3 ATHLETES, 3 TOWNS, SAME TERRIBLE FATE

Last in Mitch Albom’s Dreams Deferred 2001 series on challenges for Michigan athletes and their families.

Their son played football. Mom sat in the stands. She wore a team jersey and waved a “K” for Kearsley High. Dad worked the sideline, carrying the yardage chains so he could be closer to his boy.

“Eric played offensive line,” Terry Bennett explains. “You had to be close to even see him.”

There was this one day, the last game of an undefeated season, when Eric led the way on a two-point conversion, and he knocked down two guys and his team scored and Eric leapt into his father’s arms.

And there was this other day, later, in college, when Eric, by then a star lineman for Ferris State, collected his diploma as his parents cheered him.

And there was another day, a few years later, when Eric, by now a successful vice president for a consulting group, called his mother, Betty, back in Flint and said, “Guess where I’m calling from?”

And she joked, “Lord only knows.”

And Eric said, “I’m sitting on my new deck, on my brownstone in Brooklyn, drinking a beer and looking over the water. It suuuure is a pretty sight.”

They were family people with family hearts, and they had no desire to be part of the Story of the Year. But then the phone rang on the morning of Sept. 11. Someone asked Betty Bennett, “Where’s Eric?” and she said: “In his office in New York. Why?” And the voice said what a million voices were saying at the same time in that same nightmare.

“A plane just hit the World Trade Center.”

There was no owner’s manual for what came next. No Dr. Spock book for the parents of the football player. Terry came racing home from his job at a General Motors plant, and halfway there, the radio broadcast the news of the second tower and he pulled off the road and began to cry.

Betty kept dialing Eric’s cell phone. Call me. Call me. She watched the towers collapse, and her head told her nobody survives that. But her heart, a mother’s heart, kept saying: “He’s in great shape. He’s an athlete. If he made it to those stairs, he could get down, right?”

Eric Bennett, 29, worked on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower. He had gone to the Yankees game the night before. He loved his life in the busiest of cities, which suited his gregarious personality. A coworker once joked that you never got anywhere on time with Eric because everyone on the streets of New York seemed to know him.

But when Betty and Terry Bennett finally drove into the gray smoke of Manhattan, three days after the worst terrorist attack in history, they could find no one to tell them what happened to their son.

There was no body.

All those people who knew Eric could only weep.

In Traverse City . . .

John Gerhardt is bald now, wears glasses and is just shy of his 60th birthday. He has spent half his life as a small-town high school baseball coach in Traverse City, a couple of hundred miles and a galaxy away from the Bennett family in Flint. John’s son, David, played baseball, too, a catcher.

One day, when David was in ninth grade, John saw him catching a certain pitcher, a tall, lanky kid with a wickedly live arm and the smoothest delivery he had ever seen.

The kid’s name was Brock Safronoff.

“You just knew he was going to be great,” John Gerhardt says. “There was none of that herky-jerky motion that a lot of kids have. He threw fastballs. Then we taught him change-ups. And then he got a slider. Hitters couldn’t handle him.”

Gerhardt pauses. “Besides all that, he was brilliant.”

That he was. Safronoff, a quiet, unpretentious type, was such a good athlete and student that after three years of starring on the mound — helping the Trojans to a 33-7 record his junior year — and after whizzing through his academics the way he whizzed through an indecisive batter, he had his pick of colleges.

With Gerhardt’s help, he chose Amherst in Massachusetts, a top-notch school where he soon led the baseball team in earned run average and where the coach later boasted, “All my players are valedictorians.”

That was a few years ago. Gerhardt hadn’t seen Safronoff since, but he always considered him a shining light in his graduation sky. That’s a high school coach’s legacy, isn’t it? Following the exploits of his former players as they make their way in the world?

John Gerhardt had no desire to be part of the Story of the Year. But on Sept. 11, he, too, got a call to turn on the TV set. And Flint and Traverse City had something in common:

Hundreds of miles away, in a New York City skyscraper that employed more people than Gerhardt’s entire town, another high school hero was rumored to have been extinguished.

Brock Safronoff was among the missing.

“You’re shocked, you’re hurt, you’re depressed,” Gerhardt says. “His mother works in our school. His family still lives here. The whole town was just stunned.”

Brock Safronoff, 26, worked for Marsh and McClennan as a computer analyst on the 96th floor of the north tower, just six floors below Eric Bennett. Brock loved baseball, he loved Pearl Jam, he loved chemistry, he loved computers. But more than anything else, it is said, he loved a girl he met his freshman year at Amherst.

Her name was Tara. She used to come watch Brock pitch. He courted her for seven years and finally married her.

Their wedding was Aug. 3.

He got 39 days as a husband.

“It’s not right,” Gerhardt says, sighing.

The coach of the baseball player, like the parents of the football player, can make no sense of this, none whatsoever.

In Marquette . . .

You keep going north, beyond Traverse City, beyond Mackinac Island, west through the snows of the Upper Peninsula, and on the banks of Lake Superior you find Marquette and Northern Michigan University.

There, 20 years ago, two freshmen joined the basketball team. One, a 5-foot-11 point guard named Troy Mattson, had shaggy hair and a mustache. The other, a beefy 6-foot-5 forward named Kip Taylor, was a clean-shaven Army brat.

The point guard and the forward did everything together. They roomed together. They ate together. Their first game as starters, they were still enduring freshman hazing, which meant carrying a huge trunk containing uniforms and equipment.

“Some respect for starters,” Troy said, and Kip laughed.

They became stars together, made the NCAA Division II tournament twice and co-captained the team as seniors. Troy and Kip. Friends. Roommates. Every now and then, Kip, whose father was an Army officer and who was deep into ROTC himself, would put on his green uniform and try to convince Troy to sign up.

It didn’t work.

After graduation, Kip went to West Germany, while Troy stayed in Marquette, coaching basketball. They kept in touch. They visited. The years passed. Not too long ago, Kip went back to Marquette and found Troy in the gym, and they shot around, like old times.

Kip Taylor, 38, a lieutenant colonel, worked at the Pentagon as an aide to a general. On the morning of Sept. 11, soon after two planes flew into the World Trade Center, another one hit the Pentagon.

And Marquette had something in common with Traverse City and Flint.

“I was scared to death,” Troy recalls. “I didn’t want to know. I waited a few days, then I finally called his house. His wife’s father answered, and I said,
‘May I speak to Kip?’

“And he said, ‘Kip hasn’t been found yet.’ “

Troy Mattson never wanted to be part of the Story of the Year. But it found him up there anyhow, just as it found John Gerhardt and Betty and Terry Bennett.

And Troy cried, as they did, and he went to a ceremony at the old sports venue, as they did, and he heard prayers from students, as they did, and he wept at “God Bless America,” as they did, and he grieved because there was so little to bury, as they did, and he asked “Why?” over and over, as they do every day.

And, to complete the pattern, he, too, found an awful postscript, like the now-empty brownstone Eric had just renovated, or the 39-day marriage that Brock barely experienced.

Kip Taylor and his wife, Nancy, were expecting their second child, a boy, Luke.

He was born without a father.

“It’s unimaginable,” Troy whispers.

But it’s real. The parents of the football player, the coach of the baseball player, the teammate of the basketball player, miles apart yet beside each other in grief and horror and mourning. It is that way for this state. It is that way for this country.

It will be that way for some time to come.

The Story of the Year is simple: Nobody wanted to be part of the Story of the Year. And everybody was.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Hear “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). To read the first two parts of the Dreams Deferred series, go to the link on www.freep.com.

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