Shane Bennett doesn’t believe he’s where he needs to be on the wrestling mat.
He’s not competing at full strength and he’s nowhere near the conditioning level he was at when he took second place at the NAIA national tournament as a redshirt freshman.
Still, the 21-year-old Dickinson State University fourth-year sophomore takes comfort knowing there was a time — not that long ago — when those close to him didn’t know if he would live to see the next day.
As a redshirt freshman in March 2007, Bennett came within one point of upsetting Jake Dieffenback of Lindenwood University, the NAIA’s defending national champion at 165 pounds, in the national title match.
Less than four months later, on a gravel road in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Bennett’s life changed in a matter of seconds. Bennett can’t say for certain what happened to him the night of June 28, 2007. He doesn’t remember. He knows what the South Dakota Highway Patrol says and he’s heard similar accounts from friends and family. All Bennett knows for sure is what happened is something he will regret for the rest of his life. “You don’t realize how bad you screw up, or how stupid you’re being until afterwards,” Bennett said.
Bennett remembers arriving home in Belle Fourche, S.D., so he could help coach at a wrestling camp in Whitewood, S.D.
His next memory is fuzzy at best.
All he remembers is it was five days later and he was at Rapid City (S.D) Regional Hospital, his body packed in ice while he breathed with the help of a respirator.
Bennett had been in a coma for more than four days after rolling his 1995 Ford F-150 pick-up truck while driving down a gravel road near Iron Creek Lake and Campground outside of Spearfish, S.D.
When he was in the coma, doctors told his parents, Lester and Robin Bennett, that their son had about a 40 percent chance to survive.
Bennett, then 20 years old, had been with friends at the lake, and had been drinking.
When taken at the hospital, his blood-alcohol content was above the legal limit. He had been speeding and not wearing a seat belt when, according to the SDHP, his truck fishtailed and flipped end-over-end, sending Bennett out the back window and into the box. When the truck flipped again, Bennett was thrown out of the box onto the road. His two passengers, both wearing their seatbelts, walked away unharmed. Bennett broke his jaw and cracked the scapula in his left shoulder. He also suffered internal bleeding and had fluid in his lungs.
Schlecht and Bennett spent the day of the accident helping Justin Schlecht, Stanton’s older brother and a national champion at DSU, run the kids camp in Whitewood.
They went their separate ways that night. The next time Stanton Schlecht saw his friend and teammate, he was unconscious in a hospital bed.
“When the accident first occurred, I didn’t know what to think,” Schlecht said. “It was a real bad deal. I sat there and visited with (DSU) coach (Thadd O’Donnell). I didn’t know how he was going to turn out.”
After Bennett awoke from his coma, Schlecht was there for one of the few positive memories his friend has from his time in the hospital.
Unable to speak because of his broken jaw, Bennett attempted to mouth words. Yet no one in the hospital room understood what he was doing — except Schlecht, who pulled a pen out of his pocket and handed it to Bennett. Without a piece of paper, Bennett proceeded to write his thoughts on his leg.
“I don’t think the nurses were too happy with me when I did that,” Schlecht said with a laugh.
Not long after, Bennett was released from the intensive care unit and transferred to the hospital’s cancer ward because of lack of regular rooms.
There, Bennett inched toward recovery when he took his first steps out of bed.
“I was kind of blind to the fact of how hurt I was,” Bennett said. “It didn’t take me long, less than what my doctors and family would recommend. I got up right away. I was getting up in the hospital when I wasn’t supposed to.”
Two months later, Bennett was back at DSU. Unable to wrestle, he spent much of his time outside of class in the rehab room with DSU trainers Tim Kreidt and Jessie Binstock.
Nerve damage made Bennett’s left arm useless. He spent the fall semester using only his right arm.
“You ever try to tie your shoes with one arm?” Bennett said with a laugh.
Bennett began rehab by first trying to imagine lifting something. Eventually he was able to lift light weights.
It wasn’t until semester break, around Christmas, when he had a breakthrough.
“All of a sudden I saw a change in him,” Robin Bennett said. “The muscle mass changed and I saw that sparkle in his eye again and I just knew he would be back.”
By the end of the spring semester, Bennett was feeling well enough to step back into the wrestling room.
“When you go through something like that, you’ve got to find something to push yourself to get better, to rehabilitate yourself,” Bennett said. “Wrestling was the main thing that pushed me through because it’s one of the main reasons I went to college.”
Bennett returned to the mat on Nov. 15 at the Dakota Wesleyan Classic in Mitchell, S.D.
In the stands, Robin Bennett held her breathe as her son stepped into the circle to face William Penn (Iowa) freshman Christopher Diaz.
“It was really scary,” Robin Bennett said. “Mitchell was the first time I’d seen him on the mat since the accident I was pretty nervous to say the least.”
First-match frustration set in more times than Shane Bennett would care to mention. Nonetheless, he walked away with a 9-1 major decision and, three matches later, he won the tournament’s 174 pound title with an 11-5 decision against Buena Vista (Iowa) senior Kody Koster.
By the end of the tournament, Robin Bennett was emotionally as worn out as her son was physically.
“To see him on the mat again, from the hospital bed, was really nothing short of a miracle,” Robin Bennett said.
Miracle or not, Bennett has made a believer out of his coach, who took a cautiously optimistic approach as the wrestler found his way back to the mat.
When Bennett decided to become a part-time student for the 2007-08 school year to save a year of wrestling eligibility, O’Donnell stood behind him.
“We didn’t ask him to do it, this is something he wanted to do,” O’Donnell said. “That really shows the commitment he’s making to make it back to where he was.”
Then when Bennett won the Dakota Wesleyan Classic, the coach downplayed the win.
Bennett didn’t stay below the NAIA’s wrestling radar long.
Going into the spring semester, he is the fourthranked 174-pounder in the NAIA and has helped the Blue Hawks to the No. 4 spot in the coaches poll.
Bennett had the team’s only victory the day it lost duels to North Dakota State and Iowa State. He took a 5-1 decision against NDSU sophomore Trent Sovde.
His goals for the rest of the season aren’t small either.
Bennett doesn’t just want to return to the NAIA national finals in Oklahoma City next March, he wants to leave there a national champion.
“I can’t place lower than I did last time,” Bennett said. “If I get back to where I was, then I’ll be fine at nationals.”
Whether or not Bennett can become a champion, he is etching a place in DSU’s athletic annals as one of the greatest comeback stories in the school’s history.
Still, Bennett can’t help but take a humble approach to his return.
For him, it’s a second chance to live life to its fullest.
“It makes you appreciate a lot of things and think twice about your actions and makes you appreciate what you have when you go through something like that,” Bennett said.