By Lance Fleming
Photography by Beth Dukes
Bennie Wylie certainly has the look.
From the top of his bald head, down to his Popeye-sized arms and on down to his legs that more closely resemble tree trunks, Wylie – working on finishing his second year as the director of performance at Action Zone in north Abilene – fits the mold of the ideal strength coach. To wit:
- Intimidating physique? Check.
- Loud voice? Check.
- Bald head? Check.
- A scowl that can send adults running for cover? Check.
But look further, and here’s what you find: a man driven by his passion to help others; driven to give people the tools they need to live healthier, happier lives; driven to provide his children something he never had growing up in Mexia, Texas; driven to challenge people of all ages to reach heights they never thought attainable; and a man who loves his manicures and pedicures on date nights with his wife.
“We’ve had a standing date night our entire marriage, and it’s usually on Thursdays,” said his wife, Jennifer, who met Bennie at the Dallas Cowboys training camp in Wichita Falls in the late 1990s while she was a marketing intern and he was a strength coach. “Those date nights usually consist of either dinner and a movie or manicures and pedicures for both of us. He loves his manis and pedis.”
Who saw that one coming? It’s just another layer in the multi-faceted renaissance man that is helping build Abilene, one body at a time.
Before he learned to build other bodies, however, Wylie had to build his own. Born in Mexia to a mother he calls a “saint” and an alcoholic father he didn’t speak to his first two years as a football player at Sam Houston State University, Wylie began building his own body when he was 14 years old. Mainly, he says, to protect his mother.
A self-described “runt” who was born two months premature and weighed barely four pounds at birth, Wylie was his mother’s protector from a father who was beloved by the people of Mexia but barely tolerated at home. After years of living with an alcoholic and advising his mother to leave the marriage, Wylie moved out of the house.
He was on his own at age 15, living in the pool house of some friends in town, buying his clothes, food, etc., even, as he says, “signing my own report cards.” Around that time he had built his body to the point that by the time they had their final physical confrontation, his father knew that Wylie wasn’t to be taken lightly. The physical nature of their relationship soon subsided.
To get away from much of what was going on in his home while he lived there, Wylie immersed himself in almost everything the school and community had to offer. He played football, baseball and basketball, ran track, was an Eagle Scout, was part of the Texas Baptist All-State Choir, served as the vice president of the Student Council, and learned to play both the tuba and the trumpet as a member of the band.
About the only thing he didn’t do was follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I learned more from my father than any other person I’ve ever come into contact with,” he said of the man who passed away from a heart attack almost 11 years ago. “Good or bad, he was my influence. I told myself that when I had sons, I would treat them differently than my father had treated me, and I wouldn’t say the things to them that he had said to me. The deal with my father, though, is that I loved him the whole time because as sons, we’re designed to seek the love and attention of our fathers. There were just a few years when I couldn’t take everything.”
When Wylie went to Sam Houston State in 1994 to play football, he says he and his father embarked on a two-year stretch where they didn’t talk to each other at all. Toward the end of his father’s life, Wylie said the relationship healed. Time, reflection and faith played a part in that. Wylie was at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting during his junior season, and the subject was growing as a Christian and not letting hatred and bitterness grow.
“So I wrote a letter to my father and told him why I hated him and why I loved him,” Wylie says. “I told him I was moving on from this. My mother told me later that he would read that letter and cry, read the letter and cry, read the letter and cry.”
By that time, Wylie was enjoying a successful football career for Sam Houston State. The starting running back for the Bearkats, he began to find more and more satisfaction in the weight room and in helping others, traits that would serve him well later in life.
Not long after graduation and a surprise role as the strength coach at Sam Houston, Wylie was hired by the Dallas Cowboys to work with some of the best players in NFL history, including Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders, Larry Allen, Erik Williams and Darren Woodson. He met his future wife while with the Cowboys, and after the 2002 season, the two of them embarked on a journey that has taken them from the Cowboys to Texas Tech, to the University of Tennessee, to the University of Texas, and, finally, to Abilene and Action Zone.
It’s never been easy, mainly because Wylie has served as a strength coach for “America’s Team” and at schools in the football-mad Big 12 and Southeastern conferences. But it was the 362-day stint he spent in Knoxville, Tenn., that taught him what’s most important in life.
“That year in Tennessee was hard on all of us,” Wylie says, “and especially on Jennifer. My boys (10-year-old twins Braden and Caden) have very few memories of me from that year. I’m not in any pictures or anything. It was almost like I didn’t exist to them for a whole year.”
