Wave Those Flags: Remembering Alex Benjamin
The overall character of a football community, be it local, national, or international, is a sum of its parts. Usually, we only see the high profile ones – the players on the ground, the coaches, and those in the upper reaches of the administrative hierarchy. But the living and breathing dynamic of a club or a league also includes and relies on umpires, clubpeople, and fans for continuity. For if it wasn’t for those, this community wouldn’t be here.
Alex Benjamin was himself an umpire, a clubman, and a fan of football, and he lived all of those roles with an unparalleled passion and dedication. He had a huge heart, a large smile, an easy going personality, and a nearly bottomless reserve of enthusiasm to the things that made him happy: footy, family, faith, and living life to the fullest.
Quite simply, he was a good guy.
Alex was a very important cog in the machine that is the American footballing community. And that community to which he gave so much was shocked and deeply saddened by the news of his passing on Saturday, March 4th, at the age of 48.
A native of Spokane, Washington, Alex Allen Benjamin’s life changed – like most of us footy devotees who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s – when he discovered VFL broadcasts on ESPN. From that point, he became an Aussie Rules football fanatic, following the clubs and the players from afar, something that became easier with the advent of the Internet.
His enthusiasm could not simply be contained to the other side of a television, however. Having settled in Smyrna, Tennessee, Alex volunteered to become a goal umpire for the Nashville Kangaroos, and one can count on one hand the number of games over the past decade or so where he hadn’t been between the pipes on either end of the ground at Elmington Park.
Alex was very proud of the number of games that he umpired for both the Kangas and the USAFL at Nationals. Every time we spoke, he would mention the ever climbing number, beaming with pride. In the end he stood as goal umpire for a total of 181 league games. His dedication and work towards the growth of the Nashville club also gained him the Clubman of the Year award in 2008.
Unmistakable in his white umpiring hat – they seriously need to bring those back – Alex had a style of his own as umpire. He was very meticulous with his calls, decisive and unmistakable.
He was very much a student of the game, and he brought that interest online with the launch of the USAFL Weekly Report webcast and blog, which began in 2010. A mixture of AFL and USAFL coverage, Alex hosted his show live every week with fellow umpire Lisa Albergo, fellow footy fan Stephen Kerbow, and a variety of guest hosts, including yours truly.
The show reflected Alex’s style; an intellectual discussion peppered with music and the requisite local weather report. Not just what the weather was in Smyrna, but in the hometowns of each of the host’s cities. I always thought it was a tad odd that Alex began each program by telling me what the weather was in Philadelphia considering I had windows and all, but I came to appreciate it as his touch to the proceedings.
Alex at Nationals was a picture of spiritual enthusiasm to the game of footy. Here he could be footy fan, umpire, and broadcaster. His weekly show shot into overdrive, as he would do over 20 shows in the course of the week, covering every nook and cranny of the biggest tournament. Case in point: my last appearance on his show was in 2015, when he and I sat in the corner of a dark bar in Austin and went through our predictions for that year’s Nationals. We could barely hear over everyone in the bar, but it was cool to sit and chat with him about how we saw that weekend’s games.
Jeff Persson, president of the Nashville Kangaroos and longtime USAFL Umpire Association member, worked with Alex extensively in both capacities.
"I have known Alex from the day he became a Kangaroo all those years ago," Persson said. "No one showed more love for the club or was more apologetic for missing a game (he only missed a couple in 10 years), than he. In addition to his passionate dedication to the game as a goal umpire, he helped us for years with pre-game and post-game write ups, and with our media connections to the world.
"I am saddened by this loss and at the same time so moved by the outpouring from not just the extended family of the Kangaroos, but from the USAFL, so many other teams, and the Umpires Association. It shows how much of an impact Alex had on footy in this country and indeed around the world."
It seems unfair that we won’t get to see him umpire again, or that we won’t get to hear his excited voice talk about footy's ever changing happenings, or gleefully announcing what number game he would be umpiring, or his famous predictions and recaps of AFL and USAFL matches. I know he was looking forward to covering IC17 on the Report and going to San Diego in October for Nationals.
But that we all had Alex here with us, and that we as a league and as a community had him, should make us thankful. He left us incredibly soon, but he leaves the Roos, the USAFL, and the game of Australian football richer for his presence.
Vale, Alex Benjamin.
Alex's Memorial service is scheduled for Friday, March 17th. You can see the Kangaroos' tribute to Alex here.