By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half
The silver lining from tragedy can take a while to come into focus.
Searra Inman might not have been searching for it in the days that followed a motorcycle accident that would forever change her life.
Inman wasn’t supposed to survive the July 9 crash that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Surgeons in Indianapolis even used her as a case study due to the fact that almost no one with such severe spinal cord injuries has reached the operating table alive.
So, Inman kept living. Her goals were unchanged. And in the process of that pursuit, she slowly began to realize the lives she was touching along the way. Spurred on by an outpouring of support from her family, church, and classmates and staff at Niles Brandywine High School, Inman faced her new reality head-on.
The first item on the senior’s to-do list was to make good on a promise to herself to earn a four-year varsity wrestling plaque. The second was to reach 100 career victories.
“I love to do these things, and I don’t want to sit in bed the rest of my life and feel discouraged about the situation,” Inman said. “Instead, I pushed forward. Wrestling has helped with it. There were times in wrestling I wanted to quit and give up. Instead, I pushed through it and worked hard and gained a lot of mental strength. It helped me get through my situation.”
Veteran Bobcats wrestling coach Rex Pomranka received the news from Inman directly when visiting her in the hospital. He began talking to local officials about whether or not Inman would be allowed to take wins for the team if opponents failed to produce a wrestler at 103 pounds.
Both the officials and Inman’s doctors gave her the green light.
“She said she had a plan as to how she was going to get out on the mat and that she’d show me at our first meet, which she did,” Pomranka said.
In the season opener Dec. 5 at Bronson, Inman locked the wheels on her wheelchair, climbed down to the floor and crawled out to the circle. Very few people in attendance had any idea what was happening, including referee Kevin Raber.
“I wasn’t trying to show pity or anything, but I was thinking about other kids possibly snickering or saying something that was inappropriate,” Raber recalled. “I took a couple steps to her so she didn’t have to crawl all the way out to the middle. I raised her arm up and congratulated her.
“When it was all done, I didn’t want anything negative to happen, so I said, ‘Do you mind if I pick you up?’ She said, ‘It’s up to you.’ I said, ‘Well, I’d like to.’ So, I just picked her up. Everybody started clapping and it was a very moving moment. I didn’t realize until I was in the middle of it what was going on. Man, I had to swallow my tears in that moment. It was definitely profound and moving for me.”
Inman didn’t know what to expect as she boldly slid out of her wheelchair.
“I was nervous and so embarrassed,” she said. “I told my assistant coach that I didn’t know if I was ready to go out there. I didn’t know how it was going to look. I built up some courage, crawled out and, with everybody clapping, it made me feel like I was still out there wrestling even if there wasn’t an opponent.”
She didn’t mind the lift from Raber either.
“When he asked to carry me, I was happy,” she said. “I didn’t want to crawl back to my chair. There was somebody who wanted to help and saw how hard I was willing to push myself.”
Raber, unaware of Inman’s accident and the community’s fundraising efforts, felt compelled to donate his check from that night, as well as additional money, to Inman’s family — information he didn’t voluntarily divulge. He even made a trip to Brandywine a week later to talk to her about that emotional night.
“I was honored to be in that moment with her,” he said. “I officiate because I love the sport of wrestling. If it could help her have a little brighter Christmas, to be able to help her parents or anything, she could use it with a better purpose than I ever could have.”
Like Raber, Pomranka hardly kept it together that evening.
“I was in tears,” said Pomranka, whose brother was paralyzed in an automobile accident nearly 30 years ago. “This was a goal she was shooting for. I was trying to hide the tears; I’m was glad she was able to get back on the mat and do something she enjoyed. I’m just happy she is here to finish out her senior year.”
It was Inman’s 76th career victory. She’s now at 95 with the season winding down.
“It’s either going to happen at our last dual meet or at Districts if everything goes right,” Pomranka said of Inman reaching 100 wins. “A lot of the coaches have been really nice to bump their lineup around so she can get the forfeit. I appreciate the coaches doing that. They want to see her get to 100.”
Inman’s father, Chris, thought back to the day in the hospital when he had to deliver news no parent should have to deliver.
“For a day and a half, I was upset because I held back,” he explained. “We wanted to get all the information from the doctors. But she was starting to figure it out.
“She said, ‘Dad, tell me what’s going on?’ I walked up with tears in my eyes and she knew. ‘I’m paralyzed, aren’t I?’ She looked away with a tear in her eye and she just collected her thoughts. It was that mentality that I’ve seen from her with any challenge she has ever faced. She said she was going to walk again. From that moment on, that has been her drive. She’ll never walk without the assistance of something, but her goal is to get back upright.”
More goals include driving a car and, even if reluctantly, getting back to everyday tasks a lot less exciting than wrestling.
