Listed at 6’6″ and 310 pounds, Indiana Hoosiers’ offensive lineman, Kahlil Benson, is a big man with a mean streak on the football field. For every inch and pound of muscle and ferocity, the size of his heart measures at least double. A visible presence in multiple communities, Benson thrives on pouring his heart and soul into anyone who needs a smile put on their face.
Kahlil Benson is the Big Man with the Big Heart
“I love to talk to people, I love to meet new people, and I always wanted to be somebody that would help people out, someone that people could count on. I gotta big heart, I just love giving back, love helping people, and God has allowed me to use my word and my platform to get to other people who maybe they can’t get to somewhere themselves.”
A sixty-second snippet of a thirty-minute exclusive sit-down with College Football Network almost completely sums up Indiana offensive lineman Benson.
The program’s nomination for the 32nd AllState Good Works team has had his on-field struggles since arriving in Bloomington in 2020, but through his off-field work and personality, he’s become a source of inspiration.
His words are echoed by his energetic persona in sitting down to talk with me. We’ve never met before, but he talks as if we’ve been friends for years—a perfect example of how he loves to meet and talk to new people. He’s unreserved, he’s enthusiastic, and he’s honest as we converse at length about several topics that are close to his heart.
Those topics include his work in the community, which includes numerous hours dedicated to helping students with special needs—a commitment that began long before his time at Indiana. It includes work with Habitat for Humanity, and with Young and Established—a non-profit in Evansville that was founded in 2013 for the betterment of the community through youth motivation.
It also includes his work as a volunteer at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. From Indiana to Tennessee, Benson has made an impact in multiple communities, but all while providing an example that if a kid from a small town in Mississippi can make it—and make an impact—then anyone, from anywhere, can accomplish anything they dream of.
“I’m from a small town in Mississippi, a small town of 1,000 people, and it shows people that they have somebody who’s come from the same situation, who loves to help out.”
A Strong Female Presence
Tallahatchie County is an area of Mississippi with a current population of just 15,000.
It’s one of the smallest counties in the state, but in Benson, it raised a big man with a big heart. His foundations of community giving, of putting a smile on the face of everyone he meets, can be traced back to Tallahatchie and a rich combination of community, family, and faith.
Raised by a family where the church was the building block and guiding principle—”God is the head of my life”—of everything they did, Benson was surrounded by acts of kindness and the desire to deliver them himself from a young age. Those feats of community service were emboldened by a strong female presence in the household, led by his mother and grandmother.
“My grandma and mom instilled a lot in me,” Benson explains. “We always made sure that if we’re out and we saw someone who needed help, it’s not gonna take a couple minutes to uplift their day. It’s always good to help people. You never know when you’re going to be in need. So, always be friendly, always be mindful, always treat people like you want to be treated.”
LaTonya Benson worked hard in the local community, helping 16-24-year-olds who had fallen through the cracks of the education system to get back into school or gainful employment. Her visible presence in the local community helped inspire her son to be a similarly visible leader in whatever community he calls home on his path through high school and college.
The efforts of both his mom and grandma had a profound impact on Benson’s desire to give back, to help, to bring a smile to the face of other people.
As I found out, many of his community projects are intrinsically linked to endeavors he’d been involved with growing up in Tallahatchie County. This year, during Black History Month, he had the opportunity to honor their influence.
“You never forget where you come from,” Benson begins. “My mom and my grandma played a humongous role. It felt so good to let them see because it shows that I paid attention, that I’m growing up. I thank them so much. They made sure I kept my head on straight. Their encouragement, their words of wisdom, I appreciate them on another level.”
While the two female influences on his life shaped his community efforts, if it wasn’t for LaTonya, Benson might not even have the platform as a football player to help bring a smile to people’s faces. The Indiana offensive tackle laughs as he begins to tell me the story of how his mom got him first involved in organized football.
“Oh, Lord, have mercy! We were going to get something to eat and we saw a pee-wee football team. My mom says, ‘Have you ever thought about playing football?’ She ended up asking them, the coach ended up coming out, and I get up there, first day they put me in pads, and I was like ‘oh, I like this’ and ever since then I’ve been playing football.”
Football has Afforded Benson Opportunities Outside of the Game
Not only did Benson like football, it turned out he was good at it too. A first-team all-state selection and team captain at Southaven High School, the Mississippi native was ranked as the 17th overall prospect in the state in the 2020 recruiting class.
The impactful offensive lineman was also a two-year letter-winner on the school’s track and field team as a shot put standout.
While football enabled him to earn a scholarship at Indiana, it has also allowed Benson to pursue goals away from the field and to continue his pursuit of changing lives, putting smiles on faces, and giving back to the community. It has also afforded him opportunities to become more connected to his black heritage, taking part in the ‘Big Life Series’ trip to Selma, Alabama.
