Small in stature, Malena plays huge role in Aggies' football success
By Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine
Upon returning to Texas A&M as part of Kevin Sumlin's coaching staff, Director of Football Sports Performance Larry Jackson says he instantly noticed something quite distinctive about hard-nosed, rock-solid running back Ben Malena. In fact, Jackson says that, although he couldn't immediately put his finger on exactly what made Malena so unique, there was something about the Cedar Hill High School product that was downright captivating.
It wasn't just his freakish strength and explosiveness in the weight room. It was more than his relentless work ethic, too. Malena possessed an "it" factor, leading others and setting a standard without saying a word. Even under extreme physical duress, Malena displayed an unflappable presence and an unwavering sense of poise that many of his teammates could simply not match.
No matter how hard Jackson pushed the A&M players through their workouts—and he was often unmerciful in administering muscle misery—Malena seemed unfazed and undaunted. While many of his teammates battled to regain their breath and refrain from losing their previous meal into a trash can during workouts, Malena typically smiled while others anguished, indicating that he could handle anything that Jackson conceived.
"He impressed me right away," Jackson recalled. "It didn't seem like the workouts were doing too much to him. I think I'm pretty good at what I do, but Ben was smashing (the workouts). And he was acting like a leader while he was working out. But I had not seen him play football, so I wasn't sure if he was just a weight-room warrior or not. I wanted to see if he could be that same kind of leader once the games started in a big-boy league like the SEC. That's what separates the men from the boys."
Once the games started, it didn't take long for Malena to once again distinguish himself as a man on a mission. Midway through the second quarter of the first SEC game in A&M history, Malena took a handoff from Johnny Manziel and burst up the middle of the Florida defense for an eight-yard gain inside the Gators' five-yard-line.
Before the play was whistled dead, there was an audible, violent collision that could be heard—and maybe felt—by most of the 87,115 fans in attendance that day at Kyle Field.
Florida safety Josh Evans, who was a sixth-round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in April 2013, filled the hole and was later credited with a partial tackle. But it was Malena who delivered the thunderous impact and all the punishment on the play, slamming into Evans with the destructive force of a wrecking ball demolishing a dilapidated concrete wall. Fortunately, the 6-foot-1, 207-pound Florida safety was not seriously injured, but after writhing in pain and rolling on the field, he did leave the game after being leveled by the 5-foot-8, 195-pound Malena.
Clearly, a message had been delivered. And received. And witnessed on national television.
The Aggies were not merely joining the SEC to escape the backstabbing shenanigans of the Big 12. They were bringing Texas toughness to the Deep South. And they were immediately intent on being one of the prominent players in the most potent, powerful and physical football conference in America.
Malena delivered that impactful message on one unforgettable play, and he did it with a sense of purpose and authority.
"After I saw that one play, Ben Malena was my guy," Jackson recalled. "I was sold on Ben after the very first game. He is the real deal. He continued to impress me the rest of the year. As small as he is, Ben can say something in the locker room—challenge someone—and back it up, if you know what I mean. Ben can back it up physically. If he needs to take you to the ground to get you to do some work he can do that. Ben is going to eat. Last year when I told the guys that we are about to go into a big-boy league, I said I needed some big dogs. Don't misjudge Ben on his size. Ben is one of my big dogs. I have him on a leash and he is one of the attack dogs I let go first. Ben is one of those guys who make a lasting impression right away."
Indeed, Ben Malena is a tone-setter in games, in the locker room, and most assuredly, in his senior season.
There's no doubt that Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel has become the most recognizable face of Texas A&M's 2013 football team (even before autographgate). Likewise, national awards candidates like left tackle Jake Matthews and wide receiver Mike Evans have become some of the more high-profile players. But in terms of setting the physical tone, establishing the big-picture agenda and keeping the locker room intensely focused on what is capable in 2013, this team may belong to Ben Malena and his senior buddy, defensive back Toney Hurd (featured in the next edition of 12th Man Magazine).
