Juneau pitcher Chad Bentz returns to football

Oct 4 2010 - 4:29pm

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- With three college football games under his belt this season, 30-year-old Chad Bentz of Juneau boasts two telling statistics.

Number of touchdowns: 1.

Number of fumbles: 0.

Bentz, one of the only Alaskans to play Major League Baseball, has taken a detour from baseball to join the football team at Castleton State College in Vermont, where he has quickly established himself as a short-yardage fullback capable of bulling his way through defenses.

His ratio of touchdowns to turnovers is worth noting because Bentz isn't your typical college football player -- and not just because he's 30 years old and back on a football field for the first time since 1998, when he was a senior at Juneau-Douglas High School, and not just because he's a former Major League Baseball pitcher.

It's worth mentioning because Bentz only has one hand.

Born with a deformity that left him with no hand on his undeveloped right arm, Bentz was also born with natural athleticism and an attitude that never allowed him to believe his physical limitations meant limiting himself physically.

"Everybody fumbles," Bentz said this week in a phone interview from Castleton, Vt. "My hand doesn't affect how I play football at all. I carry the ball with my left hand and put my other arm over it."

That's a breeze compared with the adjustments Bentz makes on the pitching mound. He puts his glove on top of his right arm, pitches with his left hand and during his follow through slips his left hand inside the glove so he's ready to field his position.

Oddly enough, Bentz has baseball to thank for his new career in football.

And with luck, he someday might have football to thank for a resurrected baseball career.

Bentz hopes the unexpected foray into college football will relaunch a baseball career that ended with the 2009 season and included two partial seasons in the major leagues in 2004 for Montreal and 2005 for Florida.

Back in those days, Bentz faced opponents like Ichiro Suzuki and Ken Griffey Jr., who are among the victims of his 18 major-league strikeouts.

These days, he faces opponents like Plymouth State and Mount Ida -- fellow members of the Eastern Collegiate Athletics Conference, an NCAA Division III league. There's no age limit in Division III, which has less restrictive rules than those that govern Division I and Division II sports, in part because there are no athletic scholarships.

Bentz, wife Christie and 6-year-old daughter Kyla live in Rutland, Vt., and Bentz is a P.E. major at nearby Castleton State. He coaches a youth baseball team that includes the son of Castleton State football coach Rich Alercio, and when classes began this fall, Bentz stopped in Alercio's office to say hello.

Talk turned to football, and Bentz -- a hard-hitting running back for Juneau-Douglas who attracted some attention from college coaches before he chose to play baseball for Long Beach State -- said he wished he could play.

"I said, 'Why don't you?' and he looked at me like I was nuts," Alercio said in an interview this week. "He was a full-time student and he still had eligibility -- he just had to call his wife and ask for permission."

Bentz showed up for the next practice and was pleasantly surprised to learn he still had decent speed and plenty of strength.

"The next Monday I had everything but a helmet," he said. "On Wednesday I hit for the first time, and two days later we played Plymouth State."

Bentz said the first time he made contact at practice, he thought he broke his collarbone. He'd forgotten what it felt like to take a hit.

"I was sore. I was very sore," he said. "In the last game, I was in maybe five or six plays, and the next day it felt like I'd been in every single play."

In three games, Castleton State -- in just its second season of football -- is 1-2 and Bentz has carried the ball seven times for 19 yards and a touchdown.

At 6-foot-2 and 265 pounds, he is big and strong, and Alercio uses him the same way the Chicago Bears used 380-pound Williams "Refrigerator" Perry in their 1985 Super Bowl season. When the Spartans are looking at third-and-short or even fourth-and-short, especially if they are near the goal line, Bentz gets the call.

In a game two weeks ago against Utica, he twice converted on third-and-short and scored a third-quarter touchdown on a 3-yard run.

"When he's in the backfield, he's noticeably bigger than everybody else," Alercio said. "He's monstrous when he runs through the hole."

Bentz hopes to use football to regain the fitness he needs to attempt a Major League Baseball comeback. He attended training camp with the Colorado Rockies in 2007 but didn't make the roster, and since then he's played in the minor leagues. This summer, the season ended early when he was cut by a Canadian American League team in New Hampshire.

Bentz readily admits that his baseball career would be over if he'd been born with a deformed left arm instead of a deformed right arm. The reason: Left-handers are a precious commodity in baseball.

"If I was right-handed, I would definitely be done," he said. "But I'm not done. I can still get guys out. I still have that competitive nature."

Between football and working out on his own, Bentz hopes to be in top shape by March.

"I want to go to Florida and call some people and have them watch me throw a bullpen, but I want to be in shape to do that," he said. "It's a long road, but this is do-or-die time for me."

Bentz is less than two years away from completing his teaching degree, but with his wife's support he is prepared to put that career on hold while he gives baseball one last try.

"I have my whole life to be a teacher," he said, "but you can only play sports for so long."

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