“My mom (Pepper) is always pushing me to do things I may not like doing, even though I’m in a wheelchair,” Inman said. “She tells me, ‘Would you have done it if you weren’t in a wheelchair?’ So, I go and do it.”
She still enjoys working on cars and motorcycles, changing the brakes on her parents’ vehicles and getting her hands greasy. But Inman’s passion is helping animals, so she plans to attend Lake Michigan College for two years before working toward a degree in veterinary medicine at Michigan State University.
Helping her get there have been a host of teachers, friends and even strangers. Teachers film their classes and send the video to Inman while she’s doing physical therapy at Mary Free Bed in Grand Rapids two days a week. Her therapists, she said, are aiding Inman in reaching a goal: She plans to surprise everyone on graduation day.
The funds raised by the community have kept the Inman’s out of what would have been crushing debt from medical bills. They’ve read and saved every well-wishing card they’ve received.
Admittedly private, Chris – who teaches at Brandywine – described how the community has rallied behind his family as a humbling experience.
“Early on they had her on a video conference live at the school,” he said. “It was a big fundraiser. They panned around and Brandywine’s cafeteria and hallway for hours was crowded. (Searra) made the comment, ‘Good grief, with this much support I can’t fail.’
“That was huge for her. I’d go into Walmart or a gas station or whatever, and people would just come up and give me a hug and ask about Searra. We started to see the impact, and people started sharing their stories and how they gained strength through Searra’s story. She didn’t even realize the impact she was having on everybody. Now she realizes her decision to stay positive and to smile has really impacted people.”
“The world sometimes is a rough, hard place,” Chris said. “You hear about all the bad stuff. You initially think you’ll never get through this. But people come out in support and share their stories, and then you realize the place where you live is pretty amazing.”
So is watching Inman smile as her hand is raised in victory.
“I have known a lot of people who have given up on something they really enjoyed because something bad happened,” she said. “I’m hoping with this situation I can bring out the best in it and give other people who don’t think they have a chance at something a reason to go out there and strive for it.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Niles Brandywine wrestler Searra Inman is assisted off the mat by official Kevin Raber during a match this season. (Middle) Official John Bishop raises Inman's arm in victory during a match at Three Rivers. (Below) Brandywine coach Rex Pomranka assists Inman. (Top photo by Troy Tennyson/Coldwater Daily Reporter. Middle and below photos courtesy of JoeInsider.com.)
ROCKFORD – Ben Bennett knew from an early age what he wanted his career path to be.
“I always wanted to coach,” the former Rockford High School wrestling standout said. “I think I have wanted to coach since I was in middle school. I wanted to be a college wrestling coach.”
Bennett, 33, is currently living out his dreams of becoming a collegiate coach as a member of the Central Michigan University wrestling program.
Bennett, one of the most decorated wrestlers in CMU history, is in his 10th season on 32-year coach Tom Borrelli’s staff.
“I was getting ready to graduate, and a position opened up,” Bennett said. “I think Coach Borrelli knew that I really wanted to stay involved in wrestling and get into coaching. I was fortunate enough to slide into that position, and he had enough faith in me to let me stay here.”
Before getting the opportunity to coach, Bennett amassed eight years of unbridled success at the high school and collegiate levels.
He was a three-time Individual Finals champion at Rockford and helped lead the Rams to a Division 1 team championship as a junior.
“I had a really good high school experience, and I really enjoyed wrestling for our head coach at the time, Don Rinehart,” Bennett said. “He coached for a long time, and we always had some very competitive teams.
“In 2007, my junior year, we won the team state duals, but every year we were really competitive and had multiple individual state champions. Those were the type of teams I was able to wrestle on, which made it pretty exciting and pretty fun when you have those types of guys around you.”
After excelling through the junior ranks, Bennett made an immediate impact for the Rams and captured the Division 1 championship at 140 pounds as a freshman.
However, the following year, he took third at 152 after losing a semifinal match 2-1.
That defeat was humbling for Bennett but also showed him how to handle adversity.
“At the time, in my eyes, the world was ending,” Bennett said. “You look back and it probably was more of a positive. It's good to have those things happen to you, and you face some adversity.
“And I think that's more relatable to life rather than just when you win all the time. I did a lot of winning, but when things are really important, sometimes it's good to fail, for things not to go your way because it will probably happen for the rest of your life.
“You have to learn how to respond and come back from that and handle it the right way and just get back to work. At the time, I remember how devastated I was, but looking back it probably was a positive thing long term.”
Bennett wound up collecting two more Individual Finals titles, at 160 and 171 pounds, to end his high school career and then was named Mr. Wrestler, receiving the award given to the top senior wrestler by the state coaches association.
“I wasn't even thinking that I might get that,” he said. “There are so many great high school wrestlers that come out every year, and thinking about the guys I wrestled … to be singled out as the one chosen for that award was pretty special.”
