Tears, tributes and hugs awaited Buddy Bennett Saturday, Sept. 7, as he strolled onto the Plant City Dolphins’ youth football field at the Otis M. Andrews Sports Complex in Plant City for a celebration in his honor.
It was Buddy Bennett Appreciation Day, and the Dolphins football players, cheerleaders and coaches had plenty of reasons for recognizing Bennett.
The president of the Plant City Dolphins for 19 years, Bennett, 55, was touted for his dedication and tireless efforts on behalf of the league as well as his commitment to Plant City’s youth in general.
“He’s one of the most unselfish people I know,” said Dolphins board member Tate Whatley during a presentation in which the football field was officially dedicated in Bennett’s honor. “He’s out there strictly for the kids. He’s taught me so much about being a servant to others.”
For his part, Bennett said he was surprised and honored to have the fields dedicated in his name.
“I don’t know what to say,” said the overwhelmed Bennett, brushing a tear from his eye. “I’m just overwhelmed. The Dolphins are my family and this is where my heart is. It was a tremendous surprise, one I greatly appreciate.”
And, if Bennett has his way, he will continue being the biggest supporter of the 250-member youth football and cheerleading organization formed in 1975.
However, his future is uncertain. In February, Bennett was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer following a routine colonoscopy. He’s about to undergo his 12th chemotherapy treatment.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” said Bennett. “I’ve been very fortunate. I haven’t had a lot of the side effects from the chemotherapy, just a little fatigue.”
Throughout the treatments, Bennett has continued spending his Saturdays with the Dolphins.
“He not only is there to support the Dolphins but he also comes to baseball and soccer games to watch and support our kids,” said Dolphins board member Dawn Hutchinson.
“Watching him has taught me to appreciate life, live it to the fullest and tackle anything that comes your way,” said friend Cindy Griffin.
A Legacy of Leadership
Bennett well remembers the day he first stepped onto the field now named in his honor.
In 1984, his now-grown daughter, Ericka Winslow, wanted to be a cheerleader for the Dolphins so, as a dutiful father, Bennett began attending practices and games to support her interest. Before long, his younger daughter, Kimberly Drawdy, joined the Dolphins as a cheerleader and Bennett found himself spending all of his free time at the fields, helping to prepare them for games and then cheering the youth on.
In 1999, when the Dolphins needed a president, Bennett stepped up to volunteer even though his daughters were no longer part of the organization.
“It’s all about the kids,” said Bennett. “The Dolphins have been instrumental in helping kids learn teamwork and leadership skills for three generations, and we plan to be there for generations to come.”
“The Dolphins organization is a family, and Buddy is the centerpiece,” said field director Eric Lawson. “He became a father figure to all these kids, but especially those who had no father in their lives.”
“Dad’s the type of person who will be there for you through the good and the bad,” said Winslow. “He taught me my strong work ethic and to do whatever I do to the best of my ability. And he brought that same philosophy to the Dolphins players.”
“The Dolphins are his life. He loves this organization,” added Drawdy. “Out of the 19 years he’s been president, he didn’t even have kids in the Dolphins for 10 of those years. As far as he was concerned, all of the kids are his.”
“I’ve known him since I was 6 years old,” said former Dolphins board member Rusty Judah, now a referee for the Tri-County Youth Football and Cheerleading Conference. “He just never says ‘no.’ He’s got a heart of gold.”
Plant City Council member Mike Sparkman was on hand at the event to unveil the sign proclaiming the football field “Buddy Bennett Field.” Sparkman said he was contacted by the Dolphins board last year while he was serving as mayor of Plant City, and he enthusiastically endorsed renaming the field in Bennett’s honor.
However, there was one problem. The field already was named in honor of David Rodgers. On June 14, 1987, just weeks after graduating from Plant City High School, the 17-year-old Rodgers was playing basketball with some friends. He went to make a shot and fell, hitting his head on the concrete court. He was pronounced dead two days later.
Rodgers played soccer as a youth at the Otis M. Andrews Sports Complex, so, in 1988, the city council named the field in his honor.
When he was approached about dedicating the field in Bennett’s honor, Sparkman said he promptly contacted Rodgers’ family who agreed to rename a soccer field at the complex in Rodgers’ honor so the football field. Plaques will be installed at both fields explaining the reason for the dedication, said Sparkman.
After years of having no other family members in the Dolphins organization, Bennett’s 10-year-old grandson, Colton, now plays football for the Dolphins and his 4-year-old granddaughter cheers for the organization. Bennett also has two other grandsons, ages 6 and 2, who are anxious to play football.
“And I plan to be here for them when they start playing,” said Bennett.