Jesse Benavides-Muñoz remembers his first days in football camp as a freshman at Maryville College, when offensive line coach Philip Bailey told the players, “Some of you all are not going to make it.”
Benavides-Muñoz, recruited from San Marcos, Texas, to play football for the Fighting Scots, worried that he might be one of those.
Bailey told him, “You’re going to make it.”
Not only did Benavides-Muñoz make it as an offensive lineman, earning All-conference honors three times, but today he’ll graduate with a double major in sociology and criminal justice.
“It would take me two hours to name everyone who had an influence on me,” Benavides-Muñoz said during a phone interview Friday.
The 22-year-old managed school, sports and work — something he’s done since high school.
This summer he’ll work mornings as an activities director at Camp Big Fish in Knoxville and later at Home Depot.
It’s the third summer for Benavides-Muñoz working at the Christian summer day camp program, which he started in through the Bonner Scholars, a scholarship program that requires community service.
“I fell in love with it,” he said.
As he prepared to challenge kids and guide them on their path with Christianity, he said with a laugh, “I taught myself more about the Bible.”
Benavides-Muñoz was a resident assistant for two years at MC and through the Bonner Scholars program he spent more than two years at Rockford Elementary working with first- and second-graders.
One student he worked with individually, Benavides-Muñoz said, “He was an intelligent kid, but he would get frustrated.”
In a small group of students with anger issues, he said, “We would hang out and talk about why they were doing what they were doing. ... They just really wanted someone to talk to.”
“I fell in love with a lot of those little kids,” Benavides-Muñoz said.
Maryville College didn’t offer a criminal justice degree when he enrolled, but he knew sociology would help him understand people and issues officers encounter, such as domestic violence.
He began considering a career in law enforcement during middle school, in a brief period when he was homeless with his mother and siblings. An officer caught him trying to steal chips, and Benavides-Muñoz said, “He ended up buying me the stuff.”
As a law enforcement officer, Benavides-Muñoz said he could protect and serve a number of children like those he has loved working with, but he decided he could affect even more by returning to a goal he first held in elementary school: to be one of “the few, the proud,” the Marines.
At more than 230 pounds since seventh-grade, he thought he’d never make the weight requirement. Now, however, he’s within 10 pounds. He’s participating in physical training Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Marines’ South Knoxville recruiting center, running long distances, doing push-ups and pull-ups and strengthening his core.
He’s looking forward to an aviation-based career with the Marines, perhaps later becoming a commissioned officer. He still might go into law enforcement after the military and completed an internship with the Maryville Police Department during the college’s January term.
His mother, father, sister and brother plan to be at today’s commencement, as well as a friend since their preschool days and the friend’s parents. In the past few years, Benavides-Muñoz has returned to Texas only during Christmas breaks as he focused on being a student athlete.
If military service doesn’t lead him to settle somewhere else afterward, Benavides-Muñoz said he likely will return to Tennessee. Today he finds Texas too crowded and says Tennessee reminds him of his home 15 years ago.
After working hard for his own education, this first-generation graduate said, “I hope I can help my brother and sister so they can enjoy college.”