For those who remember him as the wrestling great who belted out a rousing rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ before Illini volleyball matches, Ernest Benion Jr. is happy to report, “I still sing. I just have a different tune.”
Benion left Illinois 20 years ago with a slew of athletic achievements — first African-American wrestling champ in program history, three-time All-American, 1997 Dike Eddleman Athlete of the Year. But his personal UI highlight has nothing to do with sports.
“College life is a paradox,” he says. “It is a time of great learning and unlearning. While in the full bloom of youth, thousands of young people arrive on the campus of their choice to increase their intellect, and sadly for most, decrease their moral intellect.
“For me, the most memorable time on the U of I campus was the night, in August 1996, while lying in bed in my apartment at 706 South First Street, the Lord Jesus first spoke to me about my sinful condition. I was instantly seized with conviction about my life, and from there began to seek the Lord. It was the start of what has become the best years of my adult life.
“I have since become a full-time minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have had the privilege of preaching in seven countries, of spending nine months as a missionary to the Philippines, and have labored for the salvation of souls in many places in North America.
“And while not your typical memory, my time at the U of I was a pivotal one for which I am eternally grateful and can never forget.”