Goal-setting key to Iowa football linebacker Seth Benson’s success

When he was a freshman, Seth Benson just wanted to play on special teams. Now, he’s one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa linebacker Seth Benson (44) directs the defense during a football game between Iowa and Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind., on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022. The Hawkeyes defeated the Boilermakers, 24-3.

Iowa senior linebacker Seth Benson said goal-setting has been a key to his success as a two-year starter on the Hawkeye defense. But, that mindset did not begin when Seth came to Iowa City from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 2018. 

As a youth football player, Seth wanted to run the ball out of the backfield. And he was determined to reach his goal.

When league officials began to consider him too big to play running back, then-preteen Seth began to examine his eating habits and stayed away from junk food, when possible.

Seth made the weight required to carry the ball, and he showed enough skill to remain a runner until high school. Seth retired from running the ball when he graduated from Washington High School in 2018. 

Seth won three 11AAA state football championships at Washington. He played quarterback, running back, tight end, and linebacker in his high school days.

“He’s no-nonsense, he’s a great teammate,” said Chad Stadem, Seth’s high school football coach. “He’s so good at getting people aligned. He doesn’t degrade anybody. He’s just so good at pulling people together and setting the standard and expectations. I know he’s done the same thing down at Iowa.”

Seth helped Stadem build a culture at Washington. In his second season with the Warriors, Stadem implemented new rules that emphasized progress in the weight room. 

Players used to take their time working out. Stadem, however, would only let his players be in the weight room for 48 minutes — the time it took to play a high school football game — and sitting wasn’t allowed.

Seth, who was a freshman at the time, was not afraid to stand up to the Warriors’ older players when they didn’t follow the new rules. 

“Seth walked over to them, he’s like, ‘What are you doing?’” Stadem said. “And they both looked at him, he goes, ‘Get your butts off the bench and start lifting. There’s no sitting. You heard Stadem, no sitting.’ And the seniors are looking at him like, ‘Who are you?’ He goes, ‘Get going.’ I mean, he’s a freshman walking up to seniors and telling them, ‘Get in line.’

Film at the dinner table

When Seth doesn’t play well, shrugging it off quickly isn’t always his style. Seth’s parents, JoElle and Chuck Benson, said their youngest son has been known to watch film on his phone during family dinners.

JoElle and Chuck said Seth’s version of dinner and a show is an example of his impressive will to improve.

Contributed photo of Seth Benson hugging his high school coach, Chad Stadem, after Benson’s high school team won a second title.

“In the weight room, in the training, watching film, there’s just not anything that he won’t do to make himself better,” JoElle said. “I think he gave up pop in fifth or sixth grade because he knew it wasn’t healthy … He went the extra mile. He buys in. He’s all in. He’s gonna stay the extra time. He’s gonna go early.”

Benson’s never-ending quest to be the best showed up in a moment Stadem has memorialized in his house.

After Washington won its second straight state title, defeating Brandon Valley, 41-31, Benson ran up to Stadem instead of celebrating with his teammates.

“As everybody is sprinting onto the dome floor for the state championship celebration, Seth is running the opposite of the crowd and running towards me right when the game got done, and he hugged me,” Stadem said. “He says to me, ‘We’re not done yet because we’re gonna win the next one too. We’re gonna be the first team in big school history to win three in a row.’”

Seth’s Warriors team did, in fact, win a third straight state championship the next year. During his final title run, Seth thought he was going to play college football for South Dakota State. But a last-minute offer from Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff changed the now 6-foot, 232-pound linebacker’s mind.

Hawks swoop in, grab Jackrabbit

Seth was not highly recruited during his junior and senior seasons of high school. South Dakota State recruited Benson as a legacy player because both of his parents, and all three of his siblings, went to school there.

Seth was almost set on playing for the Jackrabbits. Then, Iowa began to show interest in him after his senior season.

Iowa special teams coach LeVar Woods had seen Benson on the recruiting trail, but never showed much interest in him. After some persuasion from Stadem, however, Woods began to pursue Seth.

“His senior year, the first three games of the year, he was unbelievable,” Stadem said. “All of a sudden, he was faster, stronger, better. And his first three games, he dominated on defense and special teams for us. My defensive coordinator and I were talking, and he goes, ‘Hey, Seth’s playing on another level.’ 

Stadem said Washington’s defensive coordinator at the time, Jeff Fitzgerald, used to coach at Division II University of Sioux Falls. Fitzgerald told Stadem that Seth looked like a Big Ten linebacker. 

Consequently, Stadem called Woods in September 2017 with some advice.

“I call LeVar and I go, ‘Hey, dude, you gotta look at Benson again.’ He goes, ‘Well, what’s going on?’ I said, ‘I know [he verbally committed to SDSU], but you gotta look at him again.’ Then LeVar goes, ‘OK.’  

A couple weeks later, Stadem said he got a call from Woods. He agreed that Seth could play in the Big Ten, but there was a catch. The Hawkeyes had already offered scholarships to all of their linebacker recruits in the 2018 class. Seth got his chance at Iowa, however, when one of the linebackers the Hawkeyes had offered decided to go to Nebraska.

