The Herald Bulletin

Morning Update

Pro Sports

August 8, 2013

'A pretty one-of-a-kind guy'

Colts long snapper forms unique friendship with teen cancer patient

ANDERSON, Ind. — The 15-year-old girl rests in her wheelchair underneath a white tent adjacent to the tennis courts at Anderson University.

Wrapped around her shaved head is a band with a large representation of a flower in bloom. It's recognizable to a legion of fans from Facebook and Twitter.

So is the oversized blue Indianapolis Colts No. 45 jersey draped over her shoulders. She nibbles on one of several homemade cookies she's brought to Thursday's training camp practice to share with some of her favorite players.

And the Colts special teams have never seemed more ... special.

Moments earlier Mia Benge — who has been battling a brain tumor for nearly a year and undergone two brain surgeries — had been surrounded by kicker Adam Vinatieri, punter Pat McAfee, rookie kicker Brandon McManus and long snapper Matt Overton.

Pictures and videos were made, and laughs were shared.

McAfee — who wears the words "Mighty Mia" inscribed on a purple plastic band around his wrist — and the two kickers have recently departed. First, the punter bumped wrists with Overton — wearing a matching band that refers to the girl's caped paper doll alter ego — in a gesture that looked as though it might summon some super hero character.

Before he walked away, McAfee suggested Mia should indulge in a "Back to School" shopping spree. On Overton's dime, of course.

Don't be surprised if it soon comes to pass.

Overton has spent much of the past four weeks by Mia's side. He was there to visit her in the Intensive Care Unit at Riley Children's Hospital. He was there the day she moved from there to the rehabilitation center just before camp opened. And he was there less than 24 hours earlier — on his only day off this week — to help her move out of the hospital all together.

It's quiet now at AU. The cameras are gone. And Overton gently takes a seat near Mia's side.

"Did you have fun watching practice?" he asks. "Did you see Andrew Luck out there?"

The girl nods and answers affirmatively in her tiny voice. She's been through so much, and her fighting spirit is an inspiration to the professional football player at her side.

Moments later, a little further down the path and out of ear shot, the whole scene is a marvel to Keri Benge's eyes.

"Today is a great day," Mia's mother says. "We're out of the hospital, and it's been a month. You couldn't ask for anything better."

* * *

Two years ago, Overton was unemployed and sleeping on a convicted felon's couch.

He'd recently been released by the Omaha Nighthawks of the now-defunct United Football League, and infamous former Ohio State star Maurice Clarett became his unlikely training partner.

When the Seattle Seahawks released Overton following training camp in 2009, he thought he'd quickly find a soft landing in the UFL. He played in the league the previous season, and he believed that might ease the transition.

Instead, he watched as the expansion Nighthawks signed Clarett — a former third-round pick of the Denver Broncos who had spent the past six years in prison. Just a year younger than the running back, Overton was familiar with Clarett from his days as a high school football phenom.

He'd also heard horror stories from a former UFL teammate — punter Todd Sauerbrun — who had crossed paths with Clarett during his brief time in the NFL.

Overton asked his agent how a recent inmate could get a job and he could not. A few weeks later, that inmate was his new teammate.

Though their hotel rooms were next to each other, Overton and Clarett rarely spoke during the 2010 season. When the Nighthawks found a long snapper who could also play tight end a year later, they released Overton to save a roster a spot.

A few weeks later, he took a job in the team's community relations department. Then the UFL folded, and he was on the street in a town far from his California home.

To comply with the terms of his probation, Clarett also had to remain in Omaha. So he offered Overton a place to stay, and a unique friendship began.

The two woke early every morning and trained all day. In part, because they literally had nothing else to do. But also because Clarett had once squandered a dream, and he couldn't bear the thought of watching Overton give up on his.

"Realistically, he knew that he would probably never play football again," Overton said. "And I think he got a thrill out of me striving for that because he knew that I had a legitimate shot. He really just wanted me not to give up."

Overton didn't give up. He attended a long-snapping clinic in Arizona in 2012, and he was spotted by Colts assistant special teams coach Brant Boyer.

One thing led to another, and Overton ended up in Indianapolis. He was competing against Justin Snow, who had been the Colts long snapper for the previous 12 years, for a job that employs just 32 men in the world.

