Without a doubt, Bené Benwikere feels the love returning to his San Jose State University college home as one of the Carolina Panthers football players preparing for Super Bowl 50, Sunday, February 7, at Levi’s Stadium in nearby Santa Clara.
A 2014 graduate majoring in sociology, Benwikere pursued a professional football career after earning first-team all-conference honors as a junior and a senior. He completed his Spartan career sharing the school record of 14 interceptions during the 2010 through 2013 season. The Los Angeles native was worthy of being selected as the 148th player overall in the 2014 National Football League draft by the Carolina Panthers based in Charlotte.
“It’s been heartwarming to see everybody and how much I’ve been welcomed with open arms and hugs. Just to see the positive spirit - everybody is so happy for me and the Panthers. From old professors, old advisors, coaches – everybody are Panthers fans because they know me,” says the second-year Panthers defensive back whose time back in San Jose was focused on team-related activities and functions. He appreciates all the social media outreach from fellow Spartans of all backgrounds and regrets not being able to stroll on the main campus since his Monday, February 1 arrival at SJSU’s South Campus.
“It’s pretty funny. It brings back memories. As much as it’s been the Panthers’ home, I know it’s comfortable to me. It’s not foreign. I’ve been around the stadium. I know the ins and outs and the city. So, it’s been a fun experience. It’s like a ‘welcome home’ for me,” says Benwikere about the South Campus transformation with Panthers banners and signs reinforcing the team’s path to Super Bowl 50. That includes the home team locker room in the Simpkins Stadium Center.
“My locker was on the first row. When I first came in (on Monday), I said, ‘this was my locker right here.’ I had the second locker from the (front) door. I think Stephen Hill, a receiver on IR (injured reserve), actually is using my locker,” says Benwikere who is spending at least three hours a day rehabilitating a season-ending leg injury. He will be on the Panthers sideline in jersey #25 on game day.
The Super Bowl experience can be a football player’s once-in-a-lifetime experience. Being in one next to one’s college campus is even more unique.
“A lot of my teammates wanted to know where to get food and things like that,” he said. Benwikere cited adjusting to three-hour time zone change, the increased media obligations and the disciplined schedule as part of the two weeks of preparation between the winning a conference championship and Super Bowl Sunday as differences between regular-season games and the game’s ultimate achievement. He credits the coaching staff with providing a structure and environment to be a Super Bowl champion.
“It’s fun; it’s really fun. It’s a great experience, but it also takes a lot of hard work. But that’s pretty much what it is to be on a Super Bowl team – a lot of hard work and fun while you’re doing it,” Benwikere said about the 2015 season. And, he hopes to top if off with his arms around the Lombardi Trophy awarded annually to the Super Bowl winner.
“Of course, it would be a nice big hug and not wanting to let it go.”