As soon as she was laid in his arms and heard his soft reassurances, she rested her head on his chest and went sound to sleep.
And, in turn, Grant Benzinger — the former Cincinnati Moeller football player, the guy Wright State basketball coach Scott Nagy says is “one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached” — simply melted.
“We went to two orphanages and when you go there, it just breaks your heart,” Benzinger said. “There are no standards. They’re unregulated and might be in the back of somebody’s house or something.
“The kids had been given up by their families. Some had club feet or cleft palates. Some were just malnourished.
“I have a little brother and sister at home and they’re so blessed. They have a family. They have everything. These kids had nothing. Your jaw drops to the floor when you see that. You just feel sadness.
“And all you can do is try to love on them the short time you’re with them. And the little baby that I held? I just wanted to take her home. She was awesome.”
Benzinger was one of a dozen college basketball players from across the nation who visited China last month as part of a 13-day goodwill tour run by Athletes in Action, the Xenia-based organization that promotes faith through sports.
The group played six games against top Chinese pro teams who were minus their star foreign players, gave basketball clinics to school kids and visited the orphanages.
“The purpose of our trip was to not only play against some of the top competition in China, but also to impact the communities surrounding us,” he said. “We wanted to spread love to places it’s not always found.”
And no one understood that calling better than Benzinger, said Morris Michalski, the longtime basketball coach and AIA mentor, who directed the China tour and assessed it afterward for a Wright State video:
“He really embraced things. Not only did he hold the orphans, he held them like it mattered.”
Benzinger has had several signature moments since joining the Raiders four seasons ago.
Freshman year, the 6-foot-3 guard known for his ability to shoot the basketball, scored 31 points against Oakland, the most by a WSU freshman in 26 years.
As a sophomore his 70-foot shot just before halftime against Valparaiso at the Nutter Center ended up the No. 1 play on ESPN’s Top Ten Plays of the Day.
Last season he had several moments, including 32 points against Georgia State and a 21-point, 19-rebound effort in a victory over Milwaukee.
Nothing, though, has quite moved him like this, he said:
“It was a life-changing experience. I had never been out of the country before, so it was great to see another part of the world. It took me out of my comfort zone and got me a lot of personal growth, a lot of spiritual growth.”
Michalski agreed. He believes Benzinger is now a little deeper and wiser, more loving and humble:
“When the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, you’ve got something magical.”
He thinks Benzinger came home with some of the magic.
Wright State basketball players have gone on Athletes in Action tours before. Seven years ago guard N‘Gai Evans went to China. In 2013 Kendall Griffin went to the Ivory Coast and two years later Michael Karena went back home to New Zealand as a part of an AIA tour.
Griffin had encouraged Benzinger to join an Athletes in Action trip if one was ever offered. This year Michalski made the pitch to go to China and then Benzinger’s sister, Justine, further sold him on the idea.
“She has been to China for her job multiple times,” he said. “She designs belts for Tommy Hilfiger and Under Armour and she goes to China to make sure factories are regulated and not doing things illegally.
“She told me, ‘You gotta go to China. It’s awesome!’ ”
Benzinger had to raise $4,200 for the trip and he made sure he had the support of WSU coach Scott Nagy, which he received. When he was at South Dakota State before WSU, Nagy took his teams to Haiti on good-deeds tours. One day he hopes to do the same with the Raiders.
He said a trip like Benzinger’s is a good experience for players: “They’re with us all summer so it’s an opportunity for them to play with some other guys and be coached by somebody different. I think it makes basketball fresh for them again.
“And for Grant, it was a good opportunity to extend himself and experience being in another country. The things that touched him were good for him. And it will help him become a better leader of our team.”
In his first three WSU seasons, Benzinger has played in 97 games and started 72. He’s already WSU’s all-time leader in 3-point field goals (199) and is 48 points shy of 1,000 points.
He’s figured to miss a little over a month of practice time — beginning today — as he undergoes minor surgery for an undisclosed problem. He said he’ll be ready for the Nov. 10 season opener at Loyola in Chicago.
‘Just ate it up’
When he first accepted the AIA invitation, Benzinger admitted he had a few moments of doubt:
“I don’t know why I wasn’t as confident as I usually am. But I was nervous that I might not be as good as the other guys.”
Before leaving for China, the team — which included Damarion Geter, the 6-foot-8 forward from Dunbar High who plays for Longwood University — reported to the Athletes in Action headquarters in Xenia and practiced four days at the WSU Pavilion.
Soon it became evident Benzinger was one of the best players on the team.
Once the players got to China, they visited the Great Wall and saw Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, but what Benzinger remembered most were his interactions with the Chinese people.
After one game, a fan gave him a poem that had been printed on a large poster.
He especially remembers the basketball clinics for high school freshmen.
“They just ate it up,” he said. “It was like they were learning from Michael Jordan. It was crazy. They had this total love for the game. They were so excited to learn.”
He mentored a girls team that was especially enthusiastic.
“The kids were limited in athletic ability, but they worked so hard. I don’t see any ninth-graders here in the States working as hard as them.
“Kids here have so many distractions, so many privileges that they don’t have. Here you can watch TV or surf through your phone. But those kids over there, they just worked in the gym.
“And it was a gym with no AC. It was about 90 degrees in there. Sweat was coming off the walls. They did it every day.
“It made me realize how blessed I am to have the facilities and the all the help I have here at Wright State.
“You kind of forget that here sometimes when you’re just working every day. It can get monotonous and boring. Those kids sparked that drive in me and that love of the game.”
Once he returned home, he said he had a new appreciation not only of the game, but where he lives:
“I loved China. I liked the food and the people. But there wasn’t that much diversity some of the places I went. I missed that. Our diversity is unbelievable. We have so many people from so many different backgrounds. I missed that.
“But I brought home a lot of good things too. The trip, the experiences, the people there gave me a lot that I always hold dear.”
And he gave them something, too:
“I brought along a lot of Wright State shirts and I handed them all out. I gave one to the guy who gave me the poem and I gave the majority of the shirts to that girls team that we worked with. They came to one of our games and they cheered everything that happened.
“So there’s some Wright State shirts floating all around China right now.
“The people I gave them to, they had no idea where Wright State was, but they were glad to receive them and they loved them. And they knew they meant something pretty special to me.”