Kion Benjamin had never heard of Minnesota when an assistant coach for the Gophers track team flew to his home in the Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago to meet Benjamin and his family in the fall of 2018.
Ibrahim Kabia, the assistant who coaches Gophers sprinters, made an in-person sales pitch after evaluating Benjamin at an international competition in the Cayman Islands.
He met Benjamin's family at his hotel and shared with them information about the Gophers coaching staff, the program's history, academic options, facilities, training, basically everything.
And, yes, even that …
"He did say it gets a little bit cold, but they will keep me warm," Benjamin said Wednesday, recalling their initial conversation.
Kabia remembers his exact line.
"I told him I would give him a big jacket," he said, smiling.
In return, Benjamin gave the Gophers a big success story.
The senior secured his place as one of the best sprinters in program history this past weekend when he won the 100 meters at the Big Ten championships for the second time in three years.
Benjamin also ran a leg on the school's 4x100 relay team that set a Big Ten championships meet record with a time of 38.87 seconds — the fourth fastest time by a Big Ten team in history.
Those two titles helped the Gophers men's team place second overall, its best finish since 2013.
Benjamin advances to the West preliminary meet next week in Sacramento, Calif., with a goal of qualifying for the NCAA championships.
"I wanted to come to Minnesota to build a legacy for myself and my team — to put Minnesota back on the map for sprints," he said. "I wanted to leave with a bang."
His arrival came with curiosity. His story is an example of college sports' ability to open doors in ways that might seem unimaginable.
Benjamin grew up in Trinidad, the southernmost island country in the Caribbean. He started competing in track at age 11 for a club program and showed enough talent in international competitions as a teenager that he got on the radar of college programs.
He mostly focused on schools in warmer climates until Kabia visited his island.
"First impression is an important thing to me and the fact that he came all the way to Trinidad to see me was a good first impression," he said.
Benjamin is the first male track athlete from Trinidad and Tobago to join the Gophers program since at least 1986 and likely even further back. Two male athletes from his country followed him to the Gophers program, and Benjamin is doing his part to recruit more.
When he returns home for Christmas or summer break, he brings school apparel to give to athletes in his former club program.
"I always see videos of them," he said. "They will have a little Gopher on their chest, and I say, 'That's my boy.' "
Benjamin's success is the best advertisement. After having his freshman season canceled by the pandemic, he became the Big Ten's 100 champion as a sophomore, the school's first title in that event since Kabia claimed it in 2008. Both Kabia's and Benjamin's titles happened in the same place — the University of Illinois — which the coach shared with his pupil that day.
"A golden moment that me and my coach had," Benjamin said.
Said Kabia: "He's like a little brother to me."
Benjamin added another 100 title this past weekend at Indiana University, though he's not content to end there.
He wants to qualify for the finals at the NCAA Championships in June. He plans to represent Trinidad in international competitions after that, with a goal of participating in the Paris Olympics next summer. He ran the first leg on Trinidad's 4x100 relay team at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
All that, plus he got to see snow for the first time. That new discovery came freshman year when he fell asleep riding in a car to a teammate's home for Thanksgiving.
"I woke up and I couldn't see the ground anymore," he said. "Everybody was like, 'It's all beautiful.' I'm like, I want to be warm again."
He stayed and became a Big Ten champion and a college graduate. He found a second home in a place he had never heard of five years ago.
"I have to go on to the next step, but I don't want to leave," he said.
He can take comfort knowing he left a legacy.