Dr. Matt Lawless pulled the plunger back on the syringe, leaned down toward Grant Benzinger, who was lying flat on his back on a padded table in the Wright State training room at the Nutter Center, and went to work.
“I’m gonna work my way all around this,” the team doctor said as he eased the hypodermic needle into Benzinger’s skin next to a gaping hole the size of a big, fat caterpillar at the top of the senior guard’s right hip bone.
Lawless – who already had cleaned the area with a saline solution and the antiseptic Betadine — was numbing the area with Lidocaine before he would begin putting in stitches.
“I wouldn’t watch,” WSU trainer Jason Franklin said with a mix of comfort and teasing humor.
“Aaaaah,” moaned Benzinger, who, of course, watched. “Oooooh.”
The Raiders tough guy was being put to the test one more time Thursday night.
He had just willed his team to a 65-61 victory over Illinois-Chicago. He had done it with a barrage of last-minute points – including six straight free throws in the final 86 seconds – 11 rebounds against the taller Flames players and especially his demolition derby disregard for his body when the game was on the line.
In the final minutes he hit the floor at least four times.
He was knocked down trying to get off a difficult shot, was flattened setting a screen for a teammate and crashed to the floor again after launching himself toward a distant rebound. And before that – as he went full sprint to save a ball bounding toward the sideline – he had ended up hurdling Edwin Moses-like straight over the Raiders bench and then crumpled to the cement floor and slid up to the bleachers.
Finally, came the side-splitter.
He dived for a loose ball in front of the UIC bench and landed hard, the way Pete Rose used to go head-first into third. Except this didn’t come with a dirt cushion.
He popped up and headed down the court with a wince. A time out was called with 39.9 seconds left and as he walked gingerly toward the WSU bench, he pulled out the waistband on his shorts and took a peek.
“I thought I was gonna pass out,” he said of the sight.
On the sideline he gave Coach Scott Nagy news he didn’t want to hear: Not from the guy who was almost single-handedly was carrying the team down the stretch.
As Benzinger remembered it:
“I said, ‘Coach, I gotta come out.’
“He said, ‘What for?’
“I said, I gotta hole in my hip!’
“And he just told me to have Jason try to stop the bleeding a little bit.”
Benzinger now laughed at the exchange: “My dad would have told me the same thing.”
Lawless nodded: “I would have, too.”
When Benzinger got to the end of the bench he pulled down the side of is trunks so Franklin could see the wound and patch it.
“You should have heard the guys on the bench,” said student trainer Derrick Bark. “Everett (Winchester) and Jaylon (Hall) about threw up when they saw it.”
Once cleaned up and consoled, Benzinger had broken the huddle with his team and soon after got hacked again. He made those final two free throws, too.
The team’s leading scorer – averaging 14.2 points per game – he had been held to two for the game’s first 34 ½ minutes. He then hit a three pointer and finished with the six straight foul shots.
He’s made 41 of 43 free throw attempts this season – 95.3 percent –which makes him No. 5 in the nation in NCAA Division I basketball.
He made it a point to get to the line Thursday night, in part, because he knew taking a beating was another way to boost his team:
“Coaches say, ‘When you’re in a rut, when your shots aren’t falling, just play your face off and you’ll find it.”
That plan didn’t just boost him, but his teammates, as well.
“You definitely need a guy like that who’s scrappy and on the floor all the time,” said junior guard Mark Hughes who finished with 13 points. “I don’t know how he does it, honestly. I don’t know how his body takes it. It’s really important for the rest of us to see that It gives us more life to play hard.”
A beacon for the Raiders
The 6-foot-3 Benzinger has been a beacon for the team. He topped the 1,000 career point mark against Tiffin in mid-November. He scored 22 points in the Raiders upset victory at Georgia Tech three days before Christmas.
And then came Thursday night’s double-double – 11 points, 11 boards – with all its derring-do.
Playing football and basketball at Cincinnati’s Moeller High School, he never got a stitch.
Since coming to Wright State, he’s begun to resemble that old, battered heavyweight contender, Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder.
“Freshman year I got my head kicked into the ground against Green Bay and got a couple of stitches in my eyebrow,” he said pointing to the visible scar in his brow.
“Sophomore year I got elbowed in the mouth by Milwaukee’s Matt Tiby.”
That 6-8, 230-pound bruiser – an All Horizon League forward now playing pro in Belgium – left him with a bloody mouth and stitch in his lip.
Thursday night though would require the most thread and needle.
“By numbing this you’ll just feel pressure when I put in the stitches, not the sticks and the hurt,” Lawless said as he shot Lidocanie all around the wound.
“You gonna do the inside, too?” Benzinger asked.
When Lawless nodded, Benzinger whispered: “Gosh darn it.”
“ Yep, but I won’t go as deep inside,” Lawless promised.
As Lawless worked, Winchester came in to check on Benzinger and then so did fellow senior Justin Mitchell, who finished with a team-high 14 points.
“That’s a tough man there, y’all,” Mitchell said., “A tough man!”
Benzinger smiled, but admitted it was not as tough as Kobe Bryant had been:
“This is nothing. It’s meaningless compared to what he did. With a ruptured Achilles, he still hit two free throws.”
The one thing that was the same was the belief that a team leader has to do all that he can.
“Our core principle is toughness and I try to embody that every day in practice and in games,” Benzinger said.
He’s suffered bursitis in his elbows and his knee each of his first three seasons and had to have those painful swellings drained.
He missed the entire preseason this year after a hernia surgery and yet has started every game and is tied with Hughes for the most minutes played this season.
“I told my girlfriend I’m just gonna go all out this year,’ he said. “If I do play professionally later, I might quit playing like this. That way I might be able to preserve my body for a couple of years.”
On this night there was no preservation, just five stitches.
“Mind if I put just one more in?” Lawless asked
“Benzinger gritted his teeth: “Do what you gotta do.”
Franklin came back and said he had talked to Benzinger’s family — a contingent of 14 or so had come to the game — and told them he was being held up to get stitches.
Benzinger thought they’d “be okay” with that:
“It was $2 beer night. They had been pretty excited about that.”