When Hawks need it most, Benson makes big plays

Photo by Kevin Cook PG tight end Xavier Benson stiff arms a defender en route to a 30-yard TD reception Friday.

Joy pervades everything that Xavier Benson does, so it is fitting that he was the one to unleash it for Hawk nation.

In Pleasant Grove’s season of unparalleled achievement and unbelievable plays, one will always stick out in the memories of Hawk fans.

Xavier Benson

In the state championship game, thanks to an unyielding defense and opportunistic offense, Pleasant Grove seemed to be cruising with a 28-6 lead early in the fourth quarter.

That’s when the Mustangs reminded the 20,851 present — more from PG — why West Orange-Stark was the defending champion, winner of 40 straight. Quarterback Chaka Watson led his team downfield for two quick strikes to close it to 28-21 with 4:35 to play.

Pleasant Grove killed most of the time with an offense drive, keyed by a 29-yard completion from Ben Harmon to Benson, but the drive fizzled at the Mustangs 22 with less than 30 seconds to play.

On the next play, Benson lined up at defensive end. He immediately recognized what was coming, a pass in the flat to the wideout, a play the Mustangs had twice used for big gains.

“I saw it and I dropped back in coverage. When he threw it, I jumped the route,” said Benson, who on Tuesday signed a national letter of intent to play at Texas Tech. “I took it to the house.”

As Benson joyfully sprinted across the goal line with 15 seconds to play, any doubt about the identity of the 2017 Class 4A, DII Texas football champion left Cowboy Stadium.

Xavier Benson leads the team onto the field.

Pleasant Grove fans have grown accustomed to big plays from Benson, the son of Jacqueline and Byron Benson. Two months earlier, after the Hawks snatched control of the district with a close win on a chilly Friday night in Gilmer, they almost saw it snatched away in Pittsburg.

The Pirates were down 11, but driving in the fourth quarter when Benson dropped back in coverage and leaped high in the air to make a one-handed interception. His return took the ball to the Pirate 24.

Two plays later running back Bruce Garrett took a counter to the right, cut up inside the contain and sprinted to the goal line to put the game out of reach.

Benson was a star on both side of the ball for Pleasant Grove. He hauled in 20 passes for 526 yards – that’s 26.3 yards per catch – for five touchdowns.

On defense, he was in on 106 tackles, second highest on the team. He had seven sacks, seven tackles for loss, nine quarterback pressures, broke up eight passes and intercepted a pair.

Benson was the District 7-4A coaches’ unanimous pick for MVP.

In the locker room, on the sideline, and especially on the field, Benson set the tone for the Hawks, who played exceptionally hard but also played with a calm that never seemed to be rattled by adversity.

“Xavier is one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached.  He can do it all.  One college coach told me, ‘Xavier’s a freak and he will play on Sundays,’” Head coach Josh Gibson said. “He’s a playmaker on offense, defense, and special teams.  He’s played up on varsity since his 9th-grade year. We knew then we had something special with Xavier.

“No doubt, Xavier is a leader on this team.  He sets the tone in practice and at games.  I have so much belief in Xavier because of his work ethic.”

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A veteran journalist and educator, Bill Owney is a 1980 graduate of the University of Florida. Writing awards include APME honors for investigative reporting, the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Award for public service reporting and numerous awards for editorial, column and news writing. He served as publisher of the Atlanta Citizens Journal and Pittsburg Gazette when each paper won sweepstakes awards from the Texas Press and North and East Texas Press Associations. He spent 15 years as a public school teacher and is an adjunct professor of English at Texarkana College.