John Benton didn’t want to experience his first Super Bowl from a seat in the stands. He was determined to earn his own way onto the field.
After 17 seasons in the National Football League, the 1982 Durango High School graduate will walk into Hard Rock Stadium on Feb. 2 in Miami Gardens, Florida, alongside his fellow coaches and San Francisco 49ers players with the goal of winning Super Bowl LIV.
“I want to fully take in the experience and not be overwhelmed or cut short by it,” Benton said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Durango Herald, two days after San Francisco rolled through Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game. “Obviously, I’ve heard stories about how crazy and incredible the Super Bowl and the whole week leading into it is. I’m anxious to see what that’s all about.
“I had a promise to myself that I wouldn’t go to the Super Bowl until I earned my way there. I’ve had other opportunities that I’ve turned down. To make this game and be here now, it is as special as it could be.”
Benton, 56, is the offensive line coach for the 49ers. He is deep into preparation to play the Kansas City Chiefs in the 54th edition of the Super Bowl. It’s a stage he was never certain he would reach as he grew up and played at Durango High School a stone’s throw away from the Animas River in the small Southwest Colorado mountain town.
His playing career would take him to Colorado State University, where he was a four-year letterman and would be named a two-time All-Western Athletic Conference honorable mention twice. He was named to the Rams’ All-Century team in 1992. After Benton played his last snap in Fort Collins in 1986, his days in pads and a helmet were over, so he quickly turned his attention to coaching.
It’s been a long road to a Super Bowl, but dedication and strong relationships have landed Benton in the world’s biggest game.
“It’s always been a joy watching his career,” Benton’s mother, Virginia, said in a 2017 interview with The Herald. “He’s always done very well, even in Durango here when he played for Durango High.
“We’ve caught every game he’s in and always watch for him on television and enjoy when we get to see him on the camera really fast. He’s coached a bunch of Pro Bowl guys and has quite the record.”
Benton’s father, Jack, died in 2017 at 77. No longer living in Benton’s childhood home in the Sunnyside area of Durango, Virginia now resides in Minnesota. She won’t be able to travel to the Super Bowl, but Benton is happy to have his sister and her husband, Jennifer and Mike Staley, able to make the trip to Miami along with his wife, Nicole, and their two daughters, Gabrielle and Paige.
Many more in Durango will cheer for the 49ers and the chance for one of their own to hoist the Lombardi Trophy and get fitted for a Super Bowl ring.
“John, he’s one of the good ones,” said former Durango High football coach Steve Thyfault, who was an assistant at DHS under head coach Rocky Whitworth when Benton was a Demons player. “He’s humble, defers credit everywhere else, and he’s been that way since he was younger. He’s a guy I love talking to, and he really knows the game. Any of the teams he has coached have done well. He’s doing an incredible job with the 49ers if you watch their line. He’s really getting his shot now. It’s just been a fairytale, and I’m so excited for him.”
Championship relationshipBenton has been the offensive line coach for the 49ers under head coach Kyle Shanahan since 2017. During the winter of 2017, Benton had accepted a position to be the assistant offensive line coach with the Denver Broncos. But, when Shanahan was named the head coach in San Francisco, Benton was granted permission to interview with the 49ers. Within a few weeks, he was in the Bay Area reunited with Shanahan.
The two had coached together with the Houston Texans from 2006-10 on the staff with head coach Gary Kubiak. Shanahan, the son of two-time Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, was the wide receivers coach in 2006 and became the youngest position coach in the NFL. Kubiak, who had served as offensive coordinator under Mike Shanahan during the Broncos’ back-to-back wins at Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII, showed faith in the younger Shanahan, who would become quarterback coach of the Texans in 2007 before his promotion to offensive coordinator in 2008.
As the offensive line coach for the Texans, Benton and Shanahan had a close relationship until Shanahan left for Washington in 2010 to become the offensive coordinator of the Redskins under his father. Benton and Shanahan spoke about the prospect of coaching together again some day.
Benton left the Texans after a highly successful eight seasons in 2013 when Kubiak stepped down as head coach in Houston for health reasons. He would serve as offensive line coach of the Miami Dolphins for two seasons but then took the assistant offensive line coaching job in Jacksonville in 2016. He would accept the same role in Denver momentarily before Shanahan called.
The two hadn’t gotten a chance to work together during Shanahan’s offensive coordinator stops with the Redskins, Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons. But when Shanahan got his first head coaching job in San Francisco, Benton’s phone rang.
“I was very fortunate, obviously,” Benton said. “It was because of my relationship with Kyle. We had coached together at the Houston Texans and always planned on coaching together again. In San Francisco, it was the first time it had a chance to work out. Things worked out very well.”
Paving the pathDuring their first two seasons in San Francisco, the 49ers went a combined 10-22. But that allowed the 49ers and general manager John Lynch an opportunity to acquire elite young talent in the draft and via trade to build a powerful team.
This season, San Francisco went 13-3 in the regular season to win the NFC West division and earn home-field advantage and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Behind a powerful offensive line and a feared defense, San Francisco ran through the Minnesota Vikings 27-10 in the divisional round before a 37-20 domination of the Packers in the NFC Championship.
In the win against Green Bay, the 49ers ran the ball 42 times to only eight pass attempts. With an offensive line creating massive running lanes paired with wide receivers willing to run-block, the 49ers ran for 285 yards and four touchdowns, with 220 yards and all of those scores going to Raheem Mostert.
