Super Memories; Grand Meadow alumni Duane Benson played in the big game

Published 7:50 am Friday, February 2, 2018

When one hears the name Duane Benson, several things come to mind. Some may think of Duane Benson, former director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. Others may think of State Senator Duane Benson, who served as the Minority Leader during part of his 14 years in the Minnesota Senate, while others know him as a Lanesboro resident who raises cattle and horses.

But football aficionados know him as linebacker Duane Benson of the 1967 AFL champion Oakland Raiders, who played for them during Super Bowl II 50 year ago.

It was a football story that began in Mower County, when a three year-old Benson moved with his family from Iowa to a farm between Grand Meadow and Elkton. As Benson grew up, he played football for the Grand Meadow High School Larks.

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“Back then, it was just the Larks, not the Superlarks,” he said, adding that having names like Larks and playing the Blooming Prairie Blossoms made for “tough times,” as other schools ridiculed the unintimidating names. “Our biggest rival was LeRoy. That game was usually played as the last game or near the end, when it meant everything. There were a lot of rivalries, but that was by far the biggest one.”

In high school, Benson changed positions several times, playing as quarterback, offensive and defensive end, and running back. Due to the school size, virtually every boy who could play football did.

After high school, Benson attended Hamline University, where he continued to play football.

After attending the pro football scouting compound in Houston, Texas, he was drafted to the Oakland Raiders in 1967.

“They were hoping I could gain a lot of weight and play center,’ he said. “In college I was an offensive lineman all four years that I played and I played every play as well as special teams. At defense, I was a defensive back. Part of it was because I could run and so, when the Raiders drafted me, they drafted me at three positions. They wanted me to gain weight and be a center, if not then tight end, and if that didn’t work then a linebacker, which I ended up being.”

On the first day of training in Oakland, Benson was the only linebacker who made it.

“(Oakland Raiders owner) Al Davis walks into the room and I’m sitting there by myself with the ball boy, and Davis said, ‘Where’s all the linebackers?’” he said. “The ball boy said, ‘Well, this guy did this, and this guy can’t, and this and this,’ so I was the only one there.”

On that same day, Benson met the linebacker coach, Austin native John Madden.

“John stood in the offensive huddle and he’d hear they’re going to run a dive play, so he’d say, ‘Play middle linebacker,’” he said. “Then they’re going to sweep to the right, ‘Play left linebacker.’ I must have made 150 tackles that day, and I could hardly walk. We had a reunion in Oakland last fall and John was there and he said, ‘You know I never apologized to you, but I darn near killed you.’ Then he said, ‘That’s why you made it,’ and I said, ‘I thought about that, too, John, and without your expense of me, you’d have never made it.’”

“I’m the only person who can say I was the first guy coached by John Madden in the pros,” he added.

The Raiders went on to win the AFL championship, earning them a ticket to Miami to face the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II on Jan. 14, 1968.

“(The Super Bowl) wasn’t the spectacle that it’s become, but it was considerable, even as the second one,” Benson said. “Everyday there would be a series of interviews with me. Not a lot of sports writers talk to you at Hamline, but there I got a lot of exposure and talked to a lot of people. My mother had no clue what football was, but she warmed up to this idea of the Super Bowl. To be from Grand Meadow, it was kind of special.”

Playing for the Raiders were Football Hall of Famers Jim Otto, Gene Upshaw, Fred Biletnikoff, Willie Brown and George Blanda. But one of the players Benson remembered the most was the late Dan Birdwell.

“He might be the toughest guy I’ve ever seen,” he said. “He was about 6’5”, 260 or 270 pounds; ugliest guy I’ve ever seen. The face bar rested on his nose. Before the start of the Super Bowl, a Catholic priest came in and said, ‘I’m going to lead you men in a prayer before the game.’ Here I am, a farm kid, all nervous, and he goes through this wonderful prayer about how thankful we should be, and then Birdwell gets up and says, ‘Let’s kill those (expletive deleted).’”

“I’m the only person who can say I was the first guy coached by John Madden in the pros.”
Duane Benson

Benson made the first tackle of the game when he brought down Green Bay’s Travis Williams, who was also making his rookie appearance in the Super Bowl. Green Bay, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr and coached by legend Vince Lombardi, went on to win the game 33-14.

“Playing Green Bay at that time was like playing your big brother; you knew you could win if you could figure out something,” Benson said. “We were a good team and I think if we could have played them 10 times, we’d probably beat them seven or eight times, but in that one shot deal, they were veteran players and I think that made quite a difference. Plus, you had the mystique of Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr. We became better, but it was a little early in the life of that franchise to be playing Green Bay.”

Benson played five seasons with the Raiders, two with the Atlanta Falcons and three with the Houston Oilers. He was set to return to the Raiders when a car accident fractured his skull and ended his career.

And now, 50 years later, Benson says the Super Bowl is a much bigger spectacle.

“I think that there used to be the Super Bowl game, and now it’s the Super Bowl month,” he said. “It goes on and on. It’s a constant celebration. And the biggest difference is the average ticket now is $9,000.”

Benson has his pick for this year’s Super Bowl, one that Vikings fans may not like.

“Contrary to what most people think, I believe the Eagles have a better than average chance because they’re a better team,” he said. “Al Davis once told me, ‘There’s seven guys on the field that win the game, and you’re not one of them. They’re your five interior linemen and your two guys that play corner on defense.’ Those five guys control if you want to pass and those other two guys permit you to blitz. If you look at that comparison, the Eagles stack up quite well. The Patriots are a great franchise and Belichick is without parallel as a coach, but if you look at all those Super Bowl victories, they’ve all been really close. What got them through is they did it before.”