Weaving through the traffic of well-wishing schoolmates the way he wove through defenders throughout the game, senior quarterback Tommy Benenati’s head is on a swivel and his eyes are darting about looking for one specific set of eyes.
When his eyes meet those of the person he is looking for, Benenati points to him, quickens his pace, gives him a high five and then wraps his arm around him as the two share a smile.
That special fan, one who Benenati seeks out after each game, is his friend. He’s his confidant, his workout partner, the person he protects most.
That special fan above all other fans is Tommy Benenati’s 19-year-old brother Nick Benenati, who has Down syndrome.
In a young lifetime that has provided some incredible hurdles thus far, none more so difficult than the death of their mother Gina Benenati in 2009, the brotherly love in a four-man household has healed countless wounds.
Particularly healing are the warm smiles, hugs and unwavering support of Nick — first with the oldest Benenati son T.J. (Class of 2013) and now with the youngest Benenati son Tommy (Class of 2016).
“Nick has always been there for me, at every single game cheering me on for the last 10 or 12 years,” Tommy said. “I wish he could play football. He loves the sport. I’m glad he gets joy out of watching me play.”
There’s a lot to enjoy about watching Tommy Benenati play. The Hilltoppers are 6-0 heading into this weekend’s game against visiting Mayfield and are ranked No. 6 in this week’s Division II poll released by the Associated Press. Additionally, the Hilltoppers are in first place in the Division II, Region 5 playoff picture.
Individually, Tommy has run for 942 yards and 12 touchdowns. While he has only completed 12 of 24 passes in the Hilltoppers’ run-oriented offense, six of them have gone for touchdowns.
“My brother — bam, bam, bam,” yells Nick, giving his brother three chucks on his shoulder.
That’s his way of showing how proud he is.
But the admiration goes both ways.
Tommy puffs out his chest in pride recanting Nick’s dominance in the area Special Olympics, taking home first place in the 100-meter dash and the long jump.
Father Todd Benenati said he’ll never forget the one race Nick led by so much, he was waving to his family in the stands. And when a competitor got close, Nick lowered his head and steamrolled to victory at the finish line.
“We do a lot of things together,” said Tommy, his brother moving around behind him and placing his hands on his shoulders. “We like video games, going outside and playing tag and kickball. Ping-pong.
“He beats me in Wii bowling every time.”
Just off to the side, Nick makes the motion of a bowler’s follow-through, then taps his brother on the shoulder as if to say, “Better luck next time.”
Competitive. Successful. Inseparable.
That’s the Benenati brothers.