Elijah Benoit (9) started his career at NCAA Division II Florida Tech, and is now contributing as a cornerback at Eastern Illinois. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)
As a product of Haitian parents, Eastern Illinois cornerback Elijah Benoit was taught early on in life about the value of respect.
When he’s around people in authority, such as coaches, trainers or elders, his upbringing shines through.
“They have a position of leadership over me, and my job is to respect them,” he said.
When it comes to his teammates, Benoit – whose smile is rarely absent — said he has a different duty.
“I feel like I’m meant to be a light for people around me,” he said. “I feel that the best way to be a light is to be positive. One way I show my positivity and shine my light is by smiling.”
Benoit, a Florida native, began his unique career on the NCAA Division II level before walking on and eventually earning a scholarship at the University of Central Florida, an FBS program. This season, Benoit has 15 tackles, two pass breakups and a forced fumble for the Panthers.
After games, Benoit prefers a burger, fries and “a good milkshake.” His favorite Halloween candies are Skittles and Starburst, though he never went trick or treating as a child.
Learn more about Benoit in our Prairie State Pigskin Moving the Chains Q&A:
You grew up in the Tampa area. How much of your mind has been on folks recently impacted by Hurricane Ian in Florida?
I’ve been calling my parents every day or a couple times a day to check up. I have some family down in Fort Myers that was impacted by the hurricane. Everybody’s safe, and everybody’s alive, so I’m thankful for that.
Your career began at Division II Florida Tech, which no longer has a football program. How did you end up there?
Coming out of high school, I didn’t have any offers. Florida Tech offered me on signing day, so I signed with them. I spent one semester there. It was a good experience. It got me acclimated to college football. It was a great steppingstone. I built some great relationships.
In all of football headshots throughout your career, you’re always smiling. What makes you happy?
My relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, first and foremost. I’m a person of faith. I feel like I’m meant to be a light for people around me. I feel that the best way to be a light is to be positive. One way I show my positivity and shine my light is by smiling.
In what other ways do you try to project positivity?
By uplifting the people around me. I have a servant attitude. Naturally, as you uplift people who are around you, you’ll uplift yourself. Pouring into other people and facilitating the development of everyone around me is really what gives me life. One of the main reasons I enjoy playing football is to pour into the other guys.
Where have your academic pursuits been focused throughout your college career?
I graduated from UCF with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. My passion for pouring into people influenced my decision to study psychology, because I want to be a therapist. After I’m done playing football, I want to pursue my doctorate degree and become a licensed therapist. (He is currently enrolled in the Talent Management master’s program at EIU). Talent Management is about teaching a lot of leadership qualities. A lot of it ties into the role I take seriously on the team as a leader. It’s taught me exactly how to be a leader, not only in corporate positions but in every walk of life.
Those lessons are applicable outside of the classroom and outside of the corporate space.
Leadership is shown in a lot of different ways. How would you describe yourself as a leader?
I describe myself as a servant leader. I believe that the best way to lead is by serving, by action. There are guys who are gifted in different ways than I am. Some guys are vocal leaders. Some guys are quiet leaders. I just walk my walk and there are guys that follow. I take pride in the development of people around me and serving others. I don’t think I’m too good to help the next man out and to serve others and humble myself.
What about your career path has made you a better player and person?
The overwhelming narrative in my career has been resilience. I started at D-II, walked on at UCF and earned a scholarship. Then, I transferred here, got hurt and was out for a whole season. This is my fifth year. Through it all, I feel I’ve been called here for a reason. I don’t try to look back or ahead. I try to maximize and actualize my potential in the present moment because that’s where I am. My job is to make the most of where I am with what I have and with who I have with me.
You were born in a state that is known for football. Growing up, who were your favorite football players?
I had multiple favorite players. Darrelle Revis was one of them. Sean Taylor was one of them. Ed Reed was another one. All DBs.
When you were growing up in Florida, were you a fan of the Hurricanes, Gators or Seminoles?
I was definitely for the Miami Hurricanes. I’m a first-generation American citizen. My parents are from Haiti. They grew up in Miami, and I grew up watching Devin Hester play. I grew up watching (quarterback) Jacory Harris play and all the old guys.
What parts of the Haitian culture do you connect with?
The main part of the culture I embrace is respect for people who are in positions of superiority. My coaches, my elders, my trainers, anybody who exercises a position of leadership over me. It’s holding an attitude of reverence over them, no matter how I feel about them in the moment or as a person. They have a position of leadership over me, and my job is to respect them.
When did your parents arrive in the U.S.?
They came over when my dad (Frandy) was 6 and my mom (Gabrielle) was 12. They met in Miami. I was born in Miami. Then we moved to Tampa when I was 5.
If you could play another college sport, what would it be?
Definitely baseball. I played second base and left field. Baseball was my first sport, actually. I was pretty good. I just lost the passion for it as I got older. If I could go back, I’d definitely play baseball. I had a great glove at second base, and I was a contact hitter and on-base guy at the plate. I had more speed than a lot of my peers.
UCF’s home stadium is officially called FBC Mortgage Stadium. But fans around the country know it by its nickname, the Bounce House. What’s a Saturday home game like at UCF?
If it had to be summed up in one word, it would be electric. As soon as you walk into the stadium, you can feel the energy. The fans love the players. The players love the fans. They just feed off of one another.
Who is the best wide receiver you’ve ever played against?
I have two. Justin Jefferson (from LSU and the Minnesota Vikings) and Gabe Davis (Buffalo Bills via UCF). I was the same age as Gabe at UCF. I got to go against him a lot.
Which teammate at EIU is the most inspirational?
One guy that resonates with my story of having to walk on and earn a scholarship is (wide receiver) Nile Hill. He came here as a walk-on and every single day he brought energy and passion and love for other guys. I see a lot of myself in his story. That’s inspiring for me.
What are your favorite pregame and postgame meals?
Pregame would have to be chicken and pasta. As for the postgame meal, I’d say burgers and fries and a good milkshake.
Halloween is coming up, so what’s your favorite candy and which one would you throw in the trash?
I’m definitely throwing away the Milky Way and the Three Musketeers. The thing I’m grabbing first is either Skittles or Starburst.
When you were a kid, what was your favorite costume?
We never went trick or treating for Halloween. I never got to go. I go to Halloween parties now, but I never dress up.
When you want to relax, what’s your favorite hobby or activity?
No. 1, listening to music. No. 2, reading books.
What’s the best book you’ve read of late?
It’s called “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self” by Carl R. Trueman. I consider it a perfect book for a lot of modern social issues that we have. It really resonated with me, and a lot of questions I had were answered in that book regarding sociology and psychology.
Do you have a favorite TV series that you’ve binged recently?
“Insecure,” starring (actress and comedian) Issa Rae. That’s my favorite show right now. It’s on HBO. It’s very relatable. She’s a girl going through everyday life facing problems, and the show follows how she overcomes those problems.