By Bob Beretta
Steadily over time, the idea seeped into Ted Bentler’s Midwestern mind.
Maybe it was between classes, or back in his dorm room after one of those grueling offseason Iowa City workouts in the middle of March. He couldn’t seem to shake the thoughts that gripped his soul the way a February blizzard owns the Plains.
It’s not like he was desperate for the kind of sweeping change the possibility would present, not like he was out there searching for an escape hatch from the comfortable life he lived, soaring the football depth chart as a redshirt sophomore at the University of Iowa. A rising star with a rock-solid future in the Hawkeyes’ Black and Gold.
He’d played in nine games along Iowa’s defensive front line the previous season and entered spring practice with a tight hold on a second-place listing on Iowa’s depth chart.
Yet something kept tugging at his heart. Something kept dominating his thoughts the way he owned enemy linemen on the other side of the ball. Something kept telling him to make this daring leap that transcended tackles and touchdowns.
Sure it would be nice to join brother Fritz as a member of West Point’s Class of 2011. That was certainly an added benefit to the move. Playing alongside his younger brother once again, this time in the Black and Gold of Army’s storied football program, would without question factor positively in the decision-making process laid out before him. After all, if it weren’t for Fritz’s own recruitment to West Point by Army’s defensive coordinator, John Mumford, Ted never would have considered the notion at all.
It was during Army’s courtship of Fritz that got Ted thinking of this crazy possibility in the first place. He had been a Parade magazine All-America linebacker during his days back at Davenport-Assumption High in Davenport, Iowa, a hot-shot recruit gobbled up by Iowa’s coaching staff before he’d even reached driving age. It all started when Ted received that first recruiting letter from Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie when he was in the eighth grade. Two years later, he’d verbally committed to his hometown Hawkeyes, just a crossing route down the dusty trail from Davenport.
“Ted has had a lot of choices in his life,” Tom Bentler says of the oldest of his three sons. “He was recruited early on. It was a whirlwind recruiting situation with Ted. He had a lot of choices that were very tough at a young age.”
So when Ted spoke to Fritz about the things that were suddenly pulling his younger brother clear across the country, to the history-soaked setting high above the Hudson, a place that produces leaders the way Iowa’s farmlands deliver produce, the older sibling quickly snapped to attention.
“We talked about it,” remembers Fritz, who had accepted his appointment to West Point a few weeks earlier in January, 2006. “I knew he was thinking about it, but I didn’t recruit him. It had to be his choice. But I felt if he really wanted to do it, it would be a good choice.”
Ted took it upon himself to read “Absolutely American,” a book authored by David Lipsky tracking the joys and hardships of U.S. Military cadets through their 47-month experience deep within West Point’s granite gates. A voracious reader since his younger days on the 30-acre family farm, he devoured every piece of literature about the Military Academy that he could gather and slowly began to inspect his options.
“It was a pretty big decision,” he says now, in an understated manner that belies the significance of such a shift.
Then, one April afternoon, after spring football practice had ended at both Army and Iowa, Ted picked up the phone and called Mumford without prior notice.
“Does West Point take transfers?,” the voice on the other end of the cell phone innocently asked Army’s veteran defensive coordinator.
“Well Ted, a lot more people transfer out of West Point than transfer in,” joked a stunned Mumford, “but we do take transfers.”
Mumford went on to explain the eligibility implications of such a switch that Ted would have to sit out one year before being able to play football for the Black Knights; that he would retain only two years of collegiate eligibility; that none of the credits he had earned at Iowa would transfer; and that he would have to start out like any other West Point plebe, with a sweat-stained, six-week welcoming course affectionately known as, “Beast Barracks,” or Cadet Basic Training.
“He was extremely positive after I explained all that,” Mumford recalls with a wide smile wrinkling his face. “He said, That’s fine. I’ve spoken to my parents. I’ve listened to Fritz. I’ve read “Absolutely American,” and West Point is the place for me.’”
Football played a role in his decision, but this choice was about a total and complete lifestyle change, a burning call to duty Ted simply could not ignore.
The two-column list he had constructed that hailed the positives of staying at Iowa on one side and the positives of heading to West Point on the other, was fairly long and balanced. In the end, seven simple words landing on neither side of the ledger screamed out to him the loudest. They were scribbled on the bottom of the page, stealing his focus like an unprotected quarterback outside the pocket.
“The biggest risk is not taking one.”
That simple, succinct statement had served as a guiding force for all three Bentler brothers Ted, Fritz and Matt (currently a freshman member of the football team at Stanford University) during their younger days. An idea that Tom stressed whenever his boys were faced with divergent life choices.
