NEW CANAAN — When New Canaan High School Athletic Director Jay Egan told Mike Benevento and a small group of volunteers that the Dunning Stadium turf needed to be replaced in June, and that they had three weeks to raise half a million dollars, Benevento had his doubts.

However, against the odds Benevento and the New Canaan Athletic Foundation, which is chaired by Benevento, were able to secure the money necessary, thanks to major donations from the likes of James Dunning, Jr., and Dave Koch, and oversee a full returfing of the Dunning Stadium field in just a few short months.

Now that the field is nearing completion, just in time for Rams’ football opening day, Benevento, a former college football player and major proponent of New Canaan youth sports, and his newly formed group are looking to continue their work, setting their sights on other athletic fields and facilities and continuing to drum up community support.

Q: Where did the idea of the New Canaan Athletic Foundation come from? What was the perceived need?

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The New Canaan High School Rams will open up their football season on Sept. 10 against Trinity Catholic on the newly returfed Dunning Field.

A: There was something called the Rams Spirit Fund prior to the establishment of the Athletic Foundation and they had done a lot of work over the past three or four years. The grass strips in between the water tower turf and Dunning had always been looked at to be turfed. They’d actually raised some money along the way, but it felt to me that progress was coming in fits and starts.

In November 2015, I was invited into a meeting with the people who had started the Ram’s Spirit Fund because I had some friends that were heavily involved in the Darien Athletic Foundation and because I’ve also been on the athletic board for Bucknell University for the last seven or eight years.

I had a little bit of experience in this, so I said, “This is how Darien went about it. This is how they were so successful and this is why it’s a good template to build off of.” I didn’t hear much for several months. When June came around, we had another fields meeting.

Athletic Director Jay Egan came to that meeting and said we need to reprioritize because Dunning is failing. He said we need to get Dunning done before we even talk about doing the grass strips.

Q: How did the plan develop from there?

A: We needed to raise $500,000 in three weeks, because you can only do these projects in the summer when the fields are not in use. I sat there and thought, ‘This is nuts.’

But we pulled things together and we had some big donors who were willing to step up. At that point I said, if we’re going to do this, we need to do it the way we’ve been talking about. We needed a professional working board, a development group, a marketing group, public relations, project managers, treasurers to track all the money.

And so at that point we decided we could get Dunning done and take the summer to establish the board and come up with our organization. And then come after Labor Day, we’ll be able to launch a more public campaign that will define the phases we have for the project and showcase what we accomplished in a short time. Then go out and professionally raise money in order to see these projects realized.

Q: Who are the people sitting on the board?

A: We wanted broad representation. And because it was going to be a working board and would represent a broad constituency, we really wanted people who were going to get stuff done. So it’s about roughly half men and half women. There are representatives of football, lacrosse, soccer, field hockey, track. And beyond that there are people not representing certain sports. We have somebody that’s not affiliated with any sports but wants to help the community.

And everybody who sits on the board has a job. Nobody is just sitting there and coming to meetings. Like I said, we have a marketing subcommittee, a treasurer, a facilities subcommittee, a development subcommittee, someone in charge of alumni relations, a recording secretary. All the things that you would have on a normal working professional board.

Q: What are some of the Athletic Foundation’s long-term goals?

A: Phase two is pretty well defined at this time, and that will be a complete rip and replace of the existing water tower turf field that’s there. Next to the water tower turf field there are grass fields we’d turf that a lot of people practice on. And we’d look at a complete rebuild and rehabilitation of the track as well.

I think the reason we get a lot of momentum with turfing a field is there’s always some frustration, especially in the spring, in calling the field’s hotline and getting a message that we had a little bit of rain overnight and the fields are closed. So the slogan of the campaign, “Everyday we play,” is about playing everyday when we have turf fields.

Q: What has the response been to your work thus far?

A: We’re getting tremendous feedback. People are really excited, they’re engaged, they’re energized about it. And now, as we put together our list of development targets and are starting to reach out to people, I’m pretty excited about it.

Q: What made you decide to get so involved in New Canaan athletics?

A: I moved here with my family 13 years ago. I have four children: a 15-year-old daughter who played youth soccer and lacrosse, who’s now a competitive Irish step dancer I have a son in eighth grade and a son in fifth and both play sports. They both play baseball and football. One plays lacrosse, the other wrestles. They’re very heavily involved in all of the youth programs.

I coach n the youth football program and I’m on the board of directors. I coached baseball up until last year. And I have a three-and-a-half-year-old son also. So after 13 years, we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to be here a long time. And I think athletics are an important part of creating well-rounded individuals.

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1