Coach Erle Bennett shaped community in Centralia through football
By: Yutao Chen, Lily Cusack, Matt Horn, Travis Meier
Jason Ridgel’s childhood in Columbia during the 1990s consisted of a drug-addicted mother and a convicted father. After his grandmother, his primary caretaker, died of cancer when he was 12, Ridgel was left to his own devices. He bunked with friends, family members and anyone else that offered him a bed. In middle school, he was put in the Juvenile Justice Center in Columbia twice.
Ridgel was asked one simple question as he was preparing to leave the justice center for the second time in 1995: “Where do you want to go?” The answer turned out to be Centralia, home of the Centralia Panthers football team, and its coach, Erle Bennett.
Ridgel now realizes that he has many reasons to be thankful for his choice. Bennett hasn’t just been a coach to him, he’s been a mentor, as well. Bennett nurtured Ridgel’s bright academic and entrepreneurial future and helped him escape a tumultuous childhood.
“He kind of reached out to me with different aspects of becoming what he thought a full person would be, you know, someone who’s successful in different aspects of their life,” Ridgel said.
In 1995, the justice center refused to release him under his mother’s custody, so he opted to move to Centralia with his stepfather.
“I didn’t want to leave Columbia because I knew everybody there, and that’s where my whole life was,” Ridgel said. “But I thought I better try to do something different or I was going to end up like everybody was saying, so I came up here and tried to turn over a new leaf.”
Creating a new life proved to be a difficult task for an eighth-grader entering a small, close-knit community. He started to assimilate to his new town by getting involved in track and field.
Bennett noticed his talent and recruited him for the football team when he reached high school.
As they got to know each other better, Bennett recognized and admired Ridgel’s strength and resilience.
“He was the kind of guy that pulled himself up by his bootstraps,” Bennett said. “I was on him quite a bit, so as far as male authority figures, I was it.”
Ridgel benefited from Bennett’s close attention to his academic and athletic progress. He learned valuable lessons on and off the field from his coach and team members.
“When I came...he was an older single guy and all of his life and time was spent in football and with guys like us, trying to help us out and keep us out of trouble,” Ridgel said. “[If you] didn’t have cleats, he’d give you a job, and you could work for him. Nothing was free, but, at the same time, opportunity was there if you were willing to take advantage of it.”
Bennett took away important lessons from his relationship with Ridgel, as well. In the following years, he developed a close relationship with Centralia Police Chief Larry Dudgeon.
Bennett and Dudgeon have worked together to familiarize the team with the police to keep them out of trouble. Dudgeon is present at every home football game to escort the players onto the field.
“If, for whatever reason, my business runs into, say, their business, it’s not the first time that I would have met those young men,” Dudgeon said. “I know them. I know their parents. I probably know their older brothers and sisters. Coach Bennett helped with that.”
Ridgel has grown a lot since his middle school and high school days. He is now the owner of an e-commerce business and multiple real estate properties. He is also an entrepreneur in the insurance and investment business.
Ridgel was not surprised when he heard Bennett announced his retirement at the last football game of the season on Nov. 12. Ridgel knew the time had come for the coach to hang up his whistle after 22 years and spend time with his wife and kids.
“I think he’s raised enough kids,” Ridgel said. “He should be able to raise his own now. He should be able to sit back and enjoy and watch his kids go through the system that he helped create.”
It’s been years since Jason Ridgel has revisited his old football memorabilia. As he removed his neatly hung varsity letterman jacket from a downstairs closet a week after Bennett’s last game, he examined his football, wrestling and track accolades pinned and sewn to the black jacket with nostalgic admiration. He slowly flipped through a photo album found on a shelf, stopping to smile at pictures of his teammates on the field and his future wife cheering from the sidelines.
“I was lucky to have the relationships that I’ve had,” Ridgel said. “I want to pay it forward. I want to help the kids like I was come through and be helped and do the best that they can with what they have.”