"Every year as a free-agent long snapper, there's really maybe four teams out of the 32 that are really legitimately looking for a guy," Overton said. "And, fortunately enough, the Colts were that team."

He soaked up everything he could from Snow, watching his every move and listening to his every word. When the final cuts were made at the end of camp, somehow Overton went from an unemployed former community relations staffer to a member of an NFL roster.

Ironically, it might not have happened without Snow's guidance. And Overton remembers his predecessor every time he steps on the field.

"I try to emulate him every day," he said. "He set the standard, and I'm just trying to uphold the standard and help this team win like he did."

Of course, Overton also owes a certain debt to Clarett.

The two men remain friends, and Overton is rooting for the former running back in his quest for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Rugby team.

ESPN is working on a "30 for 30" documentary film about Clarett. And Overton's own life reads like a movie script these days.

His first game at Lucas Oil Stadium came down to a field-goal attempt. He snapped the ball to McAfee, who held for Vinatieri on a 53-yard field goal to beat the Minnesota Vikings. It was the longest game-winner of Vinatieri's likely Hall of Fame career.

The Colts surprised the NFL with an 11-5 record and earned an AFC playoff berth. This season, Overton finds himself on a team with goals that include winning a division title and playing in the Super Bowl.

He and Clarett — who is back home with a growing family in Ohio — have come a long way from Omaha.

"The story of redemption for him has been amazing," Overton said. "Just looking back, it's pretty crazy to see where both of us are at a year later."

* * *

Overton was at a Justin Bieber concert on July 10 with 10 teenage girls and their special guests. Mia Benge was supposed to be there, too.

Earlier in the year, Overton attended an auction to benefit Second Helpings — an organization that helps feed the needy in Indianapolis — at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. When tickets for a suite at the Bieber concert went on the block, the long snapper saw the perfect means to hold an event with Riley patients.

He'd visited the hospital for the first time during the holiday season and come away amazed. He outbid another guest for the tickets, but he only had half a suite.

When his one-time opponent learned what Overton planned to do with the tickets, he partnered with his own charity to donate the other half of the suite. The Riley Kids selected to attend learned about the tickets at the end of a tour of the Colts' practice facility when they were surprised by the long snapper, team mascot Blue and the team's cheerleaders.

Mia was on that tour, but she was readmitted to Riley on July 8 when she had a relapse. Her sister, Olivia, attended the concert in her place but received a distressing Twitter message during the show asking that she come to the hospital immediately.

Mia wasn't expected to live through the night.

"We were all at the bedside," Keri Benge said. "It was moment to moment."

Overton accompanied Liv down to the waiting car. Then he followed Mia's story throughout the night on Twitter.

When he learned the girl had survived, Liv invited him to visit the Intensive Care Unit for the first time on July 12.

"We're just beyond blessed to have her still with us, and she's been an inspiration for a ton of people," Overton said. "When I visited the ICU, that unit that she was in was the sickest kids in Indiana. When I first visited, the nurses said, 'We hardly see miracles like this happen.' And she really has been a miracle."

* * *

Overton continued visiting Mia every chance he got. They played a game they made up involving a beach ball. And they jammed to Bieber in the room.

Keri said the interaction was good for Mia. It made the girl forget she was in the hospital, forget she was fighting for her life, and simply look forward to the next visit.

"He's great with her," Keri Benge said Thursday, watching Overton again dote on her daughter. "It's fun to watch. The way he interacts with her and stuff ... I don't know what else to say. He's a pretty one-of-a-kind guy."

McAfee was with Overton the day Mia was moved out of the ICU. The two Colts brought "a ton" of ice cream to share with patients in other areas of the hospital. Before they left, Overton told McAfee, "There's a girl we have to visit."

When McAfee saw the way the Benge family — including Mia's grandmother and cousins — reacted to Overton's arrival, he was filled with pride. In the punter's eyes, Overton had become just another member of the family.

While she watched her daughter converse with Overton on Thursday, Keri Benge would have concurred. She emphatically stated the pair's relationship is far from over.

Mia will start high school on Monday at Speedway, and Overton is likely to visit again as soon as he can.

"I think this Mia thing is going to change him forever, as it should," McAfee said. "Mia's going to do more for Matt than Matt has ever done for Mia."

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