Bill Little commentary: The cornerstone -- A story of Bennie Wylie
May 6, 2011
Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles on the new coaches for the Texas Longhorns football team.
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
It is not without irony that any discussion of the phrase "it takes a village to raise a child" seems to place its origins either as an African proverb, or a historical root of Native American tribes. Either way, Bennie Wylie is good with it.
That is the way life was for Wylie when he was growing up in Mexia, Texas--a town of 6,500 in an area of farms and folks located at the base of the Great Plains, 45 miles east of Waco and 85 miles south of Dallas. Settled in the 1800s, it was once the home of settlers, buffalo herds, and Plains Indians.
And in his eyes--and those of hundreds of kids who grew up in the local elementary school--the most important man they ever met was not measured by stature in the community or great wealth. He was measured by his wisdom, and his heart. He was the elementary school janitor, Bennie Wylie Sr.
"I guess my life started by just watching my father, who passed away five years now," says Bennie Wylie, the new Strength and Conditioning Head Coach for Football for the Texas Longhorns. "Just to watch how hard he worked and didn't complain. He grew up watching whole generations as they went through school. He helped every kid in my town. He taught them how to tie their shoes and wiped their eyes when they cried. Every little kid knew Mr. Wylie."
Bennie Wylie may have grown up with a dad who worked extra jobs after the school closed just to make ends meet, but he grew rich in spirit. And he learned a work ethic that burns deeply within him today.
"Dad would spend all day at the school, and then after work he would go mow yards. He'd do all this stuff to help us. Then we would throw hay, and we had a friend who would let us prune their trees. Dad worked to get us to where we could, not have nice things, but just so we could eat," Bennie says.
At the same time, his mom worked just as hard, rearing Bennie and his brother and sister and taking odd jobs in home health care after Bennie, the youngest child, was in school.
"I didn't really know it then, but as you look back, you realize all the things they had to give up just to make sure we were okay," he says.
The one family vacation he remembers taking was the 85 mile trek to Dallas when he was seven years old to see his grandfather.
But while all of that may seem dire, it would be the village who would raise the child.
His third grade teacher, Sheila Phillips, told him, "Bennie, be well rounded. Be good at a lot of things." And so he was.
The first time he left the state of Texas was when he was 15. He was a member of a Texas all-state church choir that traveled to Disneyworld in Florida. The third grade teacher's advice was taking: he excelled in education and music as well as sports. Playing both the trumpet and the tuba, he was the band captain in high school, as well as the football team captain. He was an Eagle Scout and was on the student council in high school.
The modern day example of a Renaissance Man, he did everything well, and had a wide circle of friends.
"I was never just a jock, and I was never just a nerd. I was just 'Bennie'. To everybody," he says.
The commitment he carries into the Longhorn football strength and conditioning program came from a variety of disciplines.
"I guess I learned discipline from a lot of people. It was kind of like a village that raised our kids in our town. My parents helped raise our friends. I was raised by my friends parents, by my pastor, by my youth minister, by my scout master, by my head coach. Everybody had a part of the discipline. Everywhere I went, everybody expected a certain thing, and you had to live up to all of these different people. My scout master expected me to make Eagle, and I was the first African-American that made Eagle Scout in my whole area. He made sure I did that. I had a pretty decent voice then, and my youth minister made sure that I wasn't just going through the motions and riding through...he wanted me to be the best. My band director wanted to make sure I wasn't just second chair because he knew I could be first chair. I got pushed by everybody in our life."
And the ripples of the message carried far beyond the small town.
"I have two best friends that I call brothers who were Navy SEALS. Their discipline, their work, and that of all of our men and women in the military inspire me. They do what they do so that we can do what we do here," he said.
It is that kind of commitment, that kind of discipline, that leads Wylie to the task he now faces: helping the Longhorn football team rebound from a disappointing season.
"People often ask, 'Are kids different today?'" says Wylie, who at 34 is part of the new young staff for Mack Brown's University of Texas football team. "There are different stimuli than when I was growing up, but kids are kids. They are a product of their environment. If we let them watch all the TV in the world, then they are influenced by that. If we don't discipline them, then they get away with that. Our student-athletes here are incredible, because we expect a lot. We demand that they go to class, we demand that they are good citizens outside of here, and so they do it. In a way, it's weird that we are a great program and have very few issues, but that's what we demand of our team. Kids will give you what you ask of them. If you don't ask very much, then they won't give you very much."
