How a scholar athlete banquet was resurrected after pandemic

Taft High linebacker Caden Cowles, a black belt in Taekwondo, poses for a photo.
Taft linebacker Caden Cowles is an A student, black belt in Taekwondo and will be honored at the scholar banquet by the San Fernando Valley chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
(Matthew Cowles)

In the category of good news day, nothing deserves more attention and praise than the comeback story of 2023.

The COVID-19 pandemic came close to wiping out the San Fernando Valley chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame, the group that honors the top scholar athletes from each high school every year with a banquet and recognition of their accomplishment.

The last one took place in 2019.

“It killed us,” chairman Jim Lufthal said.

The group’s membership dropped to six people with no banquets for three years.

Enter Simi Valley High football coach Jim Benkert, who has become president of the organization. The 2022 scholar athletes are getting their banquet on Monday night at the Knollwood Country Club with former San Fernando High and USC star Anthony Davis among the speakers.


Every banquet offers insight for the future community leaders. These players are the best of the best in terms of academics, athletics and leadership.

Take the case of Taft linebacker Caden Cowles, who has a 4.5 grade-point average and is a black belt in Taekwondo.

“He was the cliche coach on the field,” former Taft coach Jeff Kearin said. “I will work for that kid some day.”

An aspiring aerospace engineer with academic acceptance letters from USC, Florida Tech and Purdue, Cowles said playing football taught him invaluable lessons.

“I was captain for two years,” he said. “It helped me build a lot of confidence. It taught me to never give up, always try harder, always try to improve, make myself better, make the experiment better. You build relationships. It’s like building a family.”

Cowles was a longtime Boy Scout who had to stop trying to become an Eagle Scout after COVID-19 disruptions, but he and the 41 other players to be honored can take comfort in that they got to resume their football days, experience victories and defeats, and kept focused on their academic goals.


Among the honorees are seniors who volunteered to be election observers and youth coaches for the Special Olympics, worked at McDonald’s and as referees.

Josh Dixon of Studio City Harvard-Westlake plays bass in a band, works at a family car wash, has a 3.9 GPA and is headed to UCLA to play linebacker. Gabriel Argott of Granada Hills Kennedy was a standout running back while working part time in construction. Burbank Burroughs’ representative, Marcus Manahan, is the senior class president.

There are few banquets that produce more future doctors, lawyers, policemen, soldiers, businessmen, teachers and community leaders.

It is inspiring that Benkert has used his organizing skills to help resurrect the San Fernando Valley chapter and recruit more members to be part of a group that is making comebacks in other areas around Southern California to honor the great scholar athletes that exist at so many schools. The Los Angeles chapter is holding its banquet later this month at SoFi Stadium.

As someone who has attended the scholar athlete banquets for decades, I’ve always wondered which honoree might one day save me as a paramedic or athletic trainer, greet me on a street to offer assistance, end up flying an F-16 fighter jet to protect our country, or discover a cure for cancer.

They really are difference-makers.

So please seat me close to Cowles, the black belt and future inventor.

Asked whether classmates know about his Taekwondo skills, Cowles said, “It’s not something I advertise. I present myself in a nice manner where no one would want to attack me.”