Getting the better end of the deal

When I was a young dude, I knew a fella by the name of Ashley Benefield. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of Ashley, and I’m not sure what brought him to mind. But sometime this week I started thinking about him and the time he spent in my life.

Ashley was in his 20s when I first came to know him. I was a 10th grader upon our initial meeting, and the first words he spoke to me weren’t exactly friendly. He was at an August football practice, watching the pieces placed of what would become that fall’s football team in Haynesville. This is (or at least was) a common practice in that small Claiborne Parish town on the Louisiana- Arkansas border – townsfolk coming to watch Red’s boys get ready for their next foe.

It was a particularly hot August. If the latter part of summer is known as the Dog Days, then that year’s final few weeks could only have been known as the Great Dane Days of summer.

I was young, 14 or 15 or something like that, and I didn’t know what I was doing out there. I made mistakes, lots of them, and the person I heard from the most about those mistakes was Ashley. That first comment came when I lined up on a scout play. I jumped offside, and during a water break Ashley was just close enough to tell me I was going to be another “Joe Smith.” 

He didn’t actually use the name “Joe Smith.” I’m changing the name of the person he actually referred to in an effort to protect the innocent, like an old Dragnet episode. I didn’t know who Joe Smith was, but apparently Joe Smith was someone who Ashley held in low esteem. 

After practice, I asked one of the team’s older players about Joe Smith and, moreover, about the guy rudely calling me Joe Smith.

I learned that Joe was a player from a 1980s Haynesville team who jumped offside late in a game against Springhill. As memory serves, the penalty occurred on a Lumberjack field goal attempt. The kick sailed wide, but the infraction gave another chance to the Webster Parish rival. The second kick was true. Springhill won. Haynesville lost. And apparently the Tors didn’t make the playoffs or some such similar devastating tragedy. Losing football games is a big deal in Haynesville. This remains true even today.

“And who is that guy?” I asked, gesturing to Ashley, who was now mingling with some of the senior football players and making all of them laugh along with him.

“You don’t know Ashley?” I shook my head.

“Well, he’s the Superfan.”

In the two years that followed that first interaction, Ashley and I became friends. I learned that Ashley’s greatest love in life was that of Haynesville football. It consumed him, brought him to practice, brought him to pep rallies, brought him to team events. He was welcomed, and he was loved. Now that’s not to say Ashley couldn’t be a little unnerving. He was literally the most intense person I have ever met, and his intensity knew no bounds. He would talk to some of the coaches about strategy, asking questions, offering suggestions. For the most part, everyone was kind to him despite his large personality.

His was a personality and a heart that were bigger than his slight frame. Ashley was thought of as the Superfan, but he didn’t look super. He was a rail, probably weighed 90 pounds. But what made him superb wasn’t on the outside but rather within. You see, Ashley was ill, terminally. He was born with Cystic Fibrosis, and each breath he took was a struggle.

He had long outlived his life expectancy, and he knew there was little time for him. His conditioned worsened with every turn of the calendar, and by the time I had reached senior year, Ashley reached his end. The last time I saw him was in a Shreveport hospital bed, a ventilator was keeping his lungs working. I don’t know if he knew I was there. I squeezed his hand and took my leave. I cried, cried in front of teammates, losing all pretense of macho high school bravado. A few hours later, we learned that Ashley had passed. The clichéd phrase would be gone on to that great football field in the sky.

The night before Ashley’s passing, we played Springhill in the opening game of the season. We lost. I didn’t jump offside. I never jumped offside, thankful that I could never be thought of in such ill repute as old Joe Smith.

Ashley’s funeral was held in the auditorium of the high school. I was honored to be a pallbearer along with the football coaches. A few nights later, fueled by thoughts of Ashley and a few motivational words by some of us, the Tors went out and slapped around Minden. The Tide was the first of many wins for us that year on the way to New Orleans.

I’m not sure why I thought about Ashley this week. It’s been a while since he’s crossed my mind. Time hasn’t been kind to my memory, and the harder I try to remember his face the foggier the image becomes. But one thing I do remember is that voice, that laugh and unfortunately that ever-present cough. The memories I do have of him are of kind and happy times. Even those last hours in the hospital and the services that followed aren’t reflections of sorrow.

Ashley died young, but he loved the time he was given. He loved other people, and he made better the lives of those who knew him. He lived a full life, and he never had to leave that small little town in North Louisiana to do it. He never needed anything more than a football team and the town that loved it. That town loved him.

Time’s gone by, folks have moved on, and so has the world. I’m not certain if they still talk about Ashley in Haynesville. I’d like to think he’s still mentioned from time to time, stories told about him, memories of road trips to West Monroe and Evangel, games against rivals Homer, Springhill and Minden. Happy days.

Maybe a player is still called “Joe Smith” when he jumps offside. You could be called worse things, I guess.

And you can be called better things.

You can be called “Superfan.” But one of the best things you can be called is “friend.”

Ashley Benefield was my friend.

More importantly, I was his friend.

I think I got the better of the deal.

(Josh Beavers is a teacher and a writer. He has been recognized five times by the Louisiana Press Association for excellence in opinion writing.)