Rattler Spotlight: Giving Back
Benito “Sonny” Infante had tears in his eyes. It was not the first time this had happened on the campus of St. Mary’s University, but this reason for the tears was a first for him. After years of donating his time to the athletics department at the university, Sonny was getting a big thank you just when he needed one. It was far more than he could have asked for.
For the last 25 years Sonny and his brother Pete have been the kind of friends to the athletic program at St. Mary’s that every small college program dreams of. They were at nearly every game to show their support, helped with the concessions, drove the team vans on road trips, barbequed at home events and generally helped out wherever they were needed.
“They were always there, always willing to help,” Athletics Director Charlie Migl said. “They were there for the little things that coaches needed and you can’t put a price tag on that. It was just outstanding that they wanted to do those things.”
Though not graduates of St. Mary’s, Sonny and his brother Pete have been staples at St. Mary’s baseball, softball and basketball games for nearly 25 years.
It started out innocently enough. Sonny and Pete started following the Rattlers because their brother Andy was a student at the school. They first started coming to home basketball games at Alumni Gymnasium and then traveled to road games as well. They also started following the softball team and were there when the Rattlers won their first-ever national championship in 1986. The Rattlers softball coach, Donna Fields, was a player during that championship season and remembers Sonny and Pete supporting the Rattlers.
“When I got hurt in 1986 and I wasn’t on the field, but I was in the dugout cheering the team on,” Fields recalled. “It was hard, not being a player, but I walked away feeling that I made a difference with my attitude, encouraging the team. I truly feel like Pete and Sonny feel that same way; that even though they didn’t play, they were a major factor in our success. And they should feel that way because they were.”
The Infante brothers remained a part of the St. Mary’s program through the years, but it wasn’t until Fields came back to the school in 1998 to take over the program as head coach that Sonny and Pete approached Fields with a proposition.
“When I first got here, there was no help out at the softball field,” Fields said. “For some reason they came out and told me ‘we’ll give you three years and if you don’t win a championship in three years then you just need to go on’.”
“They said that they would help me in any way I needed them. Prior to them, we’d very rarely go out to practice and have our field drug and we didn’t have anyone to chalk the lines before games. It would have been very hard in those early years without Pete and Sonny helping me, along with my assistant Dave (Garza). The pride that they took in what the softball field looked like, the other things they did, such as extending the dugouts, enclosing the press box; those things would not have been possible without them.”
“They started doing concessions for us, started doing barbeques for us. We had a lot of community going for us, a lot of family time after ballgames. After nearly every Saturday game we had a barbeque and that was really special.”
Whether because of Fields coaching, the work put in by the Infantes’ or a combination of both, the program quickly took off. The Rattlers improved on their win total in each of Fields’ first five years at the helm. In 2000 the school made the move from NAIA to NCAA Division II and the program qualified for the postseason each of the first two years the Rattlers were full members (2001, 2002).
Then, in 2002, everything fell into place.
Celebrating With the Rattlers
For the second time in the school’s history, the Rattlers enjoyed a magical run. Behind a strong offense and the pitching of first-year player Kym Kling, the Rattlers raced through the regular season, made an undefeated run through the regional tournament and advanced to the national tournament in Salem, Va.
Sonny and Pete again had stepped up their assistance to softball, also helping with driving the team vans on road trips. They drove the team’s equipment to the Heartland Conference Tournament in Jefferson City, Mo. that year, 825 miles each way. Trips such as that showed the commitment that the brothers had to the program and when the team qualified for the national tournament, they went with the team as members of the official travel party.
“Sonny was with us in 2001 when we went to our first regional and they were both with us in 2002 when we won the national championship,” Fields said. “They drove our equipment to the conference tournament, and then flew with us to Virginia for nationals. It’s the little things that people don’t understand that they did for me, that took a lot of weight off my shoulders. Our program wouldn’t have been where it was without their help.”
The Battle for his Health
While Rattler softball continued to thrive, Sonny’s health started to become an area of concern. Over the last three years, Sonny, who has been a staple at home athletic events for 20 years, has been noticeably absent. Diabetes was starting to take its toll on him and traveling became especially difficult. Then in 2006 his condition worsened to the point he needed surgery to remove part of his right foot. But it didn’t end there for Sonny, who had gradually more surgeries, removing more of his right leg. Finally, in the fall of that year the doctors told him that they needed to amputate his leg from the knee down.
After the surgery Sonny spent the majority of the next year recovering and was unable to attend St. Mary’s Athletics events. He wasn’t able to get out much at all during that year. As if losing most of his right leg wasn’t enough, Sonny now needed an artificial limb, was struggling with insurance and the cost of the new appendage.