“That trip is a life-changing experience,” Benson becomes visibly emotional as we discuss the Big Ten event. “You have to be there to understand, it’s so big that it’s hard to talk about. What I will say is, there’s a lot of wisdom there. One quote that stuck with me is, ‘Education is the key to our success.’ Being well-educated, knowing a lot of stuff, that’s overall, everything.”
“I feel like that whole trip was a life-changing, eye-opening experience,” Benson continues to emphasize the impact the trip made on him. “I’m so glad that I had the chance to go there. I will not take that trip for granted. It was life-changing and something that I would encourage anyone to go to Selma, to go and see it. It’s life-changing, it’s very big.”
While being life-changing and an incredible opportunity, in many respects, it’s a continuation of a pledge to honor where he came from that Benson has been involved with for many years. Even before becoming a student ambassador at Southaven or his community endeavors at Indiana, the Hoosiers’ offensive tackle was contributing in an arena dedicated to his heritage.
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is located at the former Lorraine Motel. Its location is as important as its place in history. The motel was where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a living reminder of his contribution to change and place in the history of America.
For as long as he can remember, Benson has given his time volunteering there.
“The opportunity for me to volunteer there, I started when I was like a freshman in high school, maybe before. That place [where his mom worked] takes students there to volunteer, to help out wherever they need help. I was fortunate enough to go along with them, to learn more about the Civil Rights Museum, and to do more things in the community to show my face around.”
“Learning your background as well,” Benson continues discussing how his work at the Civil Rights Museum was a two-way impact street. “There’s a lot of wisdom in there.”
Remembering your background is a key component of Benson’s drive to give back to the community. The Indiana offensive lineman strives to show that even as a college football player who is put on a pedestal every Saturday, you are never too big or too important not to help others around you, to lend a hand to those in need, to put a smile on someone else’s face.
With his work with Young and Established and Habitat for Humanity, Benson has a direct link to his childhood growing up in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. His community endeavors fill his heart with joy and his head with memories.
“I like getting my hands on things,” Benson explains. “When I heard about Habitat for Humanity, I was like ‘yeah, this is what I’ve done.’ I grew up working on the house. My grandma had a garden, so my grandma and grandad taught me how to garden, do stuff like that. It was just another day where it was bringing back memories, it was like being back working on the house.”
“Same with Young and Established,” Benson continues. “All of that felt like it was bringing back memories. Much of what I’m doing now is bringing back memories of what my grandma and grandad taught me, of what they did in the community. I was like ‘let’s go do it, it’s going to be fun, I’m looking forward to it, I wanna go put the hammer on the nail.’ I love it.”
“That’s my goal, and I’m going to make sure it happens.”
July is turning to August when Benson sits down with College Football Network. He’s less than a month away from his fourth season with Indiana and coming off a 2022 campaign where he established himself as a starter and proved pivotal in helping teammates Jaylin Lucas and Connor Bazelak taste success in different spots throughout last season.
Benson has three years in Bloomington behind him, but just 12 appearances on his college football résumé. While he’s become nationally recognized for his work away from the football field, helping those less fortunate than himself, the Indiana offensive tackle has had to battle his own fair share of adversity.
“When I tore my ACL in 2020, I thought it was over,” Benson reveals. “I’m going to be honest with you, I thought my career was done. I’ve never had a major injury, it was a shock. It was mental adversity, emotional adversity, physical adversity. The mental part of it was the hardest, it was a lot of mental juggling to overcome. I got back to 100%, we’re good now.”
Unsurprisingly, it was the two female influences on his life that were a catalyst for overcoming all the on-field adversity that came Benson’s way in his first two years in Bloomington.
Sadly, his grandma passed away in 2021, so she didn’t get to see his return to the field in 2022, but that in no way diminishes her contribution to ensuring the continuation of his football career.
“I’m gonna tell you one thing,” Benson smiles. “My mom and my grandma, when they found out, it was like ‘keep your head high, you know where we come from. We’re gonna knock this thing out, we’re gonna recover, and we’re gonna get strong, and we’re gonna come back. Even if that’s not on the field, encourage your teammates and make sure they’re good.'”
Faith, Tallahatchie County, and two strong women have shaped and molded Indiana offensive lineman Benson, the big man with the big heart.
He lives to care for others and to make others smile. The redshirt junior has goals he wants to achieve, things he wants to do and see.
It comes as no surprise to hear those center around the woman who put him in the position he is now.
“I wanna see my momma retire,” Benson finishes our interview with his long-term goals. “That’s my main goal. It’s time to let her chill out; she’s been doing a lot, she’s a single mom. I’m tired of seeing her hurting, feet swollen, back hurting. Things I want to do and see? I want to take care of my mom, and I want her to see her stress leave.
“That’s my goal, and I’m going to make sure it happens.”