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    Meet USC’s De’jon Benton, a budding poet who always saw his own potential
    • October 12, 2023

    The microphone dangled from his right hand, a notebook perched in his left, the prose taking a minute to hit De’jon Benton’s tongue.

    He was a thinker, not a rusher. And a sanctuary of creatives waited for him this August night, an artist development workshop the brainchild of Leila Steinberg, the founder of emotional-literacy foundation Aim4TheHeart and the first manager to one Tupac Shakur.

    Participants, as required by Steinberg, must bring an artistic response to a particular topic for every workshop. And for two weeks, when he first showed up, Benton didn’t speak, Steinberg remembered. Not one word. No contribution. No discussion.

    “Always hard with ballplayers,” Steinberg said, “because we have an impression that they’re not thinkers.”

    But he came back. Always. So she figured there was something.

    It hurts Regina Sherman to say, as a mother. But many simply never saw her son’s potential. Benton grew up with a stutter, taking speech classes through his time at Pittsburg High in the Bay Area, birthing a highly intentional and oft-deliberate approach to speaking. He had learning differences, his Pittsburg football coaches came to find, that sometimes necessitated explaining his assignments repeatedly. Sherman, herself, never anticipated Benton going to college for financial reasons, a largely single mother making ends meet on a nurse’s assistant’s salary.

    Centennial High offensive lineman Ryan Suliafu, left, reaches out against Pittsburg High defensive tackle De’jon Benton in the first half of a game Aug. 25, 2017, in Corona. (Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

    But Benton was recruited by USC out of Pittsburg, and has stuck out four tumultuous years as a Trojan to become a key piece of USC’s defensive line. Found himself, too, through lyricism and spoken-word, an outlet that’s grown since he first started putting pen to paper in high school.

    When the 6-foot-1, 270-pound redshirt senior finally shared at the workshop, Benton gave an off-the-cuff, “Shakespearean” spoken-word performance, as Aim4TheHeart outreach director Louis King said, that blew the group away.

    “I was like, ‘Oh, (expletive)’ … this kid’s mind is really special,” Steinberg said.

    His second time sharing was written. And on the way from USC’s practice field, in the back of an Uber, Benton scratched a series of words out in his notebook, coming to stand in front of the group that night in black shorts adorned with a small USC logo. Pensive as ever.

    Then launching into a story in spoken-word, voice deep and unwavering, of his journey, of heartbreak and blood spillage and a young man trying to make sense of chaos in the world around him.


    I ask myself, he began, what would help me reach this potential?

    In the eighth grade, Sherman got a call from one of Benton’s teachers, saying he was acting up in class. That was nothing new – the school rung her quite literally every single day about her son, Sherman emphasized – but the circumstances were. Somehow, he was goofing around, stood up on a chair, sat down and broke it.

    Wait, how does he sit down and break a chair? Sherman questioned. “I don’t know,” she was told, “but he broke a chair.”

    He was quiet, Sherman said, when he started at Antioch Middle School. One day, Benton called his mother at lunch. He didn’t usually call his mother at lunch.

    “What’s wrong, son?” she asked, prying repeatedly beyond Benton’s one-word responses.

    “I just don’t have any friends,” Sherman remembered her son saying, eventually. “I just feel alone, so I wanted to call you.”

    It snapped her heart in two. She stayed with him on the phone for 30 minutes, until lunch was over.

    “And then a few months later, he’s like, breaking chairs,” Sherman said. “So I guess he made friends.”

    They lived in a part of Antioch, then, where there was absolutely no way Benton’s mother would let him walk home by himself. When Benton’s middle-school graduation rolled around, she got a call: He couldn’t get his cap and gown, because the school still hadn’t been paid back for the chair he broke.

    She made $14 an hour. Barely had enough to pay rent. But Sherman made it work. Always did.

    Things didn’t get easier in high school, when Pittsburg defensive-line coach Isamu Falevai – also a school counselor – noticed, simply, that Benton was struggling. He grew into a unique on-field talent, a blend of speed and size Pittsburg had rarely seen; but academic issues persisted from middle school, Sherman telling Benton to get his grades up or she’d call his coaches to not let him play.

    If you aren’t vested in these kids, Falevai said, you would think they’re lazy. Benton was not. You’d think they were just trying to skate by. Benton was not. He had extraordinary depth, as then-defensive coordinator Charlie Ramirez said. He just needed time. And eventually, his coaches worked with him and his teachers to set up an independent learning plan, seeing rapid growth in his grades in his junior and senior years.

