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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published December 10 2011

Eriksmoen: Bennett first North Dakota-born athlete to win individual medal

The first North Dakota-born athlete to win an Olympic medal in an individual event for the U.S. was also an outstanding football and basketball player.

John Bennett Jr. was “an All-State halfback on the 1949 football team and captained Grand Forks Central’s basketball team in 1949-50.” He also won three state track titles: two in the broad jump and one in the high jump. After graduation, Bennett enrolled at Marquette University, where he won two consecutive NCAA outdoor broad jump titles.

On Nov. 24, 1956, at the Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, Bennett was second in the broad jump, the first person from North Dakota to medal in an individual event for the U.S. Ethel Catherwood, from Hannah, won the gold medal in the high jump in the 1928 Olympics, but she was competing for Canada.

Bennett was born Nov. 14, 1930, in Grand Forks to John E. and Doris Bennett. John Sr. worked in maintenance for various Grand Forks schools. Johnny, as he was known to family and friends, attended public schools in the city. His mother died on Sept. 14, 1941, and less than a year later, his father died on Aug. 22, 1942. The Bennett children were taken in by an aunt who lived in Grand Forks.

Bennett “was blessed with an abundance of natural athletic ability.” During his high school career, he earned nine varsity letters in three sports: basketball, football and track.” He was an outstanding forward and captain of the basketball team and one of the state’s top running backs on the football team, but Johnny’s performance in track and field made college athletic recruiters take notice. His top event, the long jump, was something he didn’t try until he was in high school. Bennett won the state titles his sophomore and junior years and likely would have won it in his senior year if he had not suffered a serious leg injury one week before state.

Following graduation from Grand Forks Central in 1950, Bennett enrolled at Marquette in Milwaukee, Wis., with a scholarship in hand for books and tuition. He only intended to participate in track, but as a freshman, he wandered onto the football field to practice kicking the ball. Bennett said, “I just about kicked the ball out of the park.” When the football coach, Lisle Blackbourn, “caught wind of it, he asked me if I would like to join the team on a full scholarship.” Bennett told his track coach, who said, “You’re kidding yourself. You’re going to get killed.” Bennett stuck to track, where he earned letters all four years.

According to his track coach, Bus Shimek, “Bennett had both the speed and the spring to be a great broad jumper, and he had the knack of consistently hitting the takeoff board in the correct place.” Bennett won the NCAA long jump crown in 1953 with a leap of 25 feet 3¼ inches at Lincoln, Neb. He defended the title at Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1954 with a jump of 25 feet 10¾ inches. Following graduation in 1954, Bennett was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

Bennett continued to participate in track events while in the military. At the Pan American Games in 1955, he jumped 26 feet 3¼ inches to become the first white athlete to go beyond the 26-foot mark. At the same games, Bennett earned a gold medal as a member of the relay team in the 4x100 meter race.

Bennett went to Los Angeles to compete for a berth on the 1956 Olympic team. At the time, there were six men who had jumped 26 feet or more, and all six were competing to make the team. On June 29, 1956, Bennett and jumped 25 feet 8½ inches, tying him for first with Greg Bell. The three broad jumpers who made the team were Bennett, Bell and Rafer Johnson.

In November, Bennett traveled to Melbourne for the Olympics. He said, “I was favored by many to win that event. I was first up, and I tripped, stumbled, and drove the spikes of my left shoe into my right calf on my takeoff leg.” Despite the injury, he had his best jump at 25 feet 2¼ inches, which was good for second behind Bell.

On Dec. 5, Bennett participated in a meet between the U.S. and the British Empire in Sydney, Australia, and again finished second to Bell. Bennett competed sparingly in 1957 and took part in the British Columbia Centennial Games in 1958, where he finished first and set a stadium record. He then retired from track and opened his own men’s clothing store in Sun Prairie, Wis., and Bennett’s Men’s Wear in Waunakee, Wis. He later became CEO of Advantica, a provider of technology and engineering services to customers in “gas, pipelines, and associated industries.” Bennett retired in 2004.

In 1980, Bennett was inducted into the Marquette Athletic Hall of Fame. In 1991, he was named to the Grand Forks Central High School Athletic Hall of Fame. On May 27, 2011, he was inducted into the North Dakota Track and Field Hall of Fame. Sports Illustrated picked Bennett as one of the 10 greatest sports figures for North Dakota of the 20th century. When asked about his success, Bennett said he looks back to his days in North Dakota as “the turning point of my life. I have always considered the area home, and proudly so.”

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.