During the regular season, San Francisco had the No. 2 rushing offense in the NFL behind only the Baltimore Ravens. While the Ravens had MVP-favorite Lamar Jackson at quarterback running and passing around opposing defenses at a record pace, San Francisco did it without a mobile quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo. Jackson ran for 1,206 yards in 2019, while Garoppolo had 62.
San Francisco also got it done without one of the top running backs in the league and without a 1,000-yard rusher. Mostert led the team with 772 yards and eight touchdowns. Matt Breida added 623 yards, and Tevin Coleman ranked third with 544 rush yards. Still, as a team, the 49ers amassed 2,305 yards and 23 rushing touchdowns in the regular season.
Benton also saw his unit have that kind of success despite several injuries on his line.
“I’m really proud of my position group. To finish second in the league in rushing without a running quarterback, that’s hard to do,” Benton said. “We did it all with six different starting lineups over the course of the year. It’s the nature of a long season, but we had guys step up and fill in and do extremely well, and we haven’t missed a beat. I’ve had three backups play multiple games, and one played at three different positions. I’m so proud of how this group locked in, and, obviously, the results of that are evident.”
If the 49ers are going to beat the high-powered Chiefs offense in the Super Bowl, it will come down to San Francisco’s ability to keep Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes off the field. The best way to do that is running the football and controlling the line of scrimmage. No doubt, Benton’s unit will be under the spotlight on Super Sunday.
“You saw it in the NFC Championship game when they ran 42 times and only passed eight. That’s incredible,” Thyfault said. “Troy Aikman, Jimmy Johnson, they were all talking about that offensive line and how amazing it was. People who know football and have coached it and been around it for a long time, you know that offensive line did something special in that championship game.”
Humble beginningsBenton was always one of the biggest boys in his class. At 6-foot-4 but only 215 pounds in high school, he wasn’t quite the imposing figure of elite offensive linemen of today’s era. But in a town like Durango, he was the biggest guy on the field. That made him a natural fit for the offensive line at Durango High.
“Our strength was running the ball behind John Benton,” said Marty Moon, a 1976 DHS graduate who was Benton’s offensive line coach in high school. “In 1981, we played Broomfield, and nobody had scored on them all season to that point. But we got the ball, ran to John’s side and marched it down the field and scored. It was a big moral victory.”
Broomfield went on to win the Class 3A state championship that year. Not even runner-up Loveland scored as many points against the eventual champs that year than the Demons in the 34-12 loss. During Benton’s three years of varsity football at DHS, the Demons went 20-10-1 overall.
Thyfault said the Demons’ basketball team was at its best in the years Benton played, too. Benton is enshrined in the Durango High School Athletics Hall of Fame.
Growing up in Durango, Benton didn’t envision coaching. His focus was on being a player. After his strong career at Colorado State, he became a graduate assistant coach with his alma mater Rams for two seasons before he got a coaching job at California University in Pennsylvania. Benton admitted he had never heard of the school, but he was anxious to take the job as a recruiting coordinator and line coach for five seasons before he returned to Colorado State as the offensive line coach. He would work there under Sonny Lubick from 1995-2002 and would become co-offensive coordinator.
Benton got his first chance at the NFL thanks to a relationship made at CSU with Steve Fairchild, a former CSU player and eventual head coach. He was the offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams and hired Benton there from 2003-05. He then joined Kubiak’s staff in Houston in 2006. Benton had met Kubiak because the CSU coaching staff worked with the Broncos during the Shanahan and Kubiak era.
“I had dreams of getting to the NFL when I first started coaching, but it was never anything to this level,” Benton said. “My whole career, I remember how I felt back at Colorado State and thinking that was the best job I could ever hope for. I’ve kept going up from there. Everywhere I’ve gone, it’s felt like the biggest stage I’ve had.”
The Super Bowl stageBenton has finally arrived at the Super Bowl. It’s taken an evolution as a coach and close to three decades of building relationships.
Football has changed quite a bit during his 17-year NFL career. But his timeless zone blocking scheme has the 49ers on the brink of a record-tying sixth Super Bowl championship that would match the Patriots and Steelers for most all time. Benton is focused on making sure his players are ready for the moment.
“I’m a much more cerebral coach now,” Benton said. “Over the years, particularly at this level, I’ve learned the players perform better for ya when they know you’ve got the knowledge they need to be successful, and I strive to do things that way.”
He had his team prepared for the NFC Championship, and he couldn’t help but sit back and soak in the moment in San Francisco’s home Levi’s Stadium as the confetti fell. It’s a feeling he hopes to experience again.
“When it finally became evident we were going to win that thing, I was really overcome with emotion,” he said. “The setting, the scene, it’s hard to describe. So many guys were breaking down, and there was such relief in it mixed with the elation of everything coming to fruition. We’re going to the Super Bowl. Whether you’re a coach or player, it’s what you dream about when you first start. To realize it’s actually happening, it’s overwhelming.”
Benton returns to Durango about once a year, and less now that his parents no longer live here. He hopes the next time he returns, it is with a Super Bowl ring on his finger.
“I get back every time I can. I gotta go to Durango Diner, get their huevos rancheros, and I still order green chile by the case from them,” he said. “I sure think of Durango often and miss it. I imagine I’ll be back there soon.”