Even though Iowa had a spot for Seth, a deal was far from done.

JoElle said Iowa extended Seth a scholarship offer in December 2017. He committed to the Hawkeyes on December 31.

“It was a bang-bang thing,” Chuck said of Seth’s visit to Iowa. “We went down there and they offered him in coach Ferentz’s office. Then, he went and watched practice. I can still remember [Seth] sitting on the sofa when we got home, and he was just in a dilemma because the mindset was South Dakota State. That was where he was going, and then all sudden, now, you know, there’s this opportunity that came into your lap. He had to decide and it was a tough decision.

“We sat down and just weighed the pros and cons … What I told him is, ‘If you don’t try it, you’ll always look back and think what if.’”

Chad Greenway — a South Dakotan and former Iowa linebacker — also offered Seth guidance as he chose between South Dakota State and Iowa.

“I was just kind of weighing my options,” Seth said. “I didn’t really know what to do. But he just called me and said he was in the same situation as I was. He just wanted to be a resource for me and kind of told me, ‘Sometimes in life, you gotta take a leap of faith. You know, you might not know what’s coming, but you just got to hit it full force forward.’”

The Benson bunch

While Seth didn’t commit to a school in his home state, his parents still come to all of his games. His sister is in the stands for all of the Hawkeyes’ home games, and his grandparents are frequently in attendance too.

Seth’s brothers, Cole and Austin, followed him to Iowa City to pursue postgraduate degrees.

Austin is in a residency program at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and Cole is in dental school. The pair tries to come to all of the Hawkeyes’ home games.

Contributed photo of Seth Benson’s family supporting Benson before he enters Kinnick Stadium.

“It’s just perfect because I know we’re further from home, but we have each other,” Cole said. “Then, during football seasons, family visits all the time anyways. So, we just see them a lot. Whenever he’s free or just doesn’t have really any better plans, we can meet up.”

Austin said he sees Seth and Cole at least once a week when they come over and play with his son.

While the three Benson brothers hold down the fort during the week, a coalition of about 20 friends and family members come to support Seth at each home game. 

“We’ve never missed a Hawk Walk, and we don’t plan on it,” said Seth’s sister Ellie Benson. “[Seth] comes over, and he hugs us. I think the first time he did that, I think I cried because no one else did that to their families. Now, senior year, I see a lot of kids going to their families. And I don’t know if he started that. As a freshman, you don’t really know what’s expected and what you can and can’t do. He came over and he hugged us. That’s like my favorite memory ever in the last five years. I’m gonna miss that a lot.”

Benson’s Hawk Walk hugs haven’t changed since he put the Iowa jersey on. But on the field, he has transformed himself from a freshman who just wanted to play on special teams to one of the Big Ten’s best linebackers.

One goal to the next

Seth said, ever since he got to Iowa, a key to his success has been goal-setting.

“My goals had to grow,” Seth said. “I came in here with some goals set, reached those goals, and had to set new goals. Now, you know, I’m trying to attain those goals. 

“I think it’s just coming in each day and growing. You know there’ll be setbacks and there’ll be tough times. But coming in each and every day and having the support of [linebackers coach Seth Wallace], and the other linebackers keeping me going and telling me that I can do it, and I can play here, that was big for me.”

Seth said his goal freshman year was to play on special teams. When he got his chance to play defense, he was ready. 

Iowa linebacker Seth Benson celebrates a recovered fumble during a football game between Iowa and Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill., on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. The Fighting Illini defeated the Hawkeyes, 9-6. (Daniel McGregor-Huyer)

He redshirted after playing three games during his true freshman season. He participated in every game in 2019. Over the last three seasons, he’s started all but one of the Hawkeyes’ games. He missed a contest in 2020 with an injury.

Seth was second on the team with 105 tackles in 2021, trailing only fellow linebacker Jack Campbell’s total of 143. Seth was a 2021 third-team All-Big Ten honoree.

“Seth is a great guy, and I feel like he honestly deserves probably more [media attention] than me,” Campbell said. “He just does all the little things. He’s as tough as they come. He came a year before me. So, when I was young, he was just always good to me, so I owe him a lot. But yeah, I feel like he deserves a lot of recognition for everything that he’s done for this program.”

This season, Seth is Iowa’s second-leading tackler behind Campbell with 73. He nabbed his second career interception against Purdue on Nov. 5.

This year, Seth also has 3 ½ tackles for loss, one sack, and four quarterback hurries. 

“Seth’s amazing,” junior defensive lineman Logan Lee said. “He’s a great leader on the team. He has incredible energy throughout every practice, throughout every meeting. He never deviates from that. On the field, he just brings great energy, great leadership, and the ability to be in the right place at the right time. He’s very intelligent, so that helps a lot on the field. And he just helps everybody else perform at a high level.”

While Seth has another year of collegiate eligibility left because of COVID-19, he hasn’t announced any plans for the future. At a media availability session on Nov. 15, Seth said he didn’t know if he’d return to Iowa for a sixth season or try to enter the 2023 NFL Draft.

“I try to just stay in the moment,” Seth said. “That’s all I’m really focused on right now.”