The NFL is the beautiful side of the game of football. It is a league that garners praise and popularity while turning the few who can excel in it into immortal figures. This is why we here at Sports Casualties find intrigue in the other side of the game – the aspect of the game that is played on a gravel back road, not a glistening main street.
This is the third piece in an occasional series that will profile professional football players who succeeded in a now defunct league only to never “make it” anywhere else. Sports Casualties writer Robbie Hilson referred to this series as a “Where are they now?” for players who were never anywhere in the first place. He is correct. He is also the author of this post and would like to thank Bryan for ceding the “Broadway” reigns. This has been an incredibly rewarding experience for him.
It’s hard to get recognition when you come from a program that produced the likes of Michael Irvin, Brian Blades, Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne. So Magic Benton often gets lost in the discussion of all-time great University of Miami receivers.
And rightfully so.
Magic’s enduring spot in Hurricane lore was secured not by his play on the field, but instead harkens back to his humble beginnings as a wee lad in the inner city. A very, very wee lad in the inner city.
As the story goes, upon Benton’s arrival at “The U” in 1995, a curious reporter took it upon himself to unearth the origins of the star sophomore’s eccentric name, asking simply, “Magic, how did you get your name?”
It was in this moment that the young receiver’s legend was “born” – so to speak – as he proudly announced to all that he was conceived in the bowels of the Magic City Lounge.
Even the most comprehensive of Google searches leaves the whereabouts of this fine establishment a mystery. In the interest, then, of responsible journalism I went to the experts to corroborate the story, lest I confuse fact with folk tale – like the time true freshman DE Rusty Madearis recorded 5.5 sacks in his debut against Texas Tech in October of 1990.
Oh wait. That really happened.
Regardless, I consulted Alpha-‘Cane Fan/Father Robb Hilson before posting, sending this email: “Magic Benton… I’m writing a piece on him. Do you have any fond recollections to include?”
His response minutes later: “Other than where he got his name? No.”
I also have it on good faith from UM Core Team Member and proud ‘Cane alum Brian Mormile that the story is in fact true. In a fit of curiosity, he actually took it upon himself to ask Benton in person. Excellent work, Brian.
Now if Great Number Eight was defined solely by five letters, he wouldn’t be worthy of the third “Off Broadway” installment. Not just anyone enters the cherished pantheon thus far reserved only for Mario Bailey and Kelvin Bryant.
Well Magic Benton is not just anyone. In 1994, the talented high school senior made 5A all-state honors at Miami Northwestern by hauling in 22 catches for an eye-popping 650 yards, inventing the term “YAC” in the process. Amazingly, his 29.5 yards per catch was a sharp decline over the previous year’s 38.1 YPC.
Cementing his reputation as the top athlete in Florida and the No. 17 overall receiver according to SuperPrep, Benton resisted the likely-illegal recruiting advances of UM coach Dennis Erickson and opted instead to enroll at FSU. Unfortunately, enrollment entails passing grades. After a quick layover in prep school, he promptly pulled a “reverse Terri Hilson,” transferring to Miami after realizing that Tallahassee sucks.
Miami’s fortunes changed immediately upon Benton’s arrival. After making the Orange Bowl the year before, the Hurricanes fell to 8-3 in 1995 under first-year coach Butch Davis. The ‘Canes missed a bowl for the first time in years due to a contentious bout with NCAA rule makers.
In an unparalleled display of class, Benton was not among the players who broke into the captain of the track team’s apartment and struck him repeatedly before the 1996 campaign. This boded well for the upcoming season, when Magic filled the void created by star receiver Jammi German’s ACL injury (and nine-game suspension for instigating an on-campus brawl).
Benton led the 1996 ‘Canes with 547 receiving yards and scored 4 touchdowns. His breakout game came in the season opener against Memphis, in which he scored on two punt returns and also caught a 73-yard touchdown pass for the 11th-ranked ‘Canes. His star-making performance spawned this classic headline in the next day’s Boca Raton News: “Big Plays Rule: Benton’s ‘magic’ handles Miami’s woes.”
The following year was a low point for the senior leader and the Hurricanes in general. Benton succumbed to injury in game four, an infamous 47-0 throttling at the hands of FSU. Without his game-breaking ability, Miami fell to 5-6 despite sophomore Edgerrin James’ 1,000-yard campaign and a record-setting freshman outing from Reggie Wayne.
Impressively, Magic remained a scholarship player until his graduation after the ’97 season, a rare accomplishment considering the program did not have many to give. Though he was not selected in the NFL Draft, Benton briefly caught on with the Green Bay Packers, paving the way for future Hurricanes Bubba Franks and Najeh Davenport and meeting Brett Favre in the process.
Where most stories would end, those of the greats take on new life. Thus began Benton’s fabled turn as an Arena Football League hero.
After unsuccessful tours in other professional leagues, the former Miami standout lent his name and considerable talents to the upstart arenafootball2, joining the expansion Florida Firecats in early 2001. The following year, Benton put Estero, Fla., on the map. He finished the 16-game regular season among the league leaders in several statistical categories and led the Firecats through an improbable playoff run that ended with a 65-47 loss to Peoria in ArenaCup III. Benton was, however, exposed to a national audience – the game was televised on the Vision Network.
His fourth year in the league was also a career pinnacle of sorts. Performing in front of crowds of up to 4,000 – impressive considering Estero’s population of 9,503 – Benton developed a special connection with quarterback and former Chicago Bear Ken Mastrole. The team rolled through the postseason as Benton grabbed 23 catches for 308 and six TDs en route to ArenaCup V. Benton again shined bright on the big stage as his Firecats avenged the AC III loss to Peoria with a grind-it-out 39-26 victory over the Pirates.
After an 8-week retirement during the 2008 season in which he helped coach the Florida Christian Institute football team, a 32-year-old Benton returned to the Firecats to reclaim both his team and his af2 receiving records, some of which had been challenged by league standout George Williams. Benton had no problems picking up where he’d left off. A three score performance in week 18 against rival Daytona propelled him back into the record books with 1,098 career points.
In 2009, Number Eight left the af2 how he entered it – on top. He led all receivers with 8 catches for 91 yards and two scores as the Firecats upset the Kentucky Horsemen 67-39 in what would be both Benton and his team’s final game. Just weeks later, the Firecats were denied postseason participation for colluding to form a new league. The af2 folded soon after.
This twist of fate opened a new door for Benton. Always one to jump at an opportunity, he rejoined his old quarterback as an instructor at the Mastrole Passing Academy and continues to coach up high school prospects to this day. In addition, the receiver’s signed collectibles have held up remarkably well over the years. Autographed 8x10s routinely fetch up to $23.99 on the secondary market.
All said and done, Benton finished his prestigious af2 playing career as the league’s all-time leader in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns (with 630, 8,293 and 178, respectively). To former teammates and fellow UM alums Toney Tella, Ethenic Sands and Jon Peattie, he is known by the moniker “Mr. Af2.” To everybody else, he’s known simply as “Magic.”