After graduation, Bennett took his talents to Mount Pleasant. He could’ve gone anywhere to wrestle, but found the right fit at CMU.
“I knew I wanted to wrestle in college, and it was close to home, which I liked,” Bennett said. “I didn't feel like I had to go across the country to have an opportunity to accomplish my goals. I felt like I could stay here and do that.”
Bennett is the only four-time All-American in CMU history and one of three Chippewas to have earned four individual Mid-American Conference titles.
Bennett twice earned the Chick Sherwood Award as CMU’s most valuable wrestler and was named the MAC Wrestler of the Year in 2012. He also had earned the MAC Freshman of the Year Award in 2010.
Bennett ranks sixth in CMU history with 121 career victories, and his career win percentage of .834 is fourth all-time. In 2013, he finished 31-2 for a .939 win percentage, the second-best in program history. He also won a school-record 30 consecutive matches during that season and finished a personal-best fourth at the national tournament.
“At the time I was disappointed with how my career went, because I was never a national champion,” Bennett said. “But I think looking back on it, I have a lot more appreciation for what I did.
“As a coach, I realize how hard it is to have success at the college level, and every year you see great wrestlers not make the podium. Sometimes I’m shocked when certain guys don’t place, and it makes me appreciate how hard it is to be a four-time All-American, let alone place one time or multiple times.”
The transition to the coaching side was a difficult process for Bennett, but he knew he wanted to mentor other wrestlers the way his former coaches did with him.
“You put so much into the sport and you realize how much time other people invested and how important it was for me to do well, and so I guess for me it was a hard transition to make,” Bennett said. “You’re so competitive and so focused on yourself, but then being able to help these guys improve, get better and hopefully accomplish their goals was something I was looking forward to doing.
“I had so many people help me do that, and then I was able to be in their shoes and give back to these guys.”
Coaching has kept him involved in a sport he loves.
“And I get to continue to learn and grow and develop in different areas, not just wrestling-wise,” he said. “I get to meet a lot of great people through wrestling and coaching. The guys who come through our program are pretty awesome people.
“I’m pretty fortunate, and I've really enjoyed the coaching side of it, being in the wrestling room with these guys. Getting them ready for a match and going over things after a match. There is a lot that goes into it, but I really enjoy it.”
The love of wrestling for Bennett began at 6 years old, when he was coached by his uncle Tom Bennett – a former Division III All-American – and dad Doug.
“My uncle did a ton for me wrestling-wise, and my dad was the conditioning and discipline-type guy,” Bennett said. “Together it was a good mix. For as long as I can remember, I was always in really good shape. I loved wrestling right away.”
Bennett admits that he probably missed out on a lot when he was younger because he was determined to be the best and his life revolved around wrestling and training.
“It can be a tough way to live, but at the time that's what I wanted to do so that's what I did,” Bennett said. “When I was little my dad always told me that I'm not going to take you across the country to these tournaments if we are not training to win the tournament, not going to fill out the brackets, so my whole life the goal was always to be a champion.
“Going into high school my goal was to be a four-time state champion. I wanted to win the senior nationals, the junior nationals, and I won all those things. Going into college, in my mind, the next step was to be a national champion, and I don't think you realize how hard it really is, and I don't think I realized how hard it was to be an All-American.”
Bennett was promoted to CMU associate head coach last June after spending nine seasons as an assistant. He said the biggest difference with his new position is on the administrative side.
“I do a lot of scheduling and budgeting, things I didn’t do as much before in my years as an assistant coach,” he said. “I’ve taken the reins on some of these things, and it’s good for me to learn.”
Bennett is content with his current role at CMU and continuing to evolve as a coach under Borrelli. However, he hopes to one day take that next step as the head coach of a collegiate program.
“That’s my ultimate goal with coaching,” he said. “When that will happen, I don’t know. I guess I’m not in a hurry. When it happens, it will happen. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can right now.
“Coach Borrelli is an unbelievable coach, leader, mentor and role model, so I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him and soak up as much as I can from him until I get an opportunity somewhere to be a head coach. Right now I'm happy with where I'm at, and when that time comes, it will come.”
Bennett, 33, is engaged to former Chippewas field hockey player Erica Garwood. The couple has been dating for seven years and will get married next month.
“We’re excited, and I’m sure life will really change when we start having kids,” Bennett said. “But it’s good right now. We both went to school here, and she has a good job at an elementary school in town. We enjoy it up here.”
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PHOTOS (Top) Rockford’s Ben Bennett stands atop the podium at the 2008 Individual Finals, and now with fiancé Erica Garwood. (Middle) Bennett wrestles Clarkston’s Adam Lauzun for the Division 1 title at 171 pounds that season. (Current photo courtesy of Ben Bennett; 2008 photos from MHSAA Archives.)