FAIRFIELD >> Friday evening as the Fairfield Warde girls’ basketball team warmed up before facing Staples, John Bensey sat on the Warde bench and watched. Seated right next to head coach Dave Danko, Bensey sported a buttoned up shirt, tie and a black Mustangs hat he’s had for more than a decade.
A few minutes later the buzzer sounded and the lineups were announced. When it came time for Warde, Bensey’s name was read allowed as one of the coaches. That’s one of his favorite parts.
Bensey has learning and motoric challenges. But for the past 25 years he’s found a positive and stable outlet in the Fairfield sports community.
“Johnny I consider a legend here,” Fairfield Warde girls’ basketball coach Dave Danko said. “He goes way back.”
Bensey’s story is centralized around Fairfield and sports.
Just call him Johnny Fairfield.
Right now you can find 44-year old Bensey on the sidelines with the Warde girls’ basketball team coaching. He’s been a key piece in the Mustangs 10-1 start to the season.
But as much as they’ve helped Bensey, Bensey has impacted them much more than he realizes.
“Johnny is valuable because he put everything in perspective,” Danko said. “We care winning and everything, but he has a true sense of meaning to these kids.”
A HOME AT FAIRFIELD
“When you first meet someone younger, sometimes it’s difficult to project their potential,” Mike Abraham said. “And I always had a sense John had a good sense of things and was able to learn a little higher.”
Bensey’s first introduction into the sports scene in Fairfield came from Abraham. Abraham is the Coordinator of Adapted Physical Education. Abraham met Bensey at a young age (four-six years old). Abraham works with the physical and occupational therapists and also runs an integrated aquatics program in the Fairfield public schools.
“He was always very active; he had a great personality,” Abraham said. “He likes to be around people.”
Bensey attended Fairfield Woods Middle and then went to Roger Ludlowe High. When the schools consolidated, he finished off his years at Fairfield High, graduating in 1991. It was during those years where his passion for sports and people started to blossom into something special.
Under the guidance of Abraham, who was the boys basketball coach at Andrew Warde from 1981-86, Bensey was invited to help out with the team as a student manager. It wasn’t a glamorous job, getting the balls out of the closet and small chores to begin with. But Bensey was involved. And he loved that.
“John has a tremendous sense of humor,” Abraham said. “My assistant coach at the time Glenn Mackno, we had a lot of fun and John always jumped into the humor and activity.”
In 1991 when Abraham and his brother Dave took over the girls program at Fairfield High, they brought Bensey along.
That’s when Bensey’s relationship with the clock started.
Bensey’s first introduction to the clock was from the Abraham’s. They noticed Bensey could handle more responsibility, so he became in charge of running the clock at practices for drills and such. Since then, it’s become his mainstay.
“The first thing they did was to enlist John and teach him how to run the scoreboard for practices,” said Gus Lindine, who was the athletic director at Fairfield from 1990 until 2001. “He has been a fixture on the sidelines at sporting events ever since.”
Bensey now runs the clock at practices, and freshman and junior varsity games.
During the varsity games he sits up with the coaches.
“He helps out with the clock and makes sure Danko doesn’t go overboard,” senior Kaitlin McKenna said with a laugh. “He makes sure Danko stays within his time limit, which is always helpful to us.”
A PASSION FOR SPORTS AND PEOPLE
“Basketball,” Bensey said with a giant grin.
Basketball is Bensey’s favorite. But his affection for sports extends off the court. Bensey helps in just about every season, but his main commitments include Warde girls’ soccer and baseball. He spends his summers with the Fairfield National Little League program running the innings. He also competes in the Connecticut Special Olympics program.
“He’s volunteered many hours and just loves doing it,” Danko said. “He’s a diamond in the rough.”
Through all the seasons, practices and games, what Bensey cherishes most is the relationships. He smiled and nodded his head when Danko brought up the all the people he’s met.
Fairfield Ludlowe athletic director Dave Schulz, who had Bensey as a student at Roger Ludlowe, said Bensey had a good relationship with his daughter Kristin when she was in school.
“His passion has just continued to grow,” Schulz said. “He cares about the kids on the team.”
And anytime Bensey and Warde travel to another school, there’s likely someone there waiting to greet him.
“He never forgets to say hello and goodbye. And it always comes with a handshake and a great big smile,” said Lindine, who is the athletic director at Greenwich now. “When he visits us for an event, I will often give John a Greenwich T-shirt or a Cardinal hat to and will try to convince him to wear them while he is here. Believe me, he is a fiercely loyal Mustang and wants no part of it.”
Added Schulz: “Whenever he (Warde) plays over here, he’ll come to me and say, ‘Remember me coach?’”
In June of 2013 Bensey’s mother Ann passed away from cancer. She was 85. Bensey, who comes from a family of 11 siblings, has transitioned to a group home and started working at Goodwill. His life has changed in many ways. But one thing that has stayed a constant has been the daily trips to Warde.
“(His) mom always encouraged Johnny to come and participate with the student athletes,” Danko said. “She was always proud of how we accepted him, and how they interacted with him. It was great joy to her and seeing John with them.”
One of the most influential figures in Bensey’s life has been Danko.
“Dave Danko has been so good with him,” Schulz said. “I admire Dave so much for the time he puts in; it’s way beyond. He’ll take him (Bensey) scouting here (at Ludlowe), he’ll take him out to eat after a game. He just means so much to John.”
“He’s very, very sharp,” Mike Abraham said. “Once you get to know him, you realize you can have a very, very comfortable conversation.”
Understanding Bensey has never been an issue. He gets his points across best through his emotions.
“He just brings such a light attitude, he’s fun to be around, and he really encourages everyone and we can always count on him,” Warde senior Michelle Treglia said. “He’s always smiling and always clapping.”
Added McKenna: “Even when things aren’t going well in games, he’s always positive and happy no matter what; clapping our hands when we go out to the court.”
Danko said Bensey has a good perception of what is going on. He takes a win or a loss just as hard as the players.
“We’ve had kids on the bus ride home that are sad and I’d look over and I’d see a tear in Johnny’s eye. He knows what’s going on. He takes the celebrations and he’ll take defeats. He takes a lot of pride,” Danko said.
If the Mustangs continue their success this season on the basketball court, Bensey may get to experience another trip to the Mohegan Sun for the state championship game.
“That’s the beautiful thing we’ve done,” Abraham said. “I think the basketball programs he’s been involved in all these years have become his second family. And so when he lost in mom, he always knew he was accepted, that he was part of our family. All of our kids, we’re just one big family. Having the stability, knowing that he has a role, means a lot to him.”