    Her son, Sherman said, never gave up on himself.

    “It might take him a while to get there,” Sherman said, “but he always, he gets there.”


    The endurance of a man’s heart, over time, becomes weak, Benton continued in August, pacing across the room. No longer willing to fight. Eyes no longer light.

    In Benton’s sophomore year at Pittsburg, JV coaches started telling Falevai that the player was always late to practice. Or hanging out in the locker room. Or just not there. And eventually, Falevai realized there was a deeper reason here.

    So the counselor sat him down one day, and told Benton he’d stay until he told him what was going on.

    Benton’s father Dwayne, Falevai learned, lived in Stockton with his family, about an hour away. Every so often, he’d call his son for help, needing someone to watch Benton’s young half-sisters. So the kid would find a bus to Stockton, or a ride up there, or something, and his own life would grind to a halt.

    They had a great relationship, Sherman said, Dwayne once a football player and rapper himself who’d take baby De’jon to spend entire weekends in a studio. Life for his father grew tough, though, Falevai learning at times he’d tell his son he had no electricity or running water. It left Benton thinking of his siblings, feeling helpless, Falevai said, so the son would drop everything at a moment’s notice.

    “My pops,” Benton said after one USC practice in September, “he had the same ambitions as I have now. He’s done exactly what I’ve done.”

    “I used to see light in his eyes,” Benton continued, referring to his own line of prose. “And now it’s more so, survival mode. And so that had put it into perspective for me.”

    The endurance of man’s heart becomes weak.

    During his junior year, Benton started writing. Always had loved reading, always asking his mom to buy him books, vocabulary expanding behind a diminishing stutter. It became an outlet, experimenting with spoken-word, experimenting with beats, an outlet he never quite made public – to even his own mother – until he began with Aim4TheHeart.

    An outlet to understand, to express, through avoiding going down the wrong path in Pittsburg because he’d think of the look on his mother’s face, through his father’s journey and his own, through his own grasp on the very meaning of everything.


    There are places on this planet that never reached its potential, Benton finished at the workshop, a room rapt. I will reach mine. I won’t be the victim of my own eye.

    When the lineman first signed with USC, Falevai was excited. Also worried.

    “He’s special,” Falevai tried to explain to USC coaches. “You just gotta be patient.”

    And Benton still struggled at times, Falevai said, his first couple years as a Trojan, with timeliness. He played sparingly his first three seasons, and then the coaching staff that recruited him cycled out as Lincoln Riley took over, and conventional wisdom laid that he ought to transfer.

    Benton relented. He chose to stick it out. Majoring in Non-Governmental Organizations and Social Change, he wanted a degree from USC, he’d tell Falevai, his mom pushing him to finish his education.

    “De’jon, when we got here, I didn’t know if he was going to make it – I mean, I didn’t know if he was going to make the rigors of the program, the demands, the accountability,” Riley said, after USC-Colorado in late September.

    USC defensive end Solomon Byrd (51) celebrates a stop with defensive lineman De’jon Benton (79) during their game against Arizona State on Sept. 23, 2023, in Tempe, Ariz. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

    Last year, Riley said, was up-and-down for Benton. A lot of tough love. But even as USC has brought in a slew of new faces on the line, Benton has earned major snaps against Colorado and Arizona, sixth on the team in tackles for loss and sacks.

    “It’s funny, when you kind of get all your life in order, all of a sudden – his grades are good, he’s on time for stuff – he’s playing good ball,” Riley said.

    For now, spoken-word, rap, poetry are all an outlet for Benton, Steinberg said. Just an outlet. Wants to leave it there, for him to focus on the now, seeing music or a book or public speaking stark in his future.

    “He hasn’t even realized how powerful when he’s in front of a room,” Steinberg said. “He just has an electricity, and a beauty about him.”

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    The world around him, it appears, is catching up to the potential he’s seen in himself. Potential he wants to bring to a mic.

    “It just made me have a different perspective,” Benton said, seeming to solve his own mind in real time. “Football was also that second life, as you could say. When I played football, I didn’t just see football as football. I see football as life – like a mini-simulation of life itself.”

    “Everything leading up to the moment in which I’m supposed to play, and if I’m ballin’ or if I’m (expletive) the bed, it was all because of actions and what led up to that,” Benton continued. “I go back to the days … like, ‘Damn, OK. If I get another breath for tomorrow’s day, I’ll change it.’”

    ​ Orange County Register