By Mike Mooneyham
July 31, 2005
Second of three parts
To current WWE sensation Shelton Benjamin, Ron Donlick has been a coach, role model, best friend and father figure, all rolled into one.
But it’s just part of the job for the longtime Mount Pleasant resident and new Berkeley High School wrestling coach. Most of the credit, he insists, goes to Benjamin.
“A lot of that is because of the kind of person he is. He’s a very humble, caring person. I think that comes through in everything he does.”
“I didn’t really do anything but give him good advice, and he’s one of the few who actually took it,” adds Donlick, who coached Benjamin during the early ’90s at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School. “You can lead a horse to water … but Shelton was smart enough to understand that all the moves that were set out for him were definitely in his best interest and things he could make the most of.”
Benjamin was a natural at sports. He began playing football in the eighth grade alongside future University of South Carolina standout Arturo Freeman, while budding stars such as cousin Woody Dantzler, Jackie Robinson and Devron Harper were coming through the O-W system a few years behind him. The 1994 All-State selection was good enough to be offered football scholarships from most of the top colleges in the country, but wrestling was where he set himself apart from the pack.
Benjamin claimed state prep championships as a heavyweight in both 1993 and 1994, and was a junior college national champion in track and wrestling at Lassen Community College in California in 1996. He was recruited by the University of Minnesota in 1998 and posted an impressive 36-6 record with 12 pins at the Big 10 school before taking an assistant coaching position there.While Donlick guided Benjamin’s every step to athletic success, it was in the other parts of his student’s life that he may have had the greatest impact. In Benjamin’s case, Donlick was just what the doctor ordered.
LONG WAY FROM ORANGEBURG
Benjamin achieved his lifelong dream of becoming a professional wrestler when he signed with WWE’s developmental program in Louisville, Ky., several years before making his pro debut in late 2002. Less than three years later, Benjamin is one of the most talented performers in the company.
Even though Benjamin maintains a grueling road schedule, the student and the coach still touch base at least once a week, and Donlick attends his matches whenever WWE is in the area. After the shows, says Donlick, they’ll go out for dinner, share laughs and talk about old times.
“I talk to him on a regular basis,” says Benjamin. “At no point since I left high school has there been a lack of communication between us.”
Donlick, 57, recalls the night several years ago when Benjamin called him and asked for advice concerning his career. He told Donlick that he might be asked to adopt a ring moniker that was related to violence.
“What kind of image would that portray?” the wrestler queried his coach. Furthermore, says Donlick, he was worried what kind of message that might send to kids. “That’s just the way Shelton is.”
Donlick chuckles when recalling WWE traveling to Orangeburg to film vignettes for a piece on the town’s new favorite son. The segment focused on Benjamin’s rugged past and how he overcame adversity to reach the highest level of his profession.
“Apparently their plane got held up and they came a little late. Had they come on time, they would have witnessed a shootout on campus involving about 10 kids. They had police blocking off all the exits and the entrances. I’m sure they would have loved to have gotten that on film. We literally dodged the bullet on that. They did the ‘Mean Streets’ piece, but they really didn’t get to see just how mean.”
Benjamin’s connection with Donlick keeps the young wrestler focused. So it was quite a turnaround when Donlick recently called Benjamin and asked for advice about his job change.
“Coach, you’ve got it backwards,” Benjamin told Donlick. “I’m supposed to be calling you for advice.”
While the 29-year-old Benjamin may be Donlick’s most visible success story, he was just one of the many youngsters Donlick groomed for better lives. It’s one of the main reasons the coach remained at the Orangeburg school for more than a decade despite living in Mount Pleasant.
“I just felt like the kids out there needed me. We did have a lot of success. I’ve got a couple of kids coming through college now who have made All-American. Shelton wasn’t the only one. It’s like a family.”
Benjamin has returned to Orangeburg several times over the past year. “He’s huge with the kids there,” says Donlick. Benjamin even chipped in last year at the wrestling team’s annual fireworks stand where the proceeds go toward sending kids to camp. “Shelton spent about a week with us there signing autographs for people and just hanging out.”
