the biggest deal of all.