When Jake Betlow decided to leave his affluent hometown of Mendham, New Jersey, and attend St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark prior to his junior year of high school, he knew he was making an atypical decision.
Betlow, a sophomore guard on Lehigh’s men’s basketball team, said no one from Mendham had ever attended St. Benedict’s, and probably no one ever will.
At St. Benedict’s, Betlow was never coddled. He was never treated special. He had coaches that didn’t care about getting in his face, and through that, he became tougher. Instead of making the hour drive to Newark every morning, he could’ve stayed at home in his bubble — but he didn’t want it that way.
Aside from having one of the best high school basketball programs in the country, St. Benedict’s gave Betlow something he couldn’t get at home: perspective.
St. Benedicts, a Catholic boys’ school built on the motto “whatever hurts my brother, hurts me,” aims to give voice to underrepresented groups in America, primarily people of color. In a society where Black voices have been systematically oppressed, St. Benedict’s aims to empower them.
At Lehigh, Betlow knows he will have other options if basketball doesn’t work out. For some of his St. Benedict’s teammates, success in basketball means everything.
“I know people that don’t necessarily know where they’re going to be able to stay next month,” Betlow said. “I know people whose parents work four different jobs to get by. It’s an experience that I told all my friends from where I’m from that they should have to spend a week at St. Benedict’s or even just a few days because it completely changes your outlook on life.”
Betlow and his St. Benedict’s teammates are the subjects of a new docuseries called Benedict Men, which not only follows their journey not as a state championship-contending basketball team, but also highlights their sense of brotherhood and personal struggles. Executive produced by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry and directed by 11-time Emmy Award winner Jonathan Hock, Benedict Men was released on Sept. 21 on the streaming platform Quibi.
Initially pitched to him by prominent film producer Mark Ciardi, Hock said the different personalities, challenges and backgrounds of the St. Benedicts players — who hail from seven different nations — were especially intriguing to him.
Filmed in 2018 during Betlow’s senior season, Hock said the docuseries carries messages that are especially important today with the prevalence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Hock said Black lives have always mattered at St. Benedict’s and said the school was essentially founded to prove that Black lives matter.
“(Systematic injustice) was happening before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and when much of the rest of the country began to wake up to this raging social injustice we have here, they were wide awake already at St. Benedict’s,” Hock said.
Through the work of St. Benedict’s headmaster Edwin Leahy, Betlow said, the institution gives a platform and a voice to everyone who comes to the school, and most importantly members of the African American community.
Betlow and St. Benedict’s men’s basketball head coach Mark Taylor said while the filming process — which lasted around nine months — was hectic and overwhelming at times, they both took positive experiences from it and hope viewers of the docuseries will be able to see the importance of its message.
Betlow said the community and brotherhood of St. Benedict’s influenced by Leahy, as conveyed in the docuseries, has helped shape him as a person.
“We would come together every morning (for morning convocation), and I would hug a Muslim to my left and hug a Christian to my right, they could be any different skin color, and I would be happy I was there singing the songs in the morning,” Betlow said. “I just wanted to be part of the group.”
Taylor, who knew Betlow before he attended St. Benedict’s through a family connection, vividly remembers sitting down with Betlow’s family to discuss making the transition to St. Benedict’s.
Betlow spent his sophomore season at high school basketball powerhouse Montverde Academy in Florida. It didn’t work out the way he had planned, and that’s when he got in touch with Taylor. Unsure if he wanted to come home or not, Betlow’s eventual decision to go to St. Benedict’s is a choice he is happy he made.
“He was a leader in so many ways, but in the same token had to fight and claw to get the respect of the other players on the team when he came in,” Taylor said. “He wound up starting for two years, and the first year was tough on Jake (Betlow) because some of the guys didn’t think he deserved to start, and he went back and forth that first year. He grew into a terrific young man, I think emotionally and socially.”
Fully embracing and buying into the philosophies the school emphasizes, Betlow said St. Benedict’s is everything society should strive to be.
“It is on a small scale what this nation needs to do, just acceptance, equality, ‘whatever hurts my brother hurts me,’” Betlow said. “Everybody is my brother, everyone is my sister. There is no superior group. It is really prevalent right now.”