Donlick says Benjamin stays close to his roots.
“He loves the travel and everything about it. But he’s never forgotten where he came from and I doubt he ever will. The road was too hard to forget. It’s constantly in his focus.”
Donlick, who has coached in Orangeburg for most of the past 13 years, is taking over the head wrestling position at Berkeley High this season. He’s looking forward to the new challenge, and hopes to turn the program around and provide stability the way he’s done at other schools.
“It reminds me of Orangeburg in some ways with the type of athlete,” he says. “In my initial meetings with the kids, they all seem to be pretty well-mannered. (Athletic director) Jerry Brown has them on the right track. He instills values. I think I’m going to be happy there.”
Donlick is no stranger to Lowcountry athletic programs. He started out working at Burke High School in 1986 and coached football there. He later went to Middleton as wrestling coach and served in similar capacities at St. Andrews, Stratford and Wando. He was at Wando when he got the call to go to O-W in 1992.
Donlick also has been officiating the past two years in the USA Olympic program. “It’s a lot easier being a coach than an official,” he says, “but it gives me a perspective from their side of things. I think ultimately it will make me a better coach.”
He was named the Southeast Region’s Person of the Year in 2004 for USA Wrestling. He’s currently the chairman of the board of directors of USA Wrestling in South Carolina and director of coaching certification. He’s also vice president of the South Carolina High School Wrestling Coaches Association.
It’s more hats than he wants to wear, he says, but it keeps him busy and up to date.
“I’ve always kept my hand in wrestling some way. I’ve always loved the sport.”
The upstate New York native wrestled and coached collegiately at Ithaca during the late ’60s. The school won three national titles in a five-year period.
He was wrestling in 1991 when he won the state championship in the open division of the 198-pound weight class. “At a whole lot fewer pounds than I’m carrying now,” jokes Donlick, who was 42 at the time. The category was open to everyone – college wrestlers, Olympic wrestlers, coaches. “We had a much larger military presence back then, so it was a reasonably competitive division,” he adds.
Donlick also has great respect for those in the pro ranks.
“I take my hat off to those guys because it’s rough. There’s no two ways about it. These guys are really something special. It’s physically and mentally demanding. I think Brock Lesnar’s a good example. He just couldn’t take the travel day after day.”
Donlick, who has a master’s degree from Florida Atlantic, hopes to continue coaching and mentoring youngsters as long as his health holds up.
“I’ve got a wife who’s extremely supportive. She understands what I do and why. When I was coming up, there were people who helped me. When I got to a point where the money wasn’t a big concern to me, I decided I needed to give back.”
Protégé Benjamin already is predicting that Donlick’s arrival on the local scene as wrestling coach at Berkeley High will have a positive impact on the lives of those youngsters. He has a special message for the athletes who will be under Donlick’s charge.
“Ron is kind of a different individual, but he will never steer you wrong. Even at my high school, there was this ‘don’t trust whitey’ attitude. I didn’t have that attitude, but I know it exists. This is my message to the guys who will be under him. Ron Donlick is someone who is genuine. The care and everything he puts into it is all genuine. Don’t second-guess his desire to make sure that you are successful. I know, because he did it for my family. Me and my little brother were kind of different, but he stuck with my little brother, who was quite a handful. You can’t go wrong with Ron Donlick.”
NEXT SUNDAY: Shelton Benjamin describes how Ron Donlick helped change his life.
NEWS AND NOTES: A revised lineup for WWE’s Smackdown-brand house show Aug. 29 at the North Charleston Coliseum features Batista defending his world title against Eddie Guerrero. Also on the bill: Chris Benoit vs. Orlando Jordan for the U.S. title; Booker T vs. Christian; MNM vs. Road Warrior Animal and John Heidenreich for the WWE tag-team title; Steven Richards vs. Sylvan Grenier; Hardcore Holly vs. The Boogeyman; and Paul London, Scotty Too Hotty and Funaki vs. Juventud, Psicosis and Super Crazy … Chris Jericho signed a short-term contract extension with WWE last week.