Support of late best friend still sticks with Cobbers track star
Moorhead - Concordia senior Alex Benzegala has the date etched in his memory - May 17, 2006. That's the day he lost his best friend, Sam Stewart.
Stewart, at 14 years old, died that day after a battle with leukemia.
"That was the worst day of my life," said Benzegala, who was an eighth-grader at the time. "He meant a lot to me."
Nearly eight years later, Stewart still means a lot to Benzegala. Last Saturday after Benzegala ran the best 400 meters of his life, Stewart was in his thoughts soon after the race.
The team captain from Gig Harbor, Wash., crossed the finish line in 49.59 seconds, cracking the 50-second barrier for the first time in his track career.
That was a goal he set soon after Stewart died.
"I felt like he believed in me when I didn't believe in myself," Benzegala said of Stewart. "I never thought I could break 50 seconds."
Benzegala has the top men's 400 meters time in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference this season. That's also the fifth-fastest 400 time in Concordia history.
"You can't help but smile and be elated for him," said Concordia track coach Garrick Larson. "He's sure changed a lot since he's been here."
Benzegala has worked hard to refine his running form since his first year on the track team.
"His freshman year he looked like his limbs were flailing everywhere. He was a daddy longlegs on cappuccino," Larson said.
Benzegala became best friends with Stewart in fourth grade, at a time when Benzegala struggled to make friends.
He was a shy kid because of a speech impediment. Benzegala said he "stuttered every time" he spoke and often had kids make fun of him.
"Sam was sweet," said Carol Gutierrez, who is Benzegala's mom. "With Sam, Alex didn't have to pretend."
Stewart loved poetry and quotes, Benzegala said. One of Stewart's favorite sayings was: "Today, I'll be kind to every living creature." Benzegala said those words summed up Sam, who gave him the inspiration to dream big.
"After he died I wanted to make sure I pursued things that seemed impossible," Benzegala said.
In ninth grade, when he set the goal, running a sub-50-second 400 meters seemed impossible, he said. There was also a time he felt being a sportscaster was impossible because of his speech impediment. He took speech therapy from kindergarten through seventh grade, Gutierrez said. Benzegala wants to pursue a sportscasting career after he graduates from Concordia.
He has done play-by-play for a variety of athletic teams in his time at Concordia.
Graduating from college, Benzegala said, also seemed far-fetched at one point since he has a non-verbal learning disorder.
"I know I want to keep Sam's memory alive by chasing my dreams," said Benzegala, who also has one of the top times in the MIAC in the 200 meters this season.
Benzegala said Stewart's parents and brother are like his second family.
"The only thing I can do is kind of continue his legacy," Benzegala said. "I want Sam's spirit to always be within me in everything I do."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Eric Peterson at (701) 241-5513.
Peterson's blog can be found at peterson.areavoices.com