Larry Benefield didn’t attend Louisiana State University. He has been to only one football game there in his life, a matchup against Kentucky in the 1980s or 1990s.
But the Gulfport, Mississippi resident owns one of LSU’s most storied artifacts of school history — an autographed football from the 1958 national championship team. It was left to Benefield by one of his insurance customers.
He enjoys telling the tale of how he got the football, especially to his LSU friends who are jealous he has the memento.
“It’s been quite a conversation piece,” Benefield said. “I really don’t take it out because I don’t want anything to happen to it.”
Benefield was selling insurance in the 1980s and was at the office about 6:30 one night when the phone rang. He hesitated answering so late, but he did, and it was Foy and Mozelle Bennett, a retired couple who lived in Lizana. Their house insurance had been canceled, and they needed to get a new policy.
The Bennetts persuaded Benefield to come over for supper and help with their insurance problem.
“It was one of those meetings where you walked in and immediately felt at home,” Benefield said. “I developed a friendship with them, and I visited them like they were family.”
During those visits, Benefield learned Foy Bennett had been the CEO of Holsum Bread in Baton Rouge in the 1950s and that the company sponsored the LSU football games on the radio.
“In those days, games weren’t on TV, so it was a big deal to sponsor a team on the radio,” Benefield said.
In the 1958 season, the team went undefeated and was named the national champion in the Associated Press and the Coaches’ Poll before playing Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1959. LSU defeated Clemson 7-0.
The team presented Foy Bennett with the ball, signed by all the coaches and players. The signatures are separated into sections to match the names then-head coach Paul Dietzel had given to different parts of the team. Dietzel’s 1958 squad was divided into the White Team, the Go Team and the Chinese Bandits, Dietzel’s name for the defense.
Some of the writing on the ball has begun to fade, but the leather is in good shape and most of the names still are clear. Included in the signatures are ones by Billy Cannon, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1959, and assistant coach Charlie McClendon, who went on to be the head coach of the Tigers.
Benefield saw the ball in the Bennetts’ home, but didn’t pay too much attention to it. The ball is dark brown and doesn’t have the white markings today’s footballs do.
“I remember seeing the football on the mantel, and he was very proud of it,” he said.
The ball was in a special gold holder that has an engraved plaque on the front.
“They were LSU fanatics,” Benefield said. “Why they retired in Mississippi I never fully understood, because they were such a part of Louisiana.”
Foy Bennett died in the late 1980s, and Benefield still visited Mozelle Bennett regularly, watching a Saints game with her or cutting her grass, until she died in the early 1990s.
After she died, Benefield got a call from a lawyer in Biloxi who said Mozelle Bennett had left him something. His gift was two LSU footballs and several swords. One of the balls was the 1958 national championship ball and the other was a commemorative ball from the 1966 Cotton Bowl, signed by that year’s team.
“I realized this was not just a normal football,” Benefield said. “It was something that was special to them and something he took really good care of.”
Benefield keeps both footballs in a box, wrapped in a beach towel to preserve them.
In a 2003 interview with the Sun Herald, Dietzel said he remembered Foy Bennett, known as “Blondie” to his close friends.
“He was a big booster at LSU,” Dietzel said. “I remember him well.”
Dietzel said the football Benefield has likely is one of only a few from that Sugar Bowl victory, which was LSU’s first national championship.
“There are not very many balls from that game,” Dietzel said in 2003. “But to my knowledge, there was only one ball that we all signed. I’d say that’s a very valuable ball.”
Benefield has tried to have it appraised but can’t find anyone in Mississippi or Louisiana to do it. He’d also like to find someone who can preserve it so the names don’t fade.
“It’s hard to put a value on something like this,” he said. “Somebody once offered me $10,000 for it, but I didn’t want to sell it. I’m not really sure what I’m going to do with it.”
Benefield would like to donate it to LSU in the Bennetts’ name, but wants to have it appraised first.
“It really needs to be at LSU,” he said.
He said he is looking forward to LSU’s rematch with Alabama in New Orleans in January.
“I was born in Alabama, but I’ve always liked LSU and Alabama. They are my two favorite teams,” he said. “I just want the best team to win.”
This article originally appeared in the Sun Herald of Mississippi.
Was this article valuable?
Here are more articles you may enjoy.