Sonny’s Big Day
When his many friends at St. Mary’s found out about his situation, they knew that the person who had helped the university so much over the years was now the one who needed help. Former baseball player Jimmy Wolfe, Pete Hanson- Alumni Director, Charlie Migl – Athletics Director and Baseball Coach, and Donna Fields – Senior Woman Administrator and Softball Coach, as well as Sonny’s brother Pete, spear-headed the effort to help raise money to assist Sonny.
“It was really a shock to hear that he had to go through all that,” Migl said. “He was there always for us so we felt that we could be there for him. We really felt that after all the things that he and his brother had done for us that it was a no-brainer that we needed to do what we could to try to help.”
The group quickly came up with some ideas. The first idea was to have a barbeque on the St. Mary’s campus in December. Women’s soccer coach Corwyn Ritch suggested the idea to also host a five-kilometer run the same day. The athletic department and alumni association mobilized over the next month and the event took place on December 7, 2007.
With nearly his entire family present to see the event, Sonny was the center of attention as people from the St. Mary’s and San Antonio community came out to celebrate his life and impact on the Alamo City.
The barbeque pit was lit at 10 a.m. and ran all day, dishing out chicken and sausage to hundreds of people. Next up was the five-kilometer race, dubbed Sonny’s Twilight Run. The event attracted over 100 runners – including the main man himself: Sonny, who was taken around the course in his wheelchair by members of the softball team.
“I was driving to get some more food for the barbeque and I saw him being pushed around the race course,” Hansen said. “Seeing the smile on his face; words can’t describe how it looked like he felt.”
“His sister (Margie) wasn’t sure how long he could stay because of his health. But he stayed the whole time. I think that it was his adrenaline that allowed him to stay all day.
Migl had similar feelings about what he saw that day at the event.
“A lot of times in my phone conversations it was really a grim picture,” Migl recalled. “Then to see him show up in the car and to see him, to see his smile, to see him see everyone there for him, that was a special sight. It was about the giving back for all the things that he had done for us.”
After the race was finished and everyone was gathered in Pecan Grove, it was time to make some announcements and thank everyone for their help. With Sonny’s family in attendance, Hansen and Migl presented Sonny with a new scooter donated by Bill Sisoian of the Scooter Store, giving him even more mobility.
In all, over 700 tickets were sold for the barbeque, at $10 per plate. The road race brought in another $1000. Donations helped increase the total to over $10,000. And combined with the scooter, donations totaled over $15,000.
“I was extremely proud of the way it turned out,” Migl said. “There were so many people involved. And most of the people didn’t just work their shift, but stayed on beyond that to help.
“To see the faces of the Infante family, to see the expression on their faces, seeing how many people that Pete and Sonny had touched. They knew that in order for this to come together, that a lot of people had to be involved. We just got out there and hopefully did something special for Sonny and his family. And that’s what St. Mary’s is supposed to be about.”
Fields felt the same type of sentiment, but from a different perspective.
“I will remember how the community came together to help them the way that he helped us,” Fields said. “It really showed how Pete and Sonny have not only helped the teams that I coached, but also many other teams.”
It was a day that Sonny said he would never forget. Thanks to the work put in by many people at the university Sonny had his surgery and received his artificial leg. The rehabilitation has been hard, but Sonny has shown good progress.
Perhaps the biggest step in his rehabilitation process came this spring, however. Sonny returned to the softball field to watch his beloved Rattlers play. Sonny sat along the first base line, near the Rattler dugout, but away from the crowd. He cheered on his Rattlers as they beat Angelo State University. He stayed for the first game, seeing the Rattlers take a 3-0 victory. He left after that first game, and wasn’t there when the Rattlers fell 10-6 in the back end of the doubleheader.
“He left after the first game and then we lost and he felt bad,” Fields said. “He told me ‘I brought you luck and then I left and you lost the second game’.”
As his health continued to show improvement, he was able to attend most of the remaining Rattlers home games, including the Heartland Conference Tournament, which the Rattlers hosted on campus.
“I just pray that that type of event (the fundraiser) is going to give him the encouragement to get better,” Fields said. “He’s got a long road ahead of him. We’ve got to get him back out here (at softball games), doing the things that he loves to do. Initially they only gave him six months to live, but he’s already passed that amount of time. He says that he’s going to do concessions again one day. And that would be great.”
While the contributions of Sonny and his brother Pete to the St. Mary’s program went unnoticed by many for many years, they were not unnoticed by the athletic department at the school. Migl noticed the work the Infantes did; and he also noticed the way the school responded when Sonny was in need.
“It’s a special thing to say,” Migl said. “They surely didn’t get rich doing all those things for us. The community of St. Mary’s and the staff really appreciated what they did. And I think that sometimes you get volunteers in those situations that aren’t really appreciated.”
There is little doubt Sonny is appreciated at St. Mary’s. And thanks to the hard work of many at the school, Sonny will be able to continue to support his favorite teams into the future.