That time away from home was made harder when Wylie’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and he couldn’t get time away from first-year head coach Derek Dooley’s high-stress program.
“That coaching staff was very demanding,” Jennifer Wylie said. “It was a rebuilding year at Tennessee and much was required of Bennie. We went there and didn’t know anyone, and that was hard because we were so far from home. We couldn’t take any weekend trips anywhere to visit anyone because we didn’t know anybody. Fortunately, our kids are very adaptable to situations, and that’s certainly a blessing.”
After the year at Tennessee and three at Texas, Wylie was looking for a job in early 2014 after Mack Brown resigned as the Longhorns’ head coach. It just so happened that Action Zone CEO Martin Caddell was looking for someone to lead the strength and conditioning program at the Zone when Wylie’s name came up.
“Brad McCoy and I were talking about it one day, and he mentioned Bennie, but I didn’t think there was any way we could get Bennie Wylie,” Caddell said. But after a few phone calls, Wylie texted Caddell to tell him that he would call him five days later at a specified time. Thinking he would need to move on to another candidate, Caddell didn’t expect a call. But it came, and Wylie was in Abilene a few days later.
“I brought him here, and I knew he was the guy,” Caddell said. “He was accustomed to ministering to and changing 125 kids per year, but I needed him to come to Abilene and minister to 1,000 people and change 1,000 lives. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m in.’ ”
During the decision-making process, Wylie and his wife were also making the decision to adopt Hope, although the would-be father wasn’t as excited about the process as was his wife.
“It’s the best decision my wife ever made me make,” he says with a laugh. “I wasn’t for this at all, and after Hope was born I didn’t look at her or touch her for about three or four days. After about four days of that, I was alone with her, and I pretty much had to hold her. I looked down at her, and she looked at me with those eyes, and it was over.”
And that’s how a world-class strength coach – recognized a few years ago by a Web site as one of the most intimidating strength coaches in collegiate athletics – wound his way to Abilene, family of five in tow.
And while he still works with world-class athletes training for the Olympics or for the NFL, or for the draft or other professional and/or college sports, he’s also now working with policemen, firemen, doctors, lawyers, bankers, mothers and fathers, grandparents, the old, the young, those who are in shape and those who are just in shapes. And he loves every minute of it.
“I believe my calling is to affect people and change their lives,” Wylie said. “To me, there’s no other reason to do this job or any other job. I want people who are like-minded to train here and work with me. I’ve worked with great athletes at the top of their profession, but I get just as much joy and satisfaction here watching people lose 10 pounds or gain 10 pounds of muscle or whatever it might be.”
And he does it all with an intimidating presence and loud bark that belies what lies underneath the surface.
“He’s one of the most remarkable people I know,” said Cooper head football coach Todd Moebes, who met Wylie at Sam Houston State where they were teammates and who now works out with him every morning a little before 5 a.m. “Whether he and I are working out or he’s getting a kid ready for the NFL Draft or he’s working with an elderly woman recovering from knee replacement surgery, his energy and drive and passion are the same. He’s a great motivator and you know what’s coming out of his mouth is genuine and that he wants the best for you.”
But even what comes out of his mouth is sometimes mistaken, mainly because of his presence.
“Absolutely there’s an intimidation factor,” Wylie said. “But there’s also trust from the people who are here. I encourage at a loud volume, and sometimes that can be mistaken for yelling. I get excited for people, and I don’t do it quietly.”
One of those people who fought through an early fear of Wylie is Ortiz Elementary kindergarten teacher Jane Voss, who has been working out at Action Zone for two years.
“There were several of us who were scared to death of Bennie when he first started working with us,” she said. “I thought he was just some crazy guy who yelled at us. Some of us told him at one point to stop yelling, and that’s when he told us it was encouragement. He said he ‘encourages loudly,’ and now that’s what I tell my students in my classroom.”
It’s the people like Moebes and Voss and others who keep Wylie coming back for more each day. And it’s why he believes that despite all of the roles he plays – husband, father, son, coach, mentor, pastor, friend and brother – the greatest is that of a coach.
“ ‘Coach’ is a term of endearment,” he said. “When people call me a ‘trainer’ it makes me mad because it implies that I just stand next to you and count your reps. Being called ‘coach’ means that I’ve made an investment in your life, and I expect a certain result at the end. And the chance to see those results and help people reach those goals is what keeps me coming back every day.”
And it’s that kind of heart, passion and drive that tells you there’s more, much more, to Bennie Wylie than meets the eye.
Lance and Bennie talk about the new exciting updates and his performance in NBC’s new show Strong!