Carey Bender's dreams were always bigger than his 5'8" frame. He wanted to play big-time football for a big Division I university, namely Iowa. Instead, he plays small-time football for a small Division III school, namely Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But, he says, "everything worked out close to perfect."
If life were just one big homecoming parade, Bender would be king. A senior, he does well in school, his girlfriend is a cheerleader at Coe, and he is well-mannered and a good son and brother. Last season the all-American boy was named to the All-America team and added another chapter to the gilded pages of his autobiography. He established himself as the best running back in Division III. Bender led the nation in rushing with 171.8 yards per game and finished first in all-purpose yards with 231.9 per game and fifth in scoring with 21 touchdowns. He also broke the record for most yards rushing in a game in all divisions with 417 yards on 33 carries against Grinnell College.
Filed and dreams are big in Iowa, as you might imagine, so it seems appropriate that Bender's dream became reality on a field only six miles from his home. As a child he began dreaming when he would go to Iowa City with his father, Cornie, to see Iowa play. "Hearing the crowd made me want to go play Division I football," Bender says. "Since Iowa doesn't have any pro teams, it's the biggest game in town."
When he was in sixth grade he wrote in one of those what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up essays that "Hayden would come ask me to play for him," referring to Hayden Fry, Iowa's football coach. Bender's teacher dismissed his dream as fanciful and brought the 12-year-old back to earth with her assessment. "I got a Bon the paper." he says, "and I was used to getting A's."
At Marion High, where he rushed for 1,750 yards in his senior season, Bender received initial feelers from Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. Coe? "The only thing I knew about Coe was that before their new field was completed, they used to play on our high school field and rip it up on Saturdays. At that time I didn't like Coe very much," he says.
On occasion—on Friday nights, to be exact—the feeling was mutual. Coe coach D.J. LeRoy and his wife, Pam, lived in an apartment beside the Marion High football field. Two of the LeRoys' children were very young, and Pam, who is a medical technician, started work at 4:30 a.m. The noise from the games was an unwelcome intrusion. "All we could hear over the loudspeaker was 'Bender gain of 10.... Touchdown, Bender,' " says D.J.
Despite those gains Fry never showed up at Bender's doorstep with roses and a letter of intent. Says Bender, "It came down to my height. The response from all those [Division I] schools was 'We're looking for a bigger back.' " So Bender packed off to Northern Iowa, one of the nation's top Division I-AA programs.
As a redshirt freshman Bender ran the scout team's offense and watched games from the sideline. "It was the one time something didn't go as planned," he says. "It was like a business there, and I wanted to play all four years in college and have fun."
"Plus he was a little homesick," says his mother, Leiften. So after his first semester, Bender gave up his scholarship and returned home—which makes perfect sense, because where else would a hometown hero live? He checked out the possibilities, then decided to play for the team that used to tear up his high school field. "I liked Coach LeRoy and his system—the way it involved the tailback running and catching the ball," he says.
In playing three quarters plus three plays in the fourth quarter against Grinnell in his record-setting 417-yard performance last October, Bender was a triple threat. As a running back he scored three touchdowns; as a receiver he caught two TD passes; and as a passer in the option he threw for one TD. He totaled 541 of his team's 771 yards in the 69-7 win. "I didn't realize the yards added up that fast," he says. "It just seemed like any other day."
Indeed, the next day began as usual. "Then the calls from reporters came," he says. "I just wanted peace and quiet. Then a TV station came over." Cedar Rapids' best story, the reluctant star who is ill at ease when folks recognize him at the sporting-goods store where he works, went national. He got mail from 17 states and one foreign country (a friend's father in Frankfurt had read about his feat). The player whose success is due in part to the hide-and-seek he plays with opposing players ("I get behind my linemen and the defense can't see me," he says) was no longer undercover. He even came to the attention of Marv Levy, a Coe alum and coach of the Buffalo Bills, who have had success drafting small-college players. "For us to be interested in a player from a real small college, he has to have totally dominated the competition," said Levy, who noticed Bender has done just that.
Any scouts looking for Bender after this season might check out Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where the Melberger Award will be given to the Division III player of the year. There are already so many awards hanging in his room that his mom says, with a sigh, "If we put up any more plaques, the wall's going to fall down."
In April, Bender was at another banquet, being honored by the Cedar Rapids Sports Club as one of its athletes of the year. He was seated with the coach of the school he had left, Northern Iowa, and the coach of the school he always wanted to play for, Iowa. As a film of Bender's runs against Grinnell rolled across the screen, Fry turned to the Northern Iowa coach, Terry Allen, and cracked, "Our recruiter in this area should be fired." Everyone laughed. Everything had worked out close to perfect.