For years, John Benedetto was a staple of Land O' Lakes High football.
Following his retirement in 2008, he stepped out of the spotlight, but left a lasting legacy that touched generations who played and attended Land O' Lakes.
But the small community was saddened to learn Monday morning the longtime football coach died in his sleep Sunday night. Benedetto, Pasco County's winningest football coach, was 66.
"There was not a more caring individual I knew than John," said Tom Carter, a former assistant coach and player under Benedetto. "He was all about the kids, the players."
Benedetto spent 34 years working for Land O' Lakes, while 32 of those were as head football coach. Through that time, he sent hundreds of athletes to college, all the while amassing a 196-145 record, 13 district titles, 18 winning seasons, 17 postseason appearances and two trips to the region finals. He also ended his career in 2008 with 12 straight trips to the postseason.
This past summer, the Pasco County School Board voted to re-dedicate Land O' Lakes' football field John Benedetto Stadium. The official ceremony was held Oct. 19.
The news of Benedetto's death came just days after he celebrated his 66th birthday on Friday.
"I just walked to him Friday to wish him a happy birthday," longtime Gators boys basketball coach Dave Puhalski said. "We shared an office for 20 years … he was my mentor. … I asked him if he wanted to play golf (Monday) and he said he already played three times. … It's really hard to get through this."
After his final game in 2008 - a 23-20 loss to Daytona Beach Seabreeze in the Class 4A playoffs - he and his wife, Vanie, settled into retirement and have very little or no involvement in the program he molded and developed.
"I know he was enjoying the heck out of retirement, I know that for a fact," said longtime Gators baseball coach Calvin Baisley, an intern for Benedetto in 1979. "I have my coaching job because of him. He's been my friend for as long as I've had this job. … I honestly can't believe it right now. I'm … I'm in shock still."
For Benedetto, the real staple of Land O' Lakes football wasn't on-the-field success. It was the success of the players, on and off the field.
"There were always circumstances that came up with kids - always," Carter said. "He taught us to work with them, to help them get through whatever you need to get them through, from school to grades to football - anything.
"That is what John always wanted to do: take care of the kids."