In his first season as football coach at Kimball Area High School, Johnny Benson’s team broke a 42-game losing streak.
The following season in 2018, the Kimball Cubs went 5-4 and won a playoff game. Benson was using the coaching style he learned from his late grandfather, legendary St. John’s University football coach John Gagliardi.
Last year, hoping to reverse the team’s early season slide, Benson and his staff decided to replace a starter in a key position. That decision was his last as Kimball’s coach, and one that may cost him a career: It led, he believes, to a baseless accusation that he sexually assaulted the starter he sought to replace.
A monthslong Stearns County investigation found nothing, and Benson was told in May he won’t be charged with a crime. But the school district had immediately placed him on leave in October, and under pressure he resigned both his coaching and teaching jobs. He has not worked since.
He still wants to coach and teach, so Benson, 27, decided to tell his story now in hopes that another school district will give him a chance.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m embarrassed and humiliated,” he said.
When he jumped into the flailing Kimball program in 2017, Benson was energized. He rounded up donations for jerseys and helmets from the business community in Kimball, a city of 800 about 20 miles south of St. Cloud.
The team ended its nasty losing streak and drew national attention, and Benson was asked to speak at football clinics. He was hired as a full-time special education teacher at Kimball High, what he called his dream job.
“I was getting a lot of very positive attention for the right reasons,” Benson said. “I had built something from nothing and people were very happy.”
For Benson, football was family. He played quarterback at Becker High School and lived with his grandfather in Collegeville while growing up. Gagliardi coached the Johnnies for almost 60 years before he retired in 2012, winning more games than any college football coach in history and forging a Hall of Fame career. He died in 2018.
“Everybody and everything in my life was about football. I didn’t have hobbies like hunting and fishing,” Benson said.
He played for St. John’s, though he wasn’t good enough to play much, and majored in business before returning to school for his education degree.
Much of what happened at Kimball High is not in dispute, according to Stearns County investigative files.
The player at the heart of the accusation, who is not being identified because he was a juvenile and was considered a possible victim, was the last in the locker room after practice about 6 p.m. on a Wednesday in early October.
The player complained of an injury, so Benson rubbed pain cream on his lower back and hamstring. Benson wore gloves and the player wore underwear. Afterward, Benson said, they talked about football and NFL players who had successfully changed positions.
Benson went home at 9 p.m. Shortly after he left, a janitor let the player’s distraught mother into the school building and the locker room. According to the Stearns County report, she cried with relief at seeing her son, who had his cellphone on silent and had missed a dozen calls from her. His mother later described him as “mellow” and “tired” as she told him they were “freaking out” about being unable to reach him.
She said her son told her that Benson had given him a massage, they had been talking and he lost track of time. His girlfriend arrived and took him to his father’s house.
But the player faced more questions about his whereabouts from his father, whose cellphone calls Benson had been blocking. A decision was made to go to a hospital, where the player was given a sexual-assault exam, swabbed for DNA and tested for drugs.
No drugs were found in his system, Benson’s DNA was not on his body and there was no evidence of physical trauma. But when interviewed after midnight by Stearns County Sheriff’s investigator Mark Mix, the player was asked if he thought Benson had assaulted him. The player said “probably” but that he didn’t “know for sure.”
According to the report, the player told Mix: “I feel like he maybe did something because three hours is a long time and I don’t remember everything that happened in three hours. So I feel like something could have happened in that amount of time.”
The investigator asked if Benson had ever done anything to others on the team, and the player said no.
“So you don’t think he sexually assaulted you but it just felt weird?” the investigator asked. The player responded, “Yeah. Like he might have like I said but I couldn’t — I don’t recall.”
The boy’s father declined to answer questions but sent a statement to the Star Tribune, saying that neither he nor his son had accused Benson of anything. But he added that the investigative report suggested “something a little questionable about Mr. Benson.” He didn’t elaborate.
“I was concerned about my son acting strange and not like himself after [going] missing for over three hours so I took him to the hospital to get checked out,” the father wrote.
The following morning, Benson was escorted out of his classroom. He didn’t have tenure, and on the advice of his union lawyer decided to resign before a special school board meeting could be held to consider his case.
While the county was investigating, Benson hired criminal defense lawyer Joe Friedberg to take his case. Friedberg made Benson take a polygraph test, which he passed, and then sent his own investigators to Stearns County to look into Benson. They found nothing.
“He doesn’t have a job. His reputation is ruined and there isn’t anyone accusing him of anything,” Friedberg said.
He said the player obviously was having a “heart-to-heart” with Benson and “didn’t want his father to know that.”
The county’s investigation offers a hint of what might have gone wrong. Mix told assistant coach Joe Anderson that “more than one person” said the allegation had been made to “get back at Benson” for moving the player to a new position. Anderson “agreed with that but thinks they didn’t think it would get this far,” according to Mix’s report.
Anderson, who took over briefly as head coach after Benson left, said in an interview with the Star Tribune that Benson’s life had been “destroyed” over a “weird struggle for power.” Anderson, whose three teenage sons are active in Kimball sports, continues to support Benson, whom he said tutors his sons when they need help with school.
“Johnny was very popular with the kids,” he said. “He was a great teacher. He might need to learn to play the politics a little better.”
Ashley Hoglund, a veteran special-education teacher, got to know Benson when he was a substitute and encouraged him to apply when a full-time position opened. “He had more of a passion for it than anybody I’ve ever met,” she said.
Benson, who lives in the house his grandfather left to him, keeps scrapbooks that his players’ parents made for him and a letter from the prosecutor saying he won’t be charged. Before this happened, he said, he had job offers elsewhere. He’s hoping someone is willing to bet on him again.
“They’re going to get a guy who’s had success, and they’re going to get a guy who’s hungry to prove what was said is wrong,” he said.