“We always wanted to instill in our sons that they needed to make decisions for the long term. You’ve got to take some risks in life. Ted took a long time to decide what to do. It was not something he did overnight. He chose to serve his country. He truly believes in West Point and really embraced the challenge.”
That challenge included sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer guidelines, the second time in three years he’d been forced to the sidelines after spending his freshman season “redshirting” at Iowa. It hardly seemed to matter to the Black Knights’ most senior-ranking plebe.
“I think practice is the best part of the day,” Ted explains. “I went into last year with the approach that I was going to go out, work hard on my weaknesses and improve as a football player. I knew that I would help the team get better if I took that approach. I enjoyed going out there every day and knocking heads with people as a part of the scout team.”
That fact was clearly evident to Army’s coaching staff last fall.
“Ted is unselfish in the fact that he accepted his role last year and was intense in getting after our offensive line day-in and day-out to make them better,” Mumford adds. “Our offensive coaches raved about him last year and couldn’t believe how much better he was making our offensive linemen that had to go against him every day in practice. He’s a team player all the way.
“I think deep down, Ted relishes the structure of West Point. West Point is competitive by nature in all facets, whether it’s academic, military or athletic. He’s one of the fiercest competitors that I’ve ever run across, and I think that appealed to him. If he had his way, he’d love to play football and train out at Camp Buckner every day.”
After sitting out last season, Ted joined the upper ranks of Army’s defensive depth chart this spring, immediately claimed a regular turn in the Black Knights’ rotation up front. He received a farm-sized dose of playing time at defensive tackle in Army’s first three games, then burst onto Army’s starting scene two weeks ago. Fritz, meanwhile, continues his quick trek toward the top of the Black Knights’ three-deep. He currently holds down a backup job at defensive end just a few feet down the line from his big brother, suddenly-turned classmate.
“Ted brings an intensity level that is infectious to the whole defense,” gushes Mumford. “He brings a feel for the game and a motor that has infected the whole defense, and in particular the defensive line. The guys really feed off him. He’s brought a lot to the table, and Fritz isn’t far behind. Ted is a boisterous guy on the field and Fritz is very, very quiet. But Fritz is a heck of a competitor, too. They compete with each other in the weight room and on the football field. They are both going to play a lot of football here.”
“They are two big, tough physical kids, probably as hard-nosed as any players that I’ve ever coached,” says Wade King, who coached both Fritz and Ted at Assumption High. “They were just a lot of fun to have around our program.
“West Point fits Ted’s personality. He really likes structure and discipline. Ted was very regimented when he was here. He likes that routine in his life. It really appeals to him. I think he made a decision that there was another calling for him. Even the coaches at Iowa that I’ve talked to feel like Ted made the right decision.”
Caleb Campbell, a two-time candidate for the Lott Trophy and one of the nation’s top safeties could agree more with that assessment of his new defensive teammate.
“Ted brings a lot of excitement to the defensive side of the ball,” Campbell offers. “The intensity that he brings definitely flows throughout each one of us at practice every day. Sometimes, it’s hard to get tempo going during practice, but Ted always has it going. He never stops. It just rubs off on you.
“I’ve asked him a couple of times why he decided to transfer here from Iowa. He’s told me his reasons and I respect him for that. I respect him for giving up all that he had to come here and serve his country. I think he fits this program very well. He’s an intense guy that never stops. That’s what the Army needs and that’s what our football program needs.”
And these final thoughts from Mumford, an old-school football-lifer with a career speckled with shoulder pads, blocking dummies and tough-as-concrete nose tackles. Someone who’s seen more than his share of leaders both inside a facemask and out.
“Ted is a special person. That’s the guy you want as a second lieutenant in the Army. He’s team-first all the way. Ted’s going to bring a level of preparedness, a level of intensity and an attention to detail to all of his soldiers. He’ll go far in the military, I really believe that. Those are the same attributes we look for on the football field.”
The same attributes that ripped Ted Bentler from the secure Iowa lifestyle he once knew, drove him to answer a powerful call to duty that delivered him to West Point’s front door.
“People have said that I am crazy for making the decision to transfer to Army from Iowa,” admits Ted, “to give up my football scholarship to come here. But this was a long-term decision. You get a great education and you get to serve your country. All the opportunities you receive once you graduate from West Point are real exciting. I made this decision for the rest of my life.”
All those thoughts that had stuffed Ted Bentler’s head for nearly three months as he carefully deliberated over his options sat spilled out before him in two neatly scripted columns for one final review. But in the end, those seven simple words changed his life’s course forever.
“The biggest risk is not taking one.”
Ted Bentler is living proof of that.
Bob Beretta is the Senior Associate Athletic Director for Athletic Communications at West Point.