By Blake Spurney
NEWTON—Andy Ortiz returned to San Antonio after graduating from Bethel College.
His old coach, Ben Benavides, took him out to play pool and to have a conversation. Benavides said he didn’t know what Ortiz was doing at the time, but he could tell from the look in his eyes that it wasn’t good.
“I told him straight up, ‘I’ll make you a deal,’” Benavides recalled. “Heads you stay in San Antonio. Tails you come back with me at 6 a.m.”
Tails it was, and Ortiz rode back to Kansas the next morning. Newton has been his home ever since.
Ortiz hadn’t been to many places when he was recruited by Bethel, and he became the first in his family to go to college.
“I was a very stop sign to stop sign existence,” he said. “I just didn’t know anything. When I first wanted to go to college, I didn’t know how it worked. I just knew it was a thing.”
Ortiz had high school football coaches who played at Kansas Wesleyan, and they still had contacts in the area. He signed to play at Southwest Texas State, now Texas State, but he lost his scholarship after suffering a knee injury.
When Benavides recruited players from his hometown, he told his story of how he witnessed his sister’s murder as a 16-year-old. He told Ortiz they were cut from the same cloth. If he could graduate from a college in Podunk, Kansas, while continuing to play football, he knew others could do the same. Whatever the players needed, Benavides said he had their backs. He invited them over to his residence to do laundry, and he held a barbecue every Sunday. He told players to take in the Kansas culture and how locals would embrace them. He also encouraged them to give back so that others could embrace the culture from where they came.
“I freaked out,” Ortiz said about his first impression upon arriving here. “I was in the middle of nowhere. Culture shock. I was very shocked by the environment. And this comes from a guy who didn’t travel more than 30 miles from his house.”
Ortiz said Benavides was like a brother to him. Benavides understood the transition of moving to Kansas, and he’s had a huge impact on his life. During a candidate forum for USD-373 Board of Education candidates, Ortiz said he didn’t know if he could have “made it” anywhere except for Newton. He said his coaches knew he needed to get out of San Antonio.
“I think they knew that I would be one of those stories,” he said.
He would have continued running around on the streets.
“It took me a while to shake that,” he said. “Thank God, I had people who lobbied for me and made sure I had a route to get out of there and go do something.”
Benavides said dealing drugs was a big part of the culture in San Antonio.
“If you don’t make it out of here, that’s what you might be doing,” he said.
Benavides said residents drifted toward gangs for protection. He said an unspoken rule among the gangs was to leave the athletes alone. He was asked why he was drinking Gatorade at a party, and somebody else spoke up for him:“’Cause he’s going somewhere. He doesn’t need to do that stuff,” he recalled.
Ortiz said he applied to serve on the Newton school board as a way to pay back the community.
“I’m so grateful to be able to do it,” he said. “And they trust me to do it, especially now that I’m elected. It’s a different feeling.”
Ortiz said the Mennonite culture was like getting sprayed in the face by a firehose. He said the mentality of turn the other cheek still amazed him.
“They brought me up in my adult life and gave me opportunities,” he said. ‘I’m very grateful.”
Benavides, who was so instrumental in getting people out of rough neighborhoods, returned to his hometown this year. He said he loved everything about his nine years of living in North Newton, but he was looking for a better-paying job when he and his wife, Kamara, were expecting. As head football coach at John F. Kennedy High School, he’s still trying to change lives by showing students there’s more to life than what’s in their neighborhood. He said he never cursed around his players because he didn’t want to have any negativity in the program. That was a lesson he learned at Bethel.
Whatever he’s doing is working, because the high school made the district playoffs for just the fifth time in school history this year.