In his years with the Dallas Cowboys, at Texas Tech and at Tennessee, Wylie gained a national reputation for his own conditioning. But he says it isn't the body that makes the difference--it's all in your head.
"I am intrigued by the mind," he says. "The body is just a machine. It will do some amazing things, but the brain--the soul, the spirit--drives the machine. And that is my edge. That's my strength. I have a strong mind, and I will make my body do things it probably should not do any more...that it can't do. And hopefully, that's what I can pass on to the team--that your body will do what your mind tells it to do."
Having worked with superior professional athletes such as Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson, Wylie understands the drive it takes to excel.
"We've all seen great athletes with great talent that do nothing with it. So to me, that mental edge is the difference. There is a little man in your head and he can talk you into, and out of, a lot of things. So are you going to listen to that little guy when he tells you to stay in bed? It's early, and you don't have to get up. Or the little guy tells you this is too heavy. Don't lift this...you have a little ache here...don't finish through the line, just pull up. We all hear that little voice, and to me, that's what makes the human being incredible, because that little guy in your head runs the whole thing. You have to conquer him."
Wylie, a former tailback at Sam Houston State is married to a great wife, with twin sons. He says the strength and conditioning room is like a microcosm of life --"truth and reality and production."
"You can tell me that you are going to bench press 400 pounds, but you have to show me. This room is humbling. It's about working, and it's about getting better."
While NCAA rules prohibit Mack Brown and his football coaching assistants from working with the players in the summer, they do allow the strength and conditioning coach and the trainers to be present for volunteer workouts. But Wylie would be the first to say that while the summer workouts are "Bennie's time," that's a long way from it becoming "Bennie's team."
"If we are a coach-driven team, we are not going to be very good. This is a player-driven team, and it needs to be that way. Coach Brown gives me the honor of giving me his team to train and take care of. It's like your Dad gives you the keys to the Porsche. You can drive it, but you better not scratch it or wreck it. It's great that you get to drive a Porsche, but you are really excited when you get to hand him the Porsche back and there's not a scratch on it. It's in perfect condition, just like he gave it to you. It's a huge responsibility for him to trust this football team with not just me, but our entire strength and conditioning staff. There are a lot of guys and girls that work down here that push this team. They are here at five in the morning, and they stay late just like I do."
So what does the summer look like for the Longhorns of 2011?
"I hope they don't like me most of the summer, because I am going to challenge them, I am going to push them to the edge, trying to get them outside their comfort zone. We are going to put them in situations where we feel we are going to get into at some point in the season, so we can learn how to work through those things and learn how to react to them and respond the right way. It will be tough. We are going to work hard, because when you have pain and a little bit of suffering and you do that together, it forms this football team."
In a conversation during the spring with new co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, a brainstorming session turned into a philosophy and a season's theme of "brick by brick."
"When you build up a building, you have to have that foundation, and I think this program will always have that solid foundation. Our building got shaken a little last year. So instead of Coach Brown saying this is panic mode, he's saying 'let's build this thing up, one brick at a time.' And that's what we have been doing since we've started. You have to know that it is going to be a process. You can't just jump to the roof. We have to lay each brick, train hard, take care of our bodies, be smart with all of our school work. We have got to put all of these things together or we are not going to have that end product that we wanted," Wylie said.
As a dad, his goals for his children are simple.
"I want them to have a better life than I did, but I want them to go through life and have some hard times, because that's what made me who I am. I don't want them to go through life and have a fluffy, carefree ride. I want them to have the things they need to deal with and work through just to make sure they are tough. I will try to provide more for them than I had. I want them to be good citizens. I don't care if they are good in sports. We don't push them into anything. If they are good, we'll support them, as my parents supported me. They taught me to never quit anything. If I was in it, I was in it," he says.
While the players marvel at his determination and endurance to run and work out with them as if he were 15 years younger, Wylie still sees himself as the teacher and friend who guides them on their way.
"I am just a blue collar kid from the country," he says. "I am just going to do my part and push our team from the back, and let our players drive the team. When you bring energy and excitement and you are willing to work hard, only good things are in store for us."
It is his role, and his legacy. Part of the village, grown from the roots of a humble man who never considered what he did; but lived and thrived, on who he was.