In the spring of 1985, Donn Behnke was a social studies teacher at Stevens Point Area High School in Wisconsin, and already a very successful Track and Cross Country Coach at the high school level. In nine years of coaching, his cross country teams had won the Wisconsin large school state championships three times, while finishing as a close runner-up twice. That spring, as the track season started, he had his hands full with a team of over a hundred kids, so he wasn’t thrilled when a Phys Ed teacher showed up to his first practice with another kid, a big goofy special needs kid named Scott Longley, and asked that he be placed on the team.
Behnke’s first reaction was reserved and cool:
“Clearly this kid was being dumped on me, and I was determined to have no part in it. If Jerry wanted to do a little social work that was fine with me, but my list of responsibilities was already too long. It was nothing personal, I had nothing against Scott, but I wanted to coach, not baby-sit, and from the looks of this kid, managing him was going to be a full-time job.”
But on that first day of track practice, Scott, whose only running experience had been with the Special Olympics and in gym class, made it through a five mile run in the snow with his more experienced teammates. The next day, sore from the longest run in his life, he managed to claw his way all the way through an interval workout of six 800s. Behnke began to appreciate not only that Scott had it in him to be a runner, but that he had it in him to handle all sorts of challenges that life threw at him, without ever losing his exuberant love of life and his adopted team. As the other boys got used to Scott, they gave him a nickname, inspired by his appetite for hard work and his resemblance to the drum-playing muppet on the Muppet Show. From that first week on the Stevens Point Track Team, Scott became “The Animal.”
It took Donn Behnke thirty years to write Scott’s story. By his own admission, prior to collaborating with his daughter on the book, Behnke had never written anything longer than a grocery list. He loved to tell stories, though, and “The Animal Keepers” is a great story. Although it begins with Scott joining the spring track team, it’s primarily about the following cross country season, and the team’s quest to work through a rebuilding year and contend for another state championship.
Scott, we learn, has little in the way of stability in his life. For years he has been living in a group home, taken from his parents as the result of an abusive situation that is never spelled out. Scott is an “alphabet soup” kid, having been diagnosed with ADHD, LD (Learning Disability), and as EBD (Emotionally and Behaviorally Disturbed). But he is gregarious and team-oriented. And he likes to run, almost as much as he likes to watch pro wrestling and cheer for Hulk Hogan, his hero. In a sport where many athletes are reserved and introverted, Scott is the opposite, wildly enthusiastic about almost everything having to do with the team, and high-fiving everyone at the beginning and end of every practice.
Against all odds, Scott shows up for fall cross country in shape. He has, he tells Behnke, been running laps around the grounds of his group home. His approach to races is to go out too fast and try not to die too badly. He treasures every team victory, every trophy, and every cheap medal that he earns at invitational meets, as he slowly makes his way onto the varsity.
I won’t tell any more of the story, because it’s more fun to read Behnke’s account of all the obstacles Scott and the team face that season. Also, because the story is something much more than a chronicle of a high school team trying to win a meet. At the beginning, I was prepared for the story to be “inspirational,” in the sense that the protagonist, Scott, would overcome his handicaps and triumph against all odds. I wasn’t prepared to understand that this one kid would be the catalyst for the team coming together as few teams ever do, in one specific moment in their lives that would blaze suddenly, and then, almost as quickly, burn out. If Scott’s arrival on the Steven’s Point team is heart-warming, his departure from the team is heart-breaking, and it isn’t only for him that we mourn but for his coach and the teammates who have come to realize how much he has meant to them.
Behnke went on to win ten Wisconsin State Cross Country Championships with his Steven’s Point team. He was Wisconsin cross country coach of the year nine times, and in 2001 was named national high school coach of the year. He coached Chris Solinsky and Keith Hanson, runners who went on to win NCAA Div I National Championships. “Animal Keepers” is replete with Behnke’s observations and advice to his teams, and there’s a wealth of coaching wisdom in its pages.
But ultimately what keeps the book from being simply a chronicle of folksy or high-minded coaching maxims is something else that comes through in every chapter of Scott Longley’s unexpected, improbable story: an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the athletes themselves, and the opportunity they have to form a bond of love and mutual respect that transcends labels like “Special Needs” as they labor together on the absurdly difficult task of becoming the best distance runners they can be.