ELOY — The Santa Cruz Valley football program has a long list of talented athletes who played under the Friday night lights.
Many names come up in conversation when talking about the Dust Devils’ state championship glory days. Two names at the top of the list are brothers Arthur "Art" and Ben "Benny" Malone Jr.
Benny died last week at 68 after a battle with diabetes. But those who knew him will never forget the person and the athlete who left behind a lasting legacy in Eloy.
“When I arrived at Santa Cruz, I had no idea of the deep history of All-American athletes the school produced,” athletic director and football coach Rishard Davis said. “Mr. (Benny) Malone’s name (as well as other legends) is thrown around campus a lot. I constantly remind the athletes that greatness can come from anywhere. It is really inspiring to know that a man like that walked down the same halls as you.”
Art was the older brother who was the star running back during Santa Cruz’s first championship run, and he also ran track. He went on to play football at Arizona State University and in the NFL.
Benny was four years younger and followed in his brother’s footsteps of running track and playing football. He also played for the Sun Devils and in the NFL.
Benny played seven seasons in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins (1974-78) and Washington Redskins (1978-79), rushing for a career-high 797 yards in 1976.
“Everybody that knew Art and Benny would ask me who was the best athlete, or the best football player, and I always have the same answer,” said Lonnie Foster, who coached the brothers at Santa Cruz. “I watched them play every down of every game, and I couldn’t tell you which one was the best. They were both great athletes, but you don’t get to play pro football without being a great athlete.”
Benny earned the First Team All-State A-South Back of the Year Award two years in a row as a junior and senior. He was a four-year letterman in track and finished first in 1970 in high hurdles, low hurdles and shot put, helping the Dust Devils become state champs two years in a row.
“It’s not just him, it’s a testament of his upbringing and the entire family,” said Eloy police chief Chris Vasquez, who grew up with Benny. “As great (of) athletes as they were, and they were great athletes, he was the most humble person I’ve ever met. He didn’t flaunt his celebrity, he didn’t flaunt the fact that he was the big man on campus, the star, he was always kind to everyone no matter who they were; even the freshmen when he was a senior. On the other hand though, he was a fierce competitor when he was on the football field or the track. There was no stopping him.”
In an interview in 2016, Benny told PinalCentral that one of his best football memories was the 1969 state title game against Ajo, which the Dust Devils won 22-13.
A big reason that game stood out for him was because there was a newfound pride in the community and a tradition that was started by Art and the rest of the Dust Devils when Santa Cruz won its first state title seven years earlier.
“It was because we were from Eloy,” Benny said in the 2016 interview. “Back then, people didn’t look at teams out of Eloy, or ones out of Casa Grande to win championships. It was always the teams in the metro area, or in Tucson. We were cotton field. They didn’t even know who we were, but after we began to win, the sports world knew who we were. They knew who Eloy was because we was going to tear them up.”
Foster was the Dust Devils coach during that state championship and recalls that it was a close, hard-fought game and Benny scored the go-ahead touchdown.
“Benny was our biggest weapon because he was that good that he could carry a team on his back,” Foster said. “We always relied on him to carry the football 25-35 times a game, and he never wavered. He was captain of the team for two years; he was the leader. Everybody followed Benny and he liked that role; he wanted all the pressure on his shoulders. He wanted to be the one they counted on, and he was.”
Foster added Benny was the quiet, lead-by-example type and that during his 35 years of coaching high school football, Benny and his bother were two of the best athletes he ever coached.
Foster said when Benny arrived at Santa Cruz, a year after his brother graduated, there were high expectations for Benny to be just like Art.
“He reached that pinnacle that Art did,” Foster said. “I think we all expected him to be great, and it didn’t take long for him to show it. The year after Art left, Benny was a freshman, and he played the very first game of the season with the freshman team, and then the next game he played with the junior varsity team, and then the next game he was on the varsity team with me, and he was phenomenal from the start as a freshman.”
The Malone family emphasized academics, hard work, good behavior and attended church regularly.
One memory that stands out for Foster is that while visiting the family one day, Art’s father, Ben Malone Sr., was sitting in his recliner reading the Bible out loud. Sitting on the floor in front of him were all the kids with their legs crossed and elbows at their knees, listening to every word he said.
“It just shows what kind of discipline that family had, and I think that carried them a long way in their football careers,” Foster said. “They had those family values that carry a lot of people.”
Vasquez, who spends time talking with today’s youth in Eloy and other small communities, uses the Malone bothers as an example that it doesn’t matter where someone grows up or what high school they go to — with perseverance, hard word and dedication, great things can be achieved.
Kids in Eloy grow up hearing about the Malone brothers, especially when football season comes around as their parents tell them stories. Vasquez said there’s a myth he’s heard about the brothers.
“The myth about Ben and Art was that their dad would take them out into the desert and have them chase jackrabbits to help their speed and ability to change direction when they’d run,” the police chief said. “Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but that was the myth and story that I’d heard about Ben and Art growing up.”
Foster said he had never heard that story, but he wouldn’t be surprised if it were true.