That bodes extremely well for Texas A&M this year.
The Aggies enter this season with some of the highest expectations in the history of the football program. A&M finished its first season in the SEC with the highest national ranking (No. 5 in the AP and USA Today Coaches polls) for the school since 1956. With the return of Manziel (although his eligibility is currently under investigation) and so many playmakers, the Aggies are considered to be one of the legitimate candidates to challenge Alabama for supremacy atop the SEC standings and the national polls. In fact, the Aggies have generated and received more national attention—both positive and negative—during this offseason than in any other year in the history of the program.
A&M is undoubtedly under the national media microscope. As one of the senior leaders of the 2013 Aggies, Malena says he appreciates being in such a high-profile position entering the season. But he hasn't spent much time reading press clippings or reliving the heroics of an 11-win season in 2012.
Malena has spent the summer again setting the tone in the weight room and the locker room. He's also been seen carrying the football practically everywhere he goes, whether he is walking across campus, running errands around town or sprinting on the Coolidge Practice Fields.
Malena led all A&M running backs last year with 808 rushing yards, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. He played spectacularly in the biggest comeback win of the season at Ole Miss, gaining 142 yards, including a career-long 59-yard touchdown run. All of his accomplishments last year have earned him a spot on the preseason watch list for the 2013 Doak Walker Award, which is presented to the nation's top college running back.
But Malena, who also played on most of the Aggies' special teams units last season, is focused primarily on what he can do better this year and how he can correct mistakes from last year. Late in the second quarter of the LSU game last year, a Malena fumble allowed the Tigers to take a 14-12 halftime lead in a game LSU won, 24-19.
Malena has typically been a sure-handed running back and has done a great job protecting the ball throughout his career, but he is taking nothing for granted entering his senior season. No detail is too small, he says. There's no guarantee that carrying the football in the grocery store this summer will prevent any fumbles this fall. But it can't hurt.
"With this being my last year, I don't want to be part of a group of guys that said, ‘Ah, man, we could have done this or we should have gone harder in workouts during the summer and paid more attention to detail,'" said the well-spoken Malena. "I want to make sure that if the season doesn't pan out the way that everybody is expecting it to, it's not going to be because we didn't prepare hard enough. This football bounces silly ways sometimes. We can't control all the circumstances that will happen this season.
"In order to win a championship, you have to have breaks along the way. But Coach (Kevin) Sumlin makes sure that we practice for all kinds of specific situations that might happen during a game. One thing we can control is how hard we prepare for the season and every game. The coaches can push us, but the best teams have those senior leaders who step forward. My role is to go as hard as I can at every practice and every workout. I am determined to set the tone."
Determination has been one of Malena's trademark traits since a little after he came out of his mother's womb on May 29, 1992. Ben is the youngest of three boys in his family by a significant amount of years. Ben was born a full decade after his oldest brother, and the middle boy in the family is five years older than Ben.
The age difference certainly did not deter Ben from competing against his older brothers, however.
"There were times I would throw the ball around in the backyard or the park," Malena's father, Ben Sr., recalled. "The boys would take turns running patterns and covering each other. His older brothers never made it easy on Ben. They would knock the ball down, knock him down or jam him at the line. I remember one day, in particular, where his brothers were really rough on him, and I was thinking it would be best for us to just cut it short and go into the house. When I suggested that we go inside, Ben would not allow any of us to leave.
"He wanted to catch the ball, and he didn't want his brothers to take it easy on him. He was adamant about that. We stayed out there, and believe it or not, he did finally make a catch and his brothers did not take it easy on him. He was probably eight years old then, and I kind of had a feeling then that he was not going to be denied once he put his mind to something. Through the years, people have overlooked him from time to time because of his size. But Ben's determination has usually propelled him way beyond what people initially expect from him."
Primarily because of his lack of size and a couple of injuries during his senior year at Cedar Hill (just west of Desoto and south of Duncanville in the Dallas area), Malena was not viewed by the recruiting services as a particularly coveted recruit. He played on the varsity as a freshman Cedar Hill and then started three straight years for the Longhorns, earning second-team All-State honors as a junior when he accounted for 2,202 yards on the ground and 35 touchdowns.
