Zain Retherford sat in a plastic folding chair swirling the remnants of a yellow and red slushy in his clear, plastic cup with a straw.
The Benton senior looked over his right shoulder at some 20 people filling their plates with any assortment of food from various picnic tables. He looked to his left and saw people buying raffle tickets and T-shirts, all in an effort to help defray the costs of his upcoming trip to Azerbaijan to wrestle.
A year ago, Retherford and his family didn't know most of the more than 100 people taking shelter from the summer sun in the pole barn on Dan Keeney's farm just outside of Benton. But a lot has changed in a year for Retherford and his family. They've found a new extended family, one that has accepted him whole-heartedly as one of their own.
"I know something like this wouldn't happen at my old school. This is insane," Retherford said. "I've only been here a year. What would have happened if I had been here for my whole life? It's just incredible."
Retherford has been to hell and back in the last year. His father, Allen, and mother, Sarah, picked up their family and moved them to Benton from the Line Mountain School District just about a year ago. It was a move that sparked one of the most heated debates about transferring in recent memory in District 4.
Zain, a former state champion wrestler for the Eagles in 2009, was ruled ineligible three times last year after the transfer. First by the District 4 committee who heard the hearing on his transfer, then again by District 4 after the PIAA ruled there were procedural problems and the hearing needed to be conducted again. He was ruled as an ineligible transfer one final time the day before the wrestling season began by the PIAA, barring him from wrestling competition for one year.
It was a watershed moment for a high school junior who had no control over the choice his family made to move for a number of reasons. But it's turned out to be maybe the most beneficial decision his parents have ever made on his and his family's behalf. Despite missing a year of wrestling, Allen said at the pig roast at Keeney's farm on this August afternoon that he'd do it all over again just the same if given the choice.
They've found a home in Benton. They've found both a wrestling community and a town that has welcomed them with open arms. And in a time where Retherford has accomplished something that has never been seen by the likes of another wrestler in Benton, that community was willing to empty its pockets and support even the newest member of that community.
Retherford won the USA FILA Cadet national championship at 63 kg (138.75 pounds) earlier this summer, earning him a spot on the USA FILA Cadet World Team. He'll be competing in Baku, Azerbaijan, beginning today with some of the best wrestlers in the world in his age division.
His coaches came up with the idea of a pig roast to help raise money for the trip, and Keeney donated the use of his farm for a venue.
"It doesn't matter who comes in here, it's kind of like Southern hospitality," said Benton wrestling coach Russ Hughes, who was a four-time state placewinner and two-time state champion at Benton. "They've accepted a kid and a family that has done something they know about. Obviously, the kid is a winner and everyone likes a winner. That makes it easy to like a kid. But I think the community as a whole will treat anyone that way, whether it's the Retherfords or not."
Life has been different for Zain Retherford since he came to Benton. He can see the difference in himself already. He says he's a much more open person now than he ever was while he was still going to Line Mountain.
He has a more open relationship with his parents after going through the ordeal of the hearings with both District 4 and the PIAA. He's gotten close with his new teammates, basically spending a season as a workout partner and assistant coach.
He learned to view the sport from a different perspective. The successes and failures of the wrestlers he worked out with every day in the practice room became his successes and failures. He was vocal in the corner of the mat during any match a Tiger wrestled at the state tournament in Hershey.
It's all part of being a member of this new family. The support in Zain's venture to Azerbaijan has been more than they could have ever hoped for. The support through the toughest wrestling season of his life was even better.
"We love it here. We were living in a bubble down in Line Mountain," Retherford said. "We just clashed, I guess, down in Line Mountain. We're just getting along so well with the people here. It's been a great jump for my family."
He didn't look at the missed year of competitive wrestling as being a waste. He looked at it as a head start on training for his senior season. And he looked at it as an early training season for opportunities like wrestling in Fargo - where he became a Freestyle national champion this year - and competing for a national FILA title.
It was one of the things he talked about with Hughes and Benton assistant coach Bryan Hart just a few days after the final verdict came down from the PIAA, ending his junior wrestling season. Hughes has a way of getting his wrestlers to focus on the big picture and the ultimate goal, not the individual steps leading to the goal.
Even beyond wrestling in college - where he's got his choices narrowed down to Penn State and Lehigh among others - Retherford has Olympic aspirations. Before he and his family moved to Benton, Retherford was making the trek across District 4 to work on his Freestyle wrestling with the Benton Tiger Wrestling Club. It's been his focus since he's been in Benton, too.
In fact, he hasn't competed in folkstyle since his sophomore season at Line Mountain. His opportunity to compete in Azerbaijan this week is the first step toward potentially making an Olympic team in the future. This is an opportunity for Retherford to have his eyes opened to the different styles of wrestling which competitors from around the world will bring.
He's more than familiar with the American style of wrestling, a punishing style of quickness and aggressiveness that feeds on physical fitness. Retherford has heard of foreign styles where wrestlers will try to slow the pace down before hitting one move more quickly than the blink of an eye.
It's a style Retherford needs to familiarize himself with. And as Hughes put it, if he's going to wrestle on an international level, some of the same wrestlers he sees this week in Azerbaijan are going to be the same ones he competes against in the future.
"Look at where he's come from. First it was state, then it was on a national level, and now it's even one step further," Hughes said. "He's essentially going to be wrestling guys who are Fargo national champions from another part of the world. It's exciting because there's that little bit of doubt of do I really belong here?"
It might be surprising to hear, but Retherford is making the trip across the world with the sole intention of winning. What other reason is there for traveling around the world?
"I wouldn't go out there for any other goal," he said.
Besides, with the support group he's got waiting for him back in Benton, what's he got to lose?