Tra Benefield didn’t expect to make the starting lineup. The shy freshman had only come off the bench in previous scrimmages.
But with one of the starters unable to play in CNU’s season opener, Head Coach John Krikorian told Benefield he was starting and asked if it would be too much pressure.
“No, I want to play,” said Benefield.
Three years later, senior forward Benefield has evolved from player to leader and is now captain of a promising, young team. Recently named preseason first team All-American, Benefield is a talented, yet hard working athlete whom teammates look up to and coaches admire.
“If you were to write a script of what should a CNU student athlete look like and act like and be like, it would be Tra Benefield,” said Krikorian.
Coming from a basketball family, Benefield has played the sport for as long as he can remember. He competed in three different jerseys throughout his high school career and, despite jumping schools, was a prominent player on each team. But his biggest impact has been in the blue and white, number three jersey.
An impacting Captain
Starting out at CNU, Benefield kept to himself, not saying much, just playing. And his playing spoke volumes—teammates didn’t think twice of the quiet freshman, until they saw him play.
But he was consistently hard working, respectful and on time for everything, and Benefield’s quiet dedication, coupled with his ability, caught Krikorian’s eye.
“His leadership by example, since the day he stepped on campus, has been tremendous and no different here as a senior,” said Krikorian.
Benefield’s active leadership developed as he was given more responsibility in following years.
He learned to help his teammates, whether through organizing workouts and preparing the team for games, or giving advice and checking on teammates off the court.
“He really oversees the whole program in the areas where I can’t be as a head coach,” said Krikorian.
Now, Benefield is one of the most vocal players, directing teammates on the court. Once his leadership reached this level during Benefield’s junior year, Krikorian named him team captain—the first and only captain in Krikorian’s four years at CNU.
“I never thought I’d be the guy to look up to because I’ve always been a shy person my whole life,” said Benefield.
“It’s still a process for me now, but I’m a lot better than when I was first given the role.” As he continues this process, Benefield hopes to make an impact on the team he has become responsible for.
A balancing act
His continual growth results from Benefield’s work ethic, both on and off the court. He struggled to manage school and basketball early on but worked to form strong habits.
Now, Benefield prioritizes in order to finish academic work as early as possible. He also makes time each week to mentor at-risk kids with the rest of the team at a local elementary school.
But most of his time goes toward basketball. Between practice and working out, basketball consumes Benefield’s schedule for around three hours each day, if not more.
On some nights, Benefield returns to the gym to practice his shooting alone. “It looks like natural ability, and he is a gifted athlete, but his basketball skills are something that he works harder on than just about anybody that I know,” said Krikorian.
Benefield is a versatile threat, with the ability to both shoot and drive effectively. His signature skill is a mid-range jumper in which Benefield pulls up off the dribble, seemingly defying gravity for a split-second to sink the shot.
“That really is what separates him from most players is his ability to do all three of those things—get to the basket, shoot the three and be effective in the mid-range,” said Krikorian.
Occasionally, Benefield sees athletes he competed against in high school playing for Division I universities. Over the summer, second leading scorer Nik Biberaj left the CNU team to play Division I basketball. With talent to match these players, Benefield sometimes wonders what would have happened had he played in a higher division.
Despite this, Benefield remains attracted to the strong athletic program at CNU and has made the most of his time here.
“I think everything happens for a reason, and I think I wouldn’t have had the type of career anywhere else,” he said.
From Rookie of the Year as a freshman to second team All-State as a sophomore, Benefield ended last season as a first-team All-Conference, All-State and All-Region player.
He began his senior season 12th on CNU’s all-time scoring list and hopes to carry his preseason All-American title over to the end of the season.
Recognition is nice, but to Benefield, basketball is about more. “It’s life to me,” he said.
“I feel like my sole purpose of being here on this earth is to play basketball and to influence others and make other lives better through the game somehow.”
Life after CNU
Breaking into professional sports is difficult, and even if Benefield can’t play professionally overseas, he desires to stay around sports as a commentator or analyst.
Backed by a communications degree and a family that has supported him since day one, Benefield is satisfied with any direction the future may take.
But that is the future, and this season is now. Benefield leads a young CNU team as it competes in a new conference, but he believes the team capable of contending for the championship.
“On the court, off the court, on campus, in the community—he’s the whole deal,” said Krikorian. “And we’re incredibly lucky that he’s here and really excited about how he’s going to finish this thing up as a senior.”