The Cliff Benson Beltline
One little-known secret of North Carolina history is the 16.4-mile monument constructed to honor former NFL tight end Cliff Benson. Benson, originally from Palos Heights near Chicago, IL, played for several southeastern NFL teams including the Atlanta Falcons, the Washington Redskins and the New Orleans Saints from 1984-1988. Because of the heated situation for football fans in North Carolina during the 1960s through the mid-1990s, Benson became a symbol of inter-franchise cooperation and the New Great Migration.
In the early 1960’s, North Carolina did not have it’s own NFL franchise and many a neighborhood cookout ended in physical violence over the most serious of ideological conflicts– football rivalry. When the Atlanta Falcons joined the NFL in 1965, the already tense situation escalated and football fans in North Carolina were further divided. Due to geographic proximity, the majority of North Carolinians supported either the Washington Redskins or the newly minted Falcons, but several groups of New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins fan managed to carve out enclaves in parts of central Wake County.
When faced with growing unrest from citizens, the North Carolina Department of Transportation sought a plan to alleviate tension by sectioning off parts of Wake County surrounding the State Capitol. However when the divisions were revealed, it was evident that this ‘Beltline’ was in reality a barrier created to protect the heart of Raleigh’s population from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the “will of the people” as the tensions between the state’s football factions continued to grow. Construction began on a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, was built along an east-to-west line across the historical landmarks of the Whitaker, Caraleigh, Yates and Lassiter Mills.
But as the Capitol’s population grew, parts of this segregating barrier were co-opted as a new highway route. As a result of shoddy conversion work, Interstate 440 as it was eventually known, was not built to interstate highway standards. The six-lane southern section, part of Interstate 40, came later and was designated the Tom Bradshaw Freeway, for a lesser known brother of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw. Before the addition of the southern leg, downtown Raleigh had major traffic problems. Now, after hundreds of thousands of dollars of repairs and engineering modifications, downtown Raleigh continues to enjoy major traffic problems.
Originally, different parts of the Beltline had different numbers, and drivers, football fans and the elderly alike got lost easily. The northern portion included sections designated US 1, US 64, US 70 and NC 50 and people would often wander into rival territories sparking small riots and sundry vandalism. On December 15, 1987, former Baltimore Colt and Hardee’s co-founder Jerry Richardson announced his bid for an NFL expansion franchise in the Carolinas, arguing this would unite North Carolina citizens and increase sales of Cinnamon Raisin biscuits. In 1991, state highway administrator William G. Marley Jr. followed up with a petition to the Federal Highway Administration to call the Raleigh Beltline Interstate 440 to ease confusion. After NFL owners unanimously named the Carolina Panthers as the 29th member of the NFL on October 23, 1993, North Carolina saw a rapid drop in football-related violence and for a time citizens found peace and comradery in shared football mediocrity.
More recent years have seen a growing influx of transplants and the rise of hard-line football jihadists (Mostly affiliated with the Pittsburgh Steelers). Thus the Cliff Benson Beltline has experienced renewed importance as a protective barrier against the subsequently exploding populations of North Raleigh, Cary, Apex, Knightdale, Garner and Wake Forest.
Complicating matters further, in August of 2005, engineers discovered poorly constructed pavement in Durham County suggesting there might be vulnerabilities in the defenses of the cultural and right-minded haven known as ‘Inside the Beltline’. A 10.6 mile stretch of I-40 was supposed to use state of the art building materials and construction practices, but soon after the roadway was built, the pavement began to buckle.
Today, more than ever before, fear and paranoia run rampant inside the Beltline, as neighbor suspects neighbor of supporting inferior football programs. Residents are urged to open carry weapons and lynch any obvious infiltrators. The next time you find yourself circumnavigating the gauntlet of I-440, be sure to recall the athlete who died trying to unify North Carolina football fans, and then disregard his sacrifice and speed back to your bunker to religiously study the xenophobe’s bible like a true North Carolinian.