But Malena missed the first three games of his senior year with an ankle injury and missed more games later in the year with an injury to the other ankle. He finished his senior season with 722 rushing yards, averaging 6.7 per carry.
He chose A&M over Kansas and Texas Tech, which, Malena says, was a "no-brainer." Malena, who is distant cousins with former A&M star running back and stellar role model Cyrus Gray, had long been impressed with A&M. His father, a diesel mechanic in the Dallas area, attended high school and played football at Dallas Roosevelt High School with future A&M stars Richmond Webb and Aaron Wallace.
Consequently, the elder Malena always followed the Aggies and continued to watch A&M games with his boys through the years. When Mike Sherman and his staff invited Malena to take an official visit to A&M, he didn't need to take any other visits.
"A&M was the only official visit I took," said Malena, a recreation, parks, and tourism science major. "When I came down here, it was the spring game going into my senior year of high school. I remember the look on my parents' faces and the environment. Plus, Cyrus was here, and I really admired him. It was a really easy decision for me to make."
Malena was part of the productive 2010 signing class that also featured key contributors like Hurd, Luke Joeckel, Jake Matthews, Damontre Moore and Cedric Ogbuehi. Because of some injuries, Malena was asked to give up his redshirt season and play right away in the fall of 2010, seeing limited action at running back and as a kick returner. But it wasn't until his sophomore season in 2011 that Malena really made an impression on A&M fans.
Although the '11 season was a major disappointment for the Aggies, the regular-season finale against Texas was one of the most anticipated games in Kyle Field history, as it represented the last game against Texas for the foreseeable future. Season-ending injuries to Gray and Christine Michael forced Malena into the starting lineup against the Longhorns.
Ultimately, the game played out much like the entire season for A&M, as the Aggies blew a double-digit lead and lost to Texas, 27-25. But Malena played exceptionally well in the loss, rushing for 83 yards on 25 carries and catching a touchdown pass. He then started in the 33-21 win over Northwestern in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, carrying the ball 23 times for 87 yards and two touchdowns.
With the healthy return of Michael entering the 2012 season, however, Malena was somewhat of an afterthought in the minds of many A&M fans at the start of last year. But that changed with the Florida game, and as the season progressed, Malena became the featured back in the A&M offense.
Entering this year, many A&M fans are extremely excited about the addition of two tremendously talented transfers—Brandon Williams from Oklahoma and Tra Carson from Oregon—to the running back position, along with the return of speedster Trey Williams. The Aggies may be stocked with the best collection of running backs since the early 1990s when Greg Hill, Rodney Thomas and Leeland McElroy shared time in the same backfield.
With so many options, it could be easy to overlook the 5-foot-8 Malena. But it wouldn't be wise.
Barring injury, Jackson practically guarantees Malena will make a major impact on this season. Malena, who has been compared favorable to 5-foot-8 Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, says he has plenty of personal goals for this season, but he prefers to keep them to himself.
Besides, he says he doesn't really care about individual numbers or honors. He cares only about wins and championships. In order to achieve his biggest goals this season and to leave A&M with a bang, Malena is focused only on setting the tone for the rest of his teammates.
"We aren't the only team in the country right now really excited about this season and what we might accomplish," Malena said. "I'm pretty sure every other team is feeling that way. If you aren't feeling that way, you shouldn't be on the field this fall. But after what we did last year, I do feel like we have a supreme sense of confidence entering this season in that we know what we can do.
"Personally, I hold my team to a high standard. If you don't hold your team to a high standard, then you are going to lose. In order to hold your team to a high standard, though, you better back it up personally and set that tone with the way you work. Every day I just go as hard as I can because I'm trying to get better and make all those guys around me better. I can't guarantee how far we will go (in 2013), but I can be